Plus: Could unlocking Phil Foden's potential be the key to England's success in Qatar? At the age of 33, has talisman Gareth Bale played his final game for Wales? Do the USA pose a bigger threat than many give them credit for?
Wednesday 30 November 2022 12:22, UK
England don't have long to revel in their win over Wales - attention must swiftly turn to their last-16 tie with Senegal. And Gareth Southgate has some important selection issues to mull over before that showdown on Sunday evening.
Can he really go back to Raheem Sterling or Bukayo Saka ahead of Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden now? Those two goalscorers against Wales showed the impressive form they're in after the players they replaced struggled to back up their performances against Iran when they faced USA.
In midfield, Jude Bellingham's No10 role wasn't a huge success, although Jordan Henderson added leadership, so does Mason Mount come back into that area of the park?
Kyle Walker's condition after his first 57 minutes back from groin surgery will presumably dictate his role at the weekend, with the ousted Kieran Trippier itching to get back in. However, if Walker is fit, Trippier's best hope of a starting spot would depend on Southgate opting to shake it all up again and play wing-backs.
The appearances of Kalvin Phillips - who set up Rashford's second - and Trent Alexander-Arnold off the bench for their first minutes in Qatar were reminders of the depth Southgate has to call upon at this tournament. With a 26-man squad and quality in the group, there are lots of decisions to make.
He certainly got two of those calls correct against Wales, with Rashford and Foden repaying his decision to include them from the start. But as we saw at the Euros last summer, this is a manager not afraid to change his personnel and systems for different opposition.
Never change a winning team? There will be plenty of debate about whether Southgate should follow that mantra in the coming days - both inside the England camp and among their supporters…
"Moments like this, this is what I play football for. The biggest moments, the best moments."
Those were the words of player-of-the-match Marcus Rashford after England brushed aside Wales to reach the last 16 of the World Cup.
After his goal against Iran in England's opener, Rashford's brilliant second-half double on his first start in Qatar moved him joint-top of the World Cup scoring charts. The Manchester United forward is arguably in the form of his life but just over two months ago, he was not even in the international fold.
Back in September, Rashford faced missing the World Cup altogether after being left out of England's 28-man Nations League squad. Although already a doubt due to what he described as an "untimely injury", the 25-year-old had been overlooked since November 2021 after struggling for form at club level. His chances of making the plane to Qatar appeared to be fading.
Now though, the picture could not be any different. After starring under new Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag this season, Rashford is now impressing on the biggest stage for his country. His magnificent free-kick against Wales - his first for England and the first of this World Cup - demonstrated his unique ability from set-pieces. Moments later, his effective pressing helped England double their lead before his directness and determination made it 3-0 to put the result beyond doubt.
"He's really been impressive since he came back in with us," Gareth Southgate told BBC Sport.
After this performance, the England manager has a simple decision to make. Rashford deserves to start against Senegal on Sunday.
"He is a great option in two or three positions and he will have a big impact," said Gareth Southgate amid the clamour for Phil Foden's inclusion. He made that impact in his second position of the night in England's emphatic 3-0 win over Wales.
After playing on the right side of the forward line in the first half, Foden unlocked the game from the left early in the second. Marcus Rashford deserved the player of the match award for his two goals but this game showed what Foden can bring to the team too.
It was Foden whose driving run earned the free-kick from which Rashford scored. It was Foden who was there to turn in the second goal just moments later, a passage of play that began with him pressing the full-back to pass the ball backwards from the kick-off.
Maybe that should not be a surprise. Foden has been playing on the left regularly for Manchester City this season. Although the focus is on his capabilities as a creator, the statistics show that he is more of a finisher right now. It could be key at this World Cup.
Wales set up in an ultra-defensive shape to try to nullify England and for 50 minutes, it worked. Four at the back proved to be robust and unyielding - their resistance only undone by a moment of pure genius from Marcus Rashford. Then, suddenly, the shackles were off. Gareth Southgate's charges were here to play. Wales attempted to put the brakes on, but found themselves two behind before the cheers from Rashford's opener had even dissipated.
England's mindset shifted. They became purposeful and expressive and Wales were powerless to prevent their unravelling. "The effort the players put in off the ball was exceptional," Rob Page reflected, which says everything about their ill-fated game plan. Perhaps it was the pragmatic play. But offering one shot on target - Kieffer Moore via the head of Harry Maguire - was never going to be enough to hurt England. This was a knockout tie and Wales headed out with a whimper.
"They have additional motivation to play against England," Southgate said in the preamble, but that apparent appetite never reared its head on the night. The vast pre-game chatter was meaningless noise after all.
The writing was on the wall when talisman Gareth Bale failed to reemerge for the second period. Of all the players to have started three games at the tournament, only Almoez Ali of Qatar (71) has had fewer touches of the ball than Wales' captain (77). "It just didn't happen for us this tournament," Bale summarised. Their 64-year wait for a World Cup appearance has indeed met its disappointing end. It remains to be seen if Bale's Wales chapter has simultaneously reached its natural conclusion.
On the evidence of the group stage, pre-World Cup reports of the US' demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated and one thing is for sure - the Netherlands had better not underestimate Gregg Berhalter's side in their last-16 clash on Saturday.
