1) Of course there will be disappointment – there should be. How could there not be disappointment when the longest summer of our lives has come to an end?
Hope is a changeable beast, its parameters never set in stone. What once was considered as a fine achievement soon becomes the norm. Defeat in a World Cup semi-final, however it comes, will cause heartache because the joy in victory would have been so great and the two must balance out.
But this is a different brand of disappointment: what might have been not what should have been. For the first time in a generation, we watched England with the right kind of desperation, full of hope that they would win rather than full of dread that they would lose. They have done us proud.
There will be regret too. When you go 1-0 up in a semi-final, you cannot help but taste, smell and feel what it will be like to play for your country in a final. England dominated the first half and could have been out of sight. They were hauled back in by a Croatian team with outrageous amounts of energy and their own flaws.
2) So disappointment and regret, but no ignominy, nor any media smear campaign to scapegoat individual members of the squad. England’s players will not return to their country for open-top bus tours and trophy parades and there will be no extra Bank Holiday. But they will come back with heads held high, looking supporters and each other in the eye rather than trudging along the airport carpet, staring at the floor and vowing never to think about this failure again.
Football is so important principally because it is so unimportant. When everything else is in disarray, there is football to scoop us up and temporarily leave our heads in the clouds. For so long, the England team failed in that task. Not to win trophies or even reach finals, but to scoop us up. They left us waiting on the step like an absent father.
This summer was different. This summer the England team rose above our expectations rather than falling woefully short of them, no matter how low they fell. With grave concerns over politics, economics and the very fabric of our country, we had never relied upon our national football team more. Finally, they met our need. Defeat, but no defeatism.
3) England’s team came as no surprise. Southgate has preached continuity and talked up every player within the starting XI at one point or another. There have been calls for change throughout this tournament – including from me for the Colombia game – but Southgate has only once changed his starting XI other than for the Belgium dead rubber. That was enforced by Dele Alli’s injury.
Croatia’s team did contain a shock, Sime Vrsaljko starting despite it being assumed that he would take no part in the game through injury. His powers of recovery after being substituted against Russia are extraordinary.
That was a blow to England. Vrsaljko’s likely replacement would have been Vedran Corluka, which would have forced a shift in personnel with Domagoj Vida moving to right-back. Raheem Sterling would have fancied his chances of dragging Corluka, who would have been playing in a slightly unfamiliar position.
The other Croatian change made the nerves jangle a little more too. Dropping striker Andrej Kramaric for midfielder Marcelo Brozovic might seem a slightly defensive move by Zlatko Dalic, but in fact it was the opposite. Giving Ivan Rakitic added support in central midfield allowed Luka Modric to play higher up the pitch, making him far more likely to be effective than against Denmark and in the first half against Russia.
4) There is a pretty standard psychological technique used by sports people called visualisation. The basic idea is to picture yourself in a high-pressure situation, and plan what you will do. You may not be able to replicate the physical and mental actions exactly, but through visualisation you can reduce nerves and thus increase clarity. In the moment, you are merely replaying the memory that you have had of completing the action successfully.
Kieran Trippier almost certainly uses those techniques with England psychologist Dr Pippa Grange, and boy did it pay off. As England’s free-kick taker in this tournament, Trippier knew that a time could come when he was asked to take a shot at goal from 25 yards. Within four minutes of the semi-final, his time came.
The delivery was majestic, a smooth action sending the ball up and over the wall and deep into Danijel Subasic’s net. That takes extraordinary composure under pressure, particularly given that Trippier had previously gone two-and-a-half years without scoring for club or country. Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker, Kieran Trippier: England’s semi-final goalscorers.
5) We have to ask questions of Subasic too. The goalkeeper sustained serious cramp during the final stages of normal time against Russia in the quarter-final and played through the pain barrier during extra-time and penalties to make himself a hero, but his fitness must have been in doubt.
Watch the replay again, and see how late he is to dive to a free-kick that is at least a foot inside the post when it crosses the line. Of course he would have hoped that his wall would block the shot, but Subasic does not seem to be unsighted for long. Did he delay his dive and therefore ruin his chances of saving the shot?
6) Every football fan, predisposed to assuming the worst will happen, knows the concept of scoring ‘too early’. It is ingrained within our psyche.
The theory is that an early goal settles the game down too quickly, persuading the side that scores it to sit back on their lead and protect it. That gives the side that concedes it time to get over the punch of the early setback and grow into the game, eventually pinning back their opponents. It might sound bizarre, but scoring an early goal can sometimes hamper the tactical plan of the team that takes the lead.
That was particularly important against Croatia, who had conceded the first goal of the game twice already in this tournament, coming back early both times. Their key had been in hitting back straight away, almost before their opponents had time to realise that they had the lead.
But England did not sit back, at least not straight away. This team is too young and too hungry and has been coached too well to allow a goal advantage to faze them. They continued to attack Croatia, using Sterling’s runs to stretch their defence and drag central defenders out of position and into wide areas. Jordan Henderson was looking for the quick forward pass as soon as he received possession, with Alli, Jesse Lingard and Trippier surging up to give Sterling an option. If they failed to catch up, he generally won a throw-in.
7) Before this tournament, the big concern about England’s attack was that we would create plenty of chances from open play, but be wasteful with our finishing. It had been established as an issue throughout Southgate’s reign, but never solved.
Then the World Cup began, and England’s attacking issue flipped on its head. England have struggled to create chances from open play, but their chance conversion rate has been generally excellent. Add in set pieces, and the pre-tournament worries seemed to ease.
Against Croatia, England went back to the first problem again. The only frustrating aspect of their first-half performance was that they did not go in at the break at least two goals ahead, which would have surely killed off the tie. How that haunts us now.
The guiltiest party was Kane, whose double miss from close range was wretched. If the first shot was weak but well saved, the second was a glaring open-goal error. The flag did indeed go up for offside – the resultant kick being taken outside the six-yard box proves that – but VAR would have given the goal had Kane scored. He was level.
Following that, Lingard had at least two seconds to compose himself when a fraction outside the box and should have done far better than curling his shot comfortably wide of the far post. The nagging thought grew that England were letting Croatia off the hook. Hold that thought.
8) It’s a point that was made in the 16 Conclusions piece on the other semi-final, but the leniency on yellow cards was again verging on ridiculous. Referee Cuneyt Cakir is an excellent official, so I can only assume that this is a deliberate directive on FIFA’s part. It was a foolish one.
Dejan Lovren was the lucky man. His bodycheck on Kane in the first half was worthy of a booking because he stopped a dangerous counter attack. Lovren then kicked out at Sterling after the England forward had beaten him with pace and quick feet. Again no yellow card.
In the second half, Lovren barged into Kane in England’s half to stop another counter from building. Surprise, surprise: he avoided a yellow card again. This isn’t leniency, it’s failing to apply the rules of the game.
9) Having wasted first-half chances, the second half then became a completely different game. Croatia, emboldened by only being one goal behind at the break, came out with far more tactical organisation and resolve. Where they had been hurried and harried, passes strayed out of play and senior players rattled, suddenly there was more composure.
But England played a part in their own downfall. Avoiding dropping deep when you have a one-goal lead and are tiring in a huge game must be one of the hardest things to do. It takes immense courage and belief. Even though England know that they are better on the front foot, and even though Southgate promised that we would always play on the front foot, it is a thousand times easier said than done.
Sitting deep allowed two things to happen. The first was that Sterling became isolated and so saw less of the ball. Even when the pass did come, it was hurried and aimless rather than directed into dangerous areas for him to chase. The second, and most important, was that Modric suddenly saw far more of the ball and had more time on it when he did.
Suddenly the passes were finding Ivan Perisic and the full-backs pushed further forward to double up on Trippier and Ashley Young. Crosses therefore made their way into the box and tested out England’s central defenders. Mario Mandzukic is always a threat in the air.
10) When the equaliser came, it was both out of nothing and yet entirely predictable. England had reached the point at which they were allowing cross after cross into the penalty area. Eventually, pressure pays.
The goal came not from individual errors, but the communal energy levels dropping. Alli was late out to block the cross, while Perisic ghosted in between Trippier and Walker and both might think they could have, should have, done more.
There was also a claim for a high boot from Perisic, who finished expertly with his toe. Personally, I don’t think England had a case. Had Walker been standing straight and Perisic’s boot been that high then a free-kick would have been awarded. But when you stoop to head the ball away, a clean foot on the ball deserves to be legal.
11) At that point, as against Colombia in the last-16 tie after Yerry Mina’s equaliser, it’s fair to say that England fell to pieces a little. Croatia were understandably buoyant, and Modric and Ivan Rakitic continued to get time and space on the ball. Perisic and Ante Rebic were able to pin back the wing-backs, suffocating England’s chances of attacking via that route.
But it would take the harshest critic to lambast England for that. We have never been particularly good at dealing with adversity, and that includes plenty of teams and managers with more experience than this England. The last time England won a World Cup game after conceding the first goal was in 1966, so it’s hardly any surprise that a team who have never reached an occasion like this together might suffer a loss of belief.
It’s probably the 427th time I’ve said this on these pages, but footballers aren’t robots. You cannot demand that we have a young, fun squad of players without the same old names, and then get overly critical when they suffer lapses of faith. This is part of the process.
