On Sunday, England put six – yes, six goals – past Panama to seal qualification to the next round in a manner they have arguably never done before at the grandest of stages.
It was a blend of contrasts throughout.
For it was reticent, yet an impressively flamboyant display at times. It was in some ways, imperfect and error-strewn yet incredibly clinical and ruthless when it really mattered.
It was a matured performance; coming from a bunch of mostly wild and carefree youngsters who happen to enjoy playing the game and are able to connect with the fans – with the kindred spirit very evident – and confident enough to express themselves against a backdrop of immense pressure and a weight of expectation that many others that preceded them, have crumbled under.
It was England as England fans wanted them to be – to represent a melting pot of characters, cultures and contradictions – all out there as one Nation at the World Cup, but ultimately, to play a game of football and derive some joy out of it.
Of all the things that have happened so far in the World Cup though, nothing echoes this sentiment more than the attitude and approach of Jesse Lingard – a footballer that in more ways than one, epitomises what modern football has become and demands of a player to be successful and a player who is successful, not just on the pitch, but also very much off of it.
Lingard, not shy of choreographed celebrations and a chronic overuse of emojis, polarises opinion like very few others.
He can be anonymous in a game, an annoying spectator with everything passing by and not through him. He can be outright bad at times – failing to control the simplest of passes and squandering the easiest of chances and yet it is so hard and even foolish one of these days, to write him off of doing something as breathtaking as what the 25-year old conjured up at the steaming Nizhny Novgorod, when England needed a goal to eliminate any and all doubts in front of a packed crowd that urged them to do just that.
In the end, the Three Lions put Six past their opposition but every other goal paled in comparison to his effortless finish from about 25 yards from goal.
Without Alli in the side, Lingard’s responsibilities included setting and not just maintaining the pace at which England moved the ball around. Ahead of the game with Lingard and Raheem Sterling playing off Harry Kane – the objective was plain and simple. Free up space for the main man up front to run into and latch on to the raking long balls from the likes of Trippier and Walker, who were excellent at doing that against Panama. The rest would take care of itself. And it did.
Horizontal movement was critical as the opposition deployed a robust low-block as they did against Belgium although not as efficiently, and there are very few players in England that are as good off the ball as Lingard is and he showed why, on Sunday. As the usually energetic Raheem Sterling struggled to get a grip of the proceedings, often crowded out in the final third, Lingard took charge of the evening – constantly dragging the already haphazard Panamanian defence out of position multiple times – while darting towards goal when one of them blinked.
One of those clever forward runs from the Manchester United midfielder forced a mistake – gifting England a penalty which Harry Kane duly converted for his first goal of his evening – and third of the tournament already. What followed for the third goal, however, encapsulated everything about the Warrington-born 25-year old and this refreshingly good England outfit.
Picking the ball up from almost the halfway line, he exchanged passes with Ashley Young, moving the Three Lions up the pitch with ease, engineering a give-and-go with Sterling before arrowing the ball into the top corner with incredible finesse, from a ‘zone’ on the ground he has become increasingly familiar with.
This is not the first time Lingard has scored a goal from that tiny slice of the pitch – just outside the box, with the keeper out of his line, and the time is still ripe to have a go.
And it will not be the last.