Thursday 20 September 2018

Daniel McDonnell: England had Croatia on the ropes and this loss will hurt as much as any other

England's Harry Maguire and manager Gareth Southgate after defeat
England's Harry Maguire and manager Gareth Southgate after defeat
Ivan Perisic gets to the ball ahead of Kyle Walker to equalise for Croatia. Photo credit: Tim Goode/PA Wire
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

On Tuesday evening in Moscow, Gareth Southgate said that his side would be stronger for this World Cup experience no matter how it ended.

It's hard to subscribe to that theory this morning.

How will they get over this? How will they come to terms with the fact that a World Cup final was so close, that it was within their grasp?

This new, focused, efficient England had Croatia on the ropes. If Harry Kane converts the first-half chance that he would normally stick away in his sleep, then Gareth Southgate's men would be preparing for a World Cup final this morning. Of that, there is no doubt.

What followed afterwards is the material for the documentary that might well end up defining their international careers. Russia 2018: The One That Got Away. The final that got away, anyway.

Letting this slip from a position of strength puts the Luzhniki up there in the pantheon of great English disappointments. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Eleven years ago, England missed out on Euro 2008 after losing to Croatia in an error-strewn Wembley game that is remembered for Steve McClaren's umbrella.

Their structures have improved a lot in the intervening period - Southgate said as much in his wide-ranging pre-match conference where he spoke of the underage progress that has made them world champions at U-17 and U-20 level - but when it came to the crunch, Croatia where better when it mattered. England's fans spoke of football coming home, but the glory went to the side that just treated it better.

Horrendous

Granted, their goals were opportunistic, and aided by horrendous defending. However, they had more ideas at the business end of this tense encounter. It was appropriate that England's goal came from a set-piece, which is where nine of their 12 goals here came from.

The England dead ball had become a hugely anticipated event, the Pete Sampras serve of this surprise tilt at the title.

Fans produce phones for everything now, but for the English dead ball, there is a belief they might actually catch a moment of substance.

You knew England were in trouble when they went through almost the entirety of the second-half without forcing a corner or free-kick in a threatening area. That's because they weren't doing anything in the final third.

There will be revisionism now, aligned with the obvious jokes at England's expense. Who did they beat after all? Tunisia, Panama, a Colombian team going through a breakdown, and a Swedish side that were exposed as average.

That would be a harsh judgement, given that the key element for successfully negotiating a passage to the latter stages of tournaments is an ability to efficiently brush aside lesser opposition.

England's recent rap sheet is packed with banana skin tumbles, such as the lethargic Euro 2016 defeat to Iceland that was highlighted as the classic example of a national side permanently afflicted with the glare of a rabbit caught in headlights.

This team was wiser, well organised by a manager who played to their strengths and managed to rid the side of irrational fears and inhibitions that have dogged them.

But Croatia asked questions that others weren't capable of posing. What will kill England is that they prompted them to do so.

Much as the pendulum had began to swing in the eventual victors' direction after the half-time interval, they were still struggling when it came to the final ball.

Sometimes, they were searching for two players in a box containing a phalanx of white shirts. But one good delivery and an instinctive Perisic finish shifted the mood in the stadium.

England were rocking. Everything that was good before the concession was suddenly bad. Kyle Walker had been complementing John Stones and Harry Maguire, with his pace mopping up problems.

However, Croatia had now managed to make him look like a right-back playing centre-back. Indeed the chilled-out back three, passing the ball with a swagger, was now flustered and hurried. Jordan Pickford rode his luck with unconvincing kicks brought about from Croatian pressing.

Zlatko Dalic's players were growing in strength, when logic suggested their battery power should be emptying. Their movement made England's organisation look predictable.

Jordan Henderson was one-dimensional compared to Croatia's fluid playmakers, who were switching the play and dragging England out of shape, and it was telling that he was eventually replaced in extra-time.

Marcelo Brozovic was up there with Rakitic and Modric in terms of influence; Perisic was a pest.

Much as England stirred themselves for the extra 30 minutes, the additional time only really served as a reminder of why Croatia were better equipped to advance.

England's best opportunity came from a set-piece, the Stones header that was cleared to safety, and Croatia were temporarily unstable.

And then they regrouped to show they had superior footballers and game management skills and began to patiently stroke it around. Their sub left-back, Josip Pivaric, glided in and out of tackles like a young Damien Duff before moving the ball on.

As the final whistle approached, and England grew even more desperate, Croatia spurned a couple of chances to launch the ball out of trouble and run down the clock

Instead, they opted for possession play, in keeping with their natural philosophy. They knew their strengths.

Southgate's England came to Russia with similar ideas, but ultimately it wasn't good enough.

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