Friday 20 July 2018

Little sympathy on show in cold assessment of failure

'England's Jesse Lingard doesn't want to get involved in keeping the ball and dominating possession.' Photo: Adam Davy/PA
'England's Jesse Lingard doesn't want to get involved in keeping the ball and dominating possession.' Photo: Adam Davy/PA

Daniel McDonnell in Moscow

In the aftermath of a painful missed opportunity, the reception for Gareth Southgate was sympathetic.

The England fans chanted his name. His press conference at the Luzhniki Stadium was notable for the gentle line of questioning from the media that have spent a month following this side around; this was early stage grieving.

Indeed, it was Southgate himself who eventually raised the possibility that an opportunity this good might just never come around again. That was the elephant in the room.

If this was England's second semi-final in a row, then the line of questioning would doubtless have been more forceful.

But the unexpected run to the last four after over two decades of disappointment has built serious levels of goodwill. England woke yesterday morning to front page images and social media tributes hailing the heroes that had lifted the spirit of the nation.

In Ireland, we know well that there's a difference between a nation's perception of itself and the view of the outside world. We have lavished praise on brave and spirited displays that others perceived as primitive and one dimensional.

The pat on the head and praise for the fans doesn't sit as comfortably when England are the subject. And Croatia were in no mood for sympathy as the players and staff queued up to challenge the argument that England had evolved in a modern fit for purpose contender again.

Full back Sime Vrsaljko delivered the opening punch. "The all round perception was that this was a new-look England team who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield but when we pressed them, it turned out they haven't," said the Atletico Madrid player.

Then came Luka Modric, who spoke of how confident English predictions had riled their dressing room. "They underestimated Croatia tonight and that was a huge mistake," he said. "All these words from them, we were reading and saying 'OK, today we will see who will be tired' They should be more humble and respect their opponents more."

Modric's comments were met with surprise. A 'Talksport' presenter suggested yesterday that the Real Madrid player should 'shut up' as he was praised heavily in the build-up. But Croatia were conscious of confident predictions.

Rio Ferdinand had dismissed Croatia as he mulled over how England might fare against France in the decider. There was a pantomime element to Roy Keane's ITV studio shenanigans with messrs Wright, Neville and Dixon, but he wasn't plucking his views on English complacency from the sky either.

The real killer analysis came from Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic, a journeyman coach who only got the gig in a crisis period last October ahead of a must-win qualifier in Ukraine. He broke down how simple it was to find flaws in England.

"We knew what they were doing and where," he said. "We played a high press on their backline. We closed down (John) Stones and (Jordan) Henderson. We nullified them.

"We let the centre-halves play. (Luka) Modric and (Ivan) Rakitic pressed their backline and we had possession.

"During half-time, I told the players 'calmly pass the ball, do not lose your heads'. We showed that we were the better team in all segments of the game."

The wider world agreed, with a greater focus on England's errors. L'Equipe spoke of "technical limitations, the imbalance of structure and Southgate's passive coaching".

And in his role as a pundit on BeIN Sports, Graeme Souness pulled no punches.

"You can't win the big trophies unless you've got good players in midfield who can keep the ball.

"Jesse Lingard (pictured) and Dele Alli want to get on the end of things after there has been clever play by somebody else.

"They don't want to get involved in keeping the ball and dominating possession. The make up of the team was all wrong, all wrong. They were shown up for being a back-to-front team playing very basic football."

Don't expect that line to feature in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year montage.

Irish Independent

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