Gareth Southgate had all his decisions vindicated as England started their Euro 2020 campaign with a well-deserved victory over Croatia.
1) The last time England played in a European Championships it was Raheem Sterling who bore the brunt of the backlash. Roy Hodgson resigned as manager, Wayne Rooney’s future as a cultured midfielder was scuppered and Joe Hart took an impassioned reputational battering from which he never truly recovered. Yet Sterling became the high-profile target of a series of unsavoury and unwarranted attacks on not only his ability, but his entire character. He was vilified. He was crowned the ‘footie idiot’. He became the designated media scapegoat who endured abhorrