Just over a week out from their World Cup opener against England in Volgograd, Tunisia wrapped up their preparations with another impressive performance against a tournament big gun.
While they ultimately surrendered to a late Spain goal in Krasnodar, the 1-0 scoreline flattered the 2010 champions. Gareth Southgate would have been given plenty of food for thought.
Sportsmail’s Joe Callaghan breaks down what the England manager may have learned…
Tunisia put in another impressive display against Spain on Sunday ahead of the World Cup
Counter and intuitive
While they took 10 minutes to settle, Tunisia unleashed a blurring counter-attacking approach that had Spain on the back foot time and again. It’s no stretch to say they created the four best openings of the first-half on the break as Spain’s stand-in right back Alvaro Odriozola was given a torrid time and the vaunted pairing of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos were panicked too by smart, incisive moves.
The North Africans’ 4-5-1 quickly becomes a 4-3-3 when they win possession and spring fluidly forward. Lille attacker Naim Sliti was at the heart of almost every raid and could prove a pest to England’s defenders.
Tunisia consistently put Spain under pressure with blurring counter-attacks on Saturday
Third time plucky
This is Tunisian manager Nabil Maaloul’s third stint in charge of his country and the general consensus at home is that he’s taking a refreshingly looser approach this time around. It’s paying off.
While Tunisia were compact in defence and harried the Spanish midfield from the off, they were also comfortable committing big numbers forward — and not just on the break. The first half ended with nine Tunisian players in the Spain half during a concerted period of passing and pressure rather than because of a set-piece. The manager’s more progressive, positive outlook is being reflected on the pitch.
There is a general consensus that Nabil Maaloul is taking a refreshingly looser approach now
Inexperienced but unfazed
Tunisia arrived in Russia with one of the more inexperienced squads — 13 of the panel have played less than 15 internationals. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be unnerved. The lack of experience is partly a result of Maaloul’s diligent recruitment drive of European-born or based players in recent times.
Gent right back Dylan Bronn won just his fifth cap against Spain but stared down Andres Iniesta impressively, allowing little change. In front of him Montpellier’s Ellyes Skhiri, also on five caps, was always busy, roving across midfield and sparking many of those quick breaks. Rookies? They didn’t look it.
Dylan Bronn won just his fifth cap against Spain but handled Andres Iniesta impressively
If at first you don’t succeed…
Tunisia’s stoic resistance was finally broken on 85 minutes by Iago Aspas, by which stage Spain manager Julen Lopetegui had changed his formation for a third time. The final switch — to a back three — had proved most fruitful, adding width and shaking up the point of attack with Aspas joining fellow sub Diego Costa in attack.
Variation and a willingness to admit when something isn’t working could serve England well if they find themselves frustrated in Volgograd next Monday. An impact sub who can find space, like Ruben Loftus-Cheek, could prove vital.
Tunisia’s resistance against Spain was finally broken on 85 minutes by Iago Aspas
Not so fast
Tunisia became viral video sensations in their two most recent friendlies as suspiciously well-timed injuries to their goalkeeper — just after sunset — allowed players to rush to the sidelines to break their Ramadan fast with fruits and water.
Squad members have spoken of the challenges of preparing for a World Cup during the holy month, avoiding food and liquids during daylight hours. On Saturday it wasn’t an issue as the game kicked off at 9.45pm local time for Spanish TV requirements and Tunisia were all energy and action from the off. Ramadan ends on Thursday giving the team four days of uninterrupted preparation for England.
Mouez Hassen picked up well-timed injuries to allow Tunisia to break their Ramadan fast
Khazri on the comeback
Ever since talisman Youssef Msakni was cruelly ruled out of the tournament in March with a knee injury, the importance of Wahbi Khazri has mushroomed. The creative heartbeat, who starred on loan for Rennes this year as parent club Sunderland plummeted again, has himself been out since April with a troubling thigh issue.
But on Saturday he went through vigorous drills before the game and during half-time. Afterwards, the dynamic midfielder told Sportsmail with a smile ‘I’m good’. The other English-based player in the squad, Leicester’s Yohan Benalouane, was enthused: ‘Khazri is fundamental for us, such a great player. He will be ready to go. Today was good but with him it will be even better.’
Wahbi Khazri is on the comeback trail ahead of Tunisia’s World Cup opener against England
Thinking time for everyone
Southgate was left with plenty to chew on but he’s not alone. Lopetegui has quandaries of his own and less time to solve them. Spain, never known to take friendlies too seriously, nonetheless looked worryingly undercooked with European champions Portugal lying in wait in Friday’s tantalising Group B opener.
Diego Costa’s cameo gave them some spark and he will surely lead the line in Sochi. Behind him though, the passmaster bloc of Iniesta-Isco-Thiago-Silva may not provide enough width. In defence, Dani Carvajal’s return would help. Then again, Spain looked much better when not locked into a back four. Dilemmas, dilemmas.
Spain manager Julen Lopetegui has quandaries of his own and limited time to solve them