The emotions of England’s World Cup exit may still be raw, but a lot can be taken from Gareth Southgate’s run to the semi-finals with a young and inspired squad. Ben Darvill has looked back over the defeat to Croatia, and beyond, and picked out what can be learned.
With so much optimism surrounding England in recent weeks, it was difficult not to get caught up in all the excitement. Dream Teams were full of English players, retailers were selling the 2018 kit by the box-load, pubs were crammed with beer-throwing fans, and there was a real connection between the supporters and the national team once again.
However, this eventually counted for little as Croatia, with all their experience and talent, came from behind to dash England’s hopes of winning the World Cup for the first time since 1966. Kieran Trippier had given England real hope of winning the tie early on with a fine free-kick, but Ivan Perisic profited from some lax closing down to fire an effort home. Extra-time came, and it was the Croatians that grew stronger. Again, poor defending cost England, and Mario Mandzukic won the game, firing past Jordan Pickford to leave England floored, and out of the competition.
Here are five things we learned from the game:
1) England fall at the last hurdle
It was not the evening many had envisaged, with the Three Lions surely heading through to the final of the World Cup to play France, the notion was intensified when Trippier scored very early in the game. However, it was not to be. The pain of this kind of elimination is still very fresh, but the cut will not be one that doesn’t heal. Take Belgium for example. The Golden Generation once again failed to live up to the hype, and it could prove the last chance for some of their team. However, England are a very young squad, with a lot of World Cups left to come. While England fell at the final hurdle, they will dust themselves off and be at the next race, better for the experience.
2) Gareth Southgate was an inspired choice
Few would have muttered the above when Southgate took over, but what a job he has done. The manager has taken England from a side that were completely disconnected from their fanbase, with players that didn’t seem to care about the shirt, to a team the whole country got behind. Now, every single England player is giving their all for every minute in the shirt, and it is because of the work of Southgate and his team. The man in the waist-coat has inspired an unlikely fashion trend with his choice of clothing, but more importantly, he has inspired the players and the nation.
3) Creativity is needed
One thing that has been evident across the tournament is that set-pieces have been incredibly important. For England, this has been doubly true. Kieran Trippier scored from a sublime free-kick on Wednesday, but England struggled to create much else. Harry Kane had a few chances to score, but he was unable to find the back of the net. Jesse Lingard looked very good in the game, but he was unable to spark the side into life, while Dele Alli once again struggled in the match. Southgate’s biggest job over the coming months will be to get better service to Kane, and this starts with the players in attacking-midfield.
4) Fatigue is an issue
One thing has been clear across the tournament, England’s wing-backs have shone. Perhaps Ashley Young was not the most inspiring of choices, but he grew into the tournament with each passing game. On the other side of the pitch, Trippier had an outstanding showing. Goals, assists, vital blocks and marauding runs, it is all in the day in the life of a modern wing-back. However, the two become noticeably tired as the game wore on, giving Croatia time and space out wide, with their first goal coming from a cross in which they were not closed down. Croatia had played to penalties in both their previous knock-out games, meaning they should have been the ones tiring, but they had more left in the tank than England when it truly mattered.
5) England at last have players that can compete
Okay, the days of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Gary Neville, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand may be behind us, and it is no secret we do not have the talent we once boasted, but that has not stopped the English from shining. Harry Kane is still on course to finish the tournament as top scorer, Kieran Trippier has been the standout wing-back, while Jordan Henderson and England’s three centre-halves have been outstanding. The team of the tournament may be adorned with French and Croatian players, but it would not be surprising to see a few English players make the XI.
England’s battle to the semi-finals may have left the country with more heartache than a group-stage exit, but it has at last rejuvenated the national team and their fans. Too long have England underachieved at major tournaments, but perhaps this is just the start of something very special, and each man in the squad and the managerial team should be welcomed home like the heroes they are.
Follow Ben on Twitter at @BenjaminDarvill