The only surprise was that Croatia did not score before the end of normal time. Perisic’s shot hit the post, while Walker blocked another that was destined for goal. The usually reliable Jordan Pickford was even unnerved, challenging Mandzukic in the air but succeeding in only getting a weak fist to the ball. The ball fell to Perisic, but he could only scoop the ball over the bar.
12) Harry Maguire has taken most of the defensive plaudits in this England team, and that’s no surprise. We tend to appreciate the all-heading, all-surging and all-tackling defenders the most purely because we see the cogs turning. Maguire’s goal against Sweden is one of the standout moments of England’s World Cup.
But next to Maguire, Stones has been one of the best defenders in this entire tournament. There were doubts about his Manchester City future during parts of last season, but there should be no more.
And yet it was Stones’ mistake that ultimately allowed Croatia to win the game. Trippier actually made the first error, pushing Perisic in the back rather than jumping to challenge him. Then Stones’ reaction was slow, failing to track Mandzukic as he sensed danger far quicker than the centre-back. Mandzukic’s finish was stunning, yet another big goal and big performance from a big-game player.
13) One question that will linger in the back of the mind over the next three weeks before the English league football season starts again: Was Kane fully fit?
England’s centre forward will surely end this tournament with the Golden Boot, but against Croatia he looked a shadow of his usual self outside of the missed chances. There was even less evidence of the ability to hold the ball up and win free-kicks, as he managed so brilliantly against Colombia in the last-16.
In the last minutes of that game Kane was limping badly. He has never looked properly at it since.
14) In all the frustration over England’s exit, we really do have to appreciate the energy levels in this Croatia team. They played 120 minutes plus penalties against Denmark. They played 120 minutes plus penalties against Russia. They played 120 minutes against England, and came back from a goal behind in all three games. And they did all three in the space of 11 days.
Croatia will be rank outsiders to lift the trophy on Sunday evening, but what they give up to France in talent they will account for in fight and determination. Dalic, appointed before their final qualifying match, has done something truly extraordinary.
15) And so England’s campaign is over, bar a meaningless play-off on Saturday. But when the dust from this World Cup settles, something to remember: This is not the end of the journey, or cannot be allowed to be.
Just as England’s attempt at revitalising our national team and youth game, the England DNA, would not have been broken by last-16 exit, nor too has this plan been completed just because England reached a semi-final.
The England national team is a work in progress. It must fight against a host of challenges, from the domination of the Premier League over international football in financial terms to the lack of pathways for young players and the stockpiling of academy talent at the biggest clubs. The battle may never be truly won.
But what this World Cup campaign has done, together with England’s brilliant 2017 in youth football, is offer enough evidence that we are right to have faith. If reaching this semi-final is down to myriad different factors, it is the perfect shot in the arm for the Football Association’s plan at exactly the time they needed it.
Eighteen of England’s 2006 World Cup squad made debuts in Premier League, but only seven of this squad did. Football League academies, where young players will get vital minutes that steel them for challenges further down the line, can be the alternative to shiny Premier League football factories. Young players can own their futures rather than going cap in hand to the financial elite. And, given time, coaches can create a sustainable structure.
As Jordan Pickford said this week: “Places like Wrexham and Southport away when there are not that many people there. They were the hardest places to play. You are a young lad and you’re having abuse hurled at you. That is what teaches you and that’s what you laugh about now.”
The notoriety of psychologist Dr Pippa Grange in this tournament is a positive too. She is doing the same as many others up and down the country, but in success the work becomes more noticed. England did not succeed through stiff upper lips, pashun or bleeding for the cause. They succeeded against expectation because mental and physical preparation was better than it ever has been before.
These are the lessons that are easier to sell in times of shared optimism and enthusiasm. These are the lessons for the future.
16) The final word goes to Gareth Southgate and his squad, who have persuaded a football-obsessed country to fall back in love with its national team. Non-believers became believers and the uninterested were turned into disciples. It doesn’t matter who we beat and how we beat them – such details are lost in the ether while the memories stay strong.
It sounds awfully twee, but I won’t apologise for it: “It’s coming home” was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Millions – of different age, background and ethnicity – singing that song together while celebrating each England goal and win was proof enough that football had already returned. The song was never about winning trophies but being proud of those who had been tasked with trying to win them. It was never sung with a hardwired arrogance or assumption of triumph – how could it be given our recent history? – but of enjoying the fabulous and unexpected ride.
The next competitive international England play at Wembley will come with a buzz, not a groan. Young players will yearn to wear the white of England and will demand to play regular first-team football to edge that dream closer to reality.
For that alone, Southgate and his players succeeded. They will fly home at the beginning of next week, five long weeks after they left these shores. But they will be bringing football with them. We are immensely proud of this England squad; it’s been too bloody long since we’ve said that.