The US deservedly overcame Iran in their final Group B clash thanks to a second successive World Cup clean sheet and Christian Pulisic's close-range finish, although the Chelsea forward was injured in the process of scoring and worryingly ahead of the weekend showdown, had to be substituted at half-time.
But make no mistake about it, this is a well-drilled outfit, with pace in attack, out wide and in the centre of the park and no shortage of technique to go with that as seen in the impressive displays so far in Qatar from the likes of captain Tyler Adams, Sergino Dest, Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, Pulisic and Timothy Weah.
But while the Oranje are undoubtedly a step up in class from facing Wales and Iran, the US have already shown in holding England to a goalless draw that they are more than capable of mixing it with the so-called Big Boys of international football.
So do not be surprised were the US to make life very uncomfortable for Louis van Gaal and Co at the Khalifa International Stadium this weekend, much as they did to much-fancied Belgium the last time they made it through to the World Cup knockouts in 2014.
Senegal's presence in the last 16 owes a lot to their wide players. In the absence of the injured Sadio Mane, Ismaila Sarra and Iliman Ndiaye stepped up to help Aliou Cisse's side overcome Ecuador. Expect them to cause problems for England too.
Sarr was the most impactful of the two, winning the penalty for the opener then scoring it himself. The foul, committed by Piero Hincapie, was one of eight won by Sarr over the course of the game.
Ecuador couldn't handle the Watford winger, his speed and directness ensuring it was a gruelling evening for right-back Angelo Preciado, mercifully substituted in the closing stages having somehow avoided a booking despite six separate infractions.
Only Neymar has won more fouls than Sarr in a single game at this World Cup and, over on the opposite side, Ndiaye, a Championship rival of Sarr's with Sheffield United, and another player who surely belongs in the top-flight, was similarly impressive.
The 22-year-old was making his first start for Senegal having only broken into their squad this year but, having grabbed a late assist as a substitute in the win over Qatar, he picked up where he left off at the Khalifa International Stadium.
Like Sarr against Preciado, Ndiaye caused serious problems for Estupinan.
He completed four dribbles in total - the most by any player in the game - and also popped up in dangerous positions in the Ecuador box, further destabilising their creaking defence.
Senegal have weaknesses. Their play lacks cohesion at times and even Qatar have been able to find a way through their defence at this tournament. But even without Mane, Sarr and Ndiaye ensure there is pace, creativity and goal threat on the flanks.
Oh, what might have been? All Ecuador had to do was avoid defeat, as they had done against the group's toughest opponents the Netherlands last time out, but they couldn't see it through to reach the last 16.
For whatever reason, manager Gustavo Alfaro insisted on changing system again from the 4-4-2 that beat Qatar and the 3-4-3 which held the Netherlands to a 4-3-3. Even before kick-off, it was seen as a bold step and proved to be one which backfired spectacularly.
Ecuador's natural width came from their full-backs, Angelo Preciado and Pervis Estupinan, but their propensity to get forward left them exposed in behind and could've seen them 2-0 down inside 10 minutes.
It took 44 minutes for Senegal to breach their backline in the end, but that was enough to force Alfaro into an embarrassing half-time climbdown.
Alan Franco and Carlos Gruezo, who had been named in the Ecuador starting line-up for the first time in the tournament, were both taken off at the interval.
Their withdrawal was accompanied by another change in shape - back to the 4-4-2 they had used against Qatar. Straight away they were sharper, quicker and looked far more comfortable and competent.
But a lot of the damage had already been done. Senegal had the momentum built up from their first-half performance behind them, and a lead to sit on.
Ecuador did get their all-important equaliser, but their opposition were confident after more than an hour on top and hit back instantly, with what would prove the winner.
There is never one reason for tournament failure and Ecuador's players had enough quality to give Edouard Mendy a much busier night than he endured.
But having masterminded a superb point against the Netherlands to leave their destiny in their own hands, Alfaro's tinkering played a major part in their early exit on Tuesday night.
Header, left foot, right foot. Cody Gakpo is having the perfect tournament.
The Dutch forward has three goals in three consecutive World Cup matches and is the main reason why the Netherlands have cruised through to the knockout stages as group winners.
It's not just the range of the three separate goals that make him such a great talent at 23 years old. He plays out wide for his club and centre forward for his country. He can be a penalty box presence but, as his goal against Qatar showed, he can come from deep and play further back if required.
Tenacious, aggressive but blessed with flair, the forward joins Kylian Mbappe at the top of the World Cup Golden Boot standings. It's excellent company, considering this is first World Cup.
He shows he has the full package - and maybe this World Cup, like Mbappe and James Rodriguez did before him, is becoming his own.
It won't be long until one of the superclubs takes him off PSV Eindhoven's hands - it could possibly happen in the January window.
Already out of the tournament after two games, Tuesday night was a chance for the host nation to avoid some unwanted World Cup history against the Netherlands.
Unfortunately, they failed to do so. They became the first hosts to not pick up a single win or a even a point in the group stage, while they also became the first ever individual host nation to lose three matches at a single World Cup tournament.
They also conceded seven goals, the outright most ever by a single host nation in the same group round of an edition of the tournament. Their plan to begin a training camp in June clearly didn't work.
Needless to say the show will very much go on without them.