For all of the talk of “football coming home” this month, it will instead be lining out in the streets of Paris or Zagreb after this weekend.
England’s dream, which had gathered momentum and volume exponentially over the last couple of weeks, was shattered into a million pieces as giddy euphoria gave way to a hefty dose of realism. Croatia stopped the Three Lions dead in their tracks and the sober truth, whether England want to hear it or not, is that they didn’t deserve any better.
As soon as Ivan Perisic diverted his Gary Breen-esque volley into the net midway through the second half, there was only ever going to be one winner. Croatia had gradually remembered that they were a much better team than they had shown in the first half, and were determined to make up for it.
Luka Modric, as anonymous as most of his team-mates in the first half, took charge of the game in the second and never looked like letting it go. The Real Madrid playmaker has arguably been the star of the tournament and he, above anyone else in that Croatia side, was not about to let this chance to outdo the class of 1998 pass them by. The midfield battle was always going to be an intriguing one – but as soon as Modric started fully exerting his influence, it was game over as far as that was concerned.
In that first half, England had actually played some of their best football at this tournament, buoyed a terrific free kick by Kieran Tripper early on. That goal with less than five minutes on the clock seemed to shock Croatia while giving Gareth Southgate’s side a confidence boost, with players looking to get on the ball and move it forward.
The problem there, of course, is that they failed to press home their advantage – and here is where their entire modus operandi came crashing down. Granted, Harry Kane did hit the post, but they didn’t have a single shot on target in the remainder of that opening 45 minutes. In the second, meanwhile – both when they were holding their lead and supposedly chasing the winner – they didn’t have a single shot that troubled a half-fit Danijel Subasic in the Croatian goal.
In fact, not until the 99th minute did England have another shot on target, as John Stones’ header was cleared off the line by Sime Vrsaljko (from yet another set piece). A gap of 96 minutes between shots on target simply isn’t conducive to the vibrant, dynamic outfit that this England side were trying to portray themselves as (unless Kane’s first attempt before hitting the post is also counted – but even that’s being generous).
For all of the plaudits that Gareth Southgate has earned over the course of this tournament (and, to his credit, detoxifying the national side and instilling a positive atmosphere has been a terrific achievement) the World Cup isn’t awarded based on likeability.
The team’s over-reliance on set pieces was always going to be a problem as soon as they were given a formidable opponent, and so it was. Colombia and Sweden, for whatever reason, lost their minds and resorted to an overly physical approach in order to unsettle England. It didn’t work, obviously, but even then, two “fantastic” England performances gleaned only four shots on target in total (including one penalty).
England’s overall approach will probably escape criticism because it served them so well for so long (with ten of their twelve goals coming from set plays), but it should have been a cause for at least a little bit of concern that they weren’t even making chances for themselves in open play.
Sure, England were moving the ball quickly between defence and midfield, but what is the point of such dynamism if it fizzles out 20 or 30 yards from goal?
How, with some of the brightest young talents in Europe in Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, did England manage to be so fundamentally lacking in creativity from open play?
How was Harry Kane limited to just a handful of shots on target across the entirety of the campaign, before becoming nothing more than a bystander to pretty much everything that happened from half time onwards on Wednesday night?
As likeable as they are, absolutely nothing can mask the fact that this England side reached the semi-finals playing like a Tony Pulis team, right down the hopeful long balls in Moscow once they had fully ceded control of the midfield. Against a technically superior team and with no Plan B for the situation, England were found out.
England will take a lot of heart from their run to the last four (and they have every right to, a semi-final is a semi-final after all) but this team still has serious issues. One got the sense they would always be exposed as soon as they faced their first real test, and that was how it panned out in the end.
They clearly have potential, but they won’t grow as a national team unless they accept the reality of how limited they are now and how good they potentially could be with the right approach. One would hope, for their sake, that Southgate is fully aware of both. The youthful exuberance angle can only be played for so long too before one has to accept that a lot of these players are still pivotal components of top-six Premier League teams, with many of them playing in the latter stages of the Champions League in the last couple of seasons.
This campaign will give them hope, of course, and their success at underage level points to a bright future if they can build on the momentum here, but they’ll never have success against the bigger teams playing like this.