Published On: Tue, Jun 19th, 2018

Dean Ashton Q&A: Alli may look over shoulder after Loftus-Cheek cameo

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At long last, England kicked off its World Cup campaign when it faced Tunisia in Volgograd on Monday – but it wasn’t a straightforward affair. The Three Lions required a late Harry Kane header to take all the spoils in the Group G clash after toiling to break down a resolute defence throughout the second half.

Related: Kane’s 91st-minute header earns England hard-fought win over Tunisia

Here, former England frontman Dean Ashton weighs in on the 2-1 win, covering subjects such as the feeling of winning at the death, why Dele Alli might not retain his spot in the starting XI, and what needs work before Sunday’s meeting with Panama.

In some ways, is winning in that fashion the best thing for team morale?

Dean Ashton: There’s no better feeling than scoring in the last few minutes to give the team a boost. Not only that, I think they put such a lot of effort into the game and deserved to win it. The difference that’s going to make for the rest of the week is massive.

Could a win like that be more of a boost than a 4-0 victory?

DA: Not necessarily, but I think it does always help to bring the group together when you battle hard and win in the last minute. You could see the relief after the game, the pats on the back the starting XI and substitutes that came on got from other members of the squad because they know how important that first game is.

Would England have won that game in 2016?

DA: No, they probably wouldn’t have done, and that shows there’s a bit more spirit in the side. But we’ve got Harry Kane, who is in form and a different player to the 2016 version, and that’s what you need at this level. You need a player that can sniff out a goal, that’s got that extra quality to get you over the line against difficult opposition.

Raheem Sterling got a lot of attention after his run of not scoring for England since October 2015 continued. What is he doing wrong?

DA: I wouldn’t be worried. I thought he was a little bit unlucky to be taken off. He was dynamic, he was making good runs – especially in the second half I thought he was the one player that looked like he was going to create something. I thought he had a good game and he’ll start again for me in the next game.

Do you think somebody may lose his starting place for the next game?

DA: I think Dele Alli didn’t have his best game. I’m not sure if he was carrying a knock – certainly in that second half he didn’t look the same dynamic player that he can be. And then (Ruben) Loftus-Cheek really showed his class when he came on so Alli might have to look over his shoulder – but every player should feel this pressure coming from other members of the squad.

Were you calling for his substitution earlier or do you think Gareth Southgate managed that side of the game well?

DA: I think I would’ve liked to have seen (Marcus) Rashford a little bit earlier. With half an hour to go, you could tell that the second half was slightly flat and it needed picking up. Tunisia defended really, really well I thought – they just dropped a little bit deeper in that second half, made it difficult, and maybe that extra bit of pace from Rashford might have helped. But again, I think we were patient, and that’s what we’ve got to be. That patience eventually told.

Southgate has noted the lack of creative players in the squad. Do you think he would’ve benefitted from calling up someone like Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook to provide that cutting pass?

DA: I think the issue that Southgate’s got is the players he’s got there already are great players, but they’re very in and out. They’re still relatively inexperienced – at times even at club level – and they all look fantastic but can then be very, very inconsistent. I think that’s the only issue he’s got.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

Did you think any players were nervous out there?

DA: I think you could probably say there was nerves in the finishing early on, from Sterling and (Jesse) Lingard especially. I think there was a bit of nerves when they were snatching at their chances, but that’s natural to be slightly nervous in such a big game. But I feel as though there wasn’t any fear from the players, and that’s a big thing for England. I thought they tried to play the right way and they dominated the game.

Against a supposedly weaker team like Tunisia, is it necessary to play a back-three?

DA: I think it is for England. We need that extra body in defence and to give respect to other teams. Defensively we haven’t been that great in recent years. I thought Kyle Walker was excellent on that right-hand side of the three. He gives us that extra bit of pace that we need. I just think we look more solid with a three than we have done with a two.

A player that stood out was Harry Maguire. How would you sum up his performance?

DA: He was accomplished. He played like he does for his club side, which you want to see from players. He looks to drive the team forward, and that was needed in the second half. It was his important header for the goal toward the end, and he was a threat all night from set plays.

Could Eric Dier find it difficult to get back into the side after Jordan Henderson’s performance?

DA: Yes, because I think Henderson gives you that real energy about the pitch that maybe Eric Dier doesn’t. Dier will get his opportunities; against Belgium, I could see a two-man defensive midfield with him alongside Henderson.

There have been some complaints there isn’t a real free-kick taker in the squad. Kieran Trippier sent one wide. Is this a big disadvantage for England?

DA: It would be a real bonus if we had a specialist like David Beckham. I’m amazed Harry Kane doesn’t take most of the free-kicks. He’s a great dead-ball striker, and for me, I would’ve given him at least one of those free-kicks.

What needs working on in training before the Panama game?

DA: How to combat a team that sits deep. Maybe it’s getting the ball wide and getting good deliveries into the box or cutting the ball back. I didn’t see enough of that really in that second half. That’s probably one thing Gareth will look at but I think he’ll be delighted with the overall performance.

Is a victory like the one over Tunisia quite convenient in the sense that it keeps supporters’ expectations at a reasonable level?

DA: Yeah, I think if it would’ve stayed at 1-1 the players might have got a bit of grief, but I think overall to get that extra goal with the way that we performed, it does keep expectation where it should be. We’re a good team but we’re not one of the best in the world. We have to fight for every goal and every point we get.

Who was your man of the match?

DA: Raheem Sterling. I thought he had an excellent first half and he was the bright spark of the second half. I was surprised to see him go off. I thought he excellent. I also thought Kieran Trippier was very good on the right-hand side; the way he linked up with Kyle Walker and with the midfielders – I thought he was excellent.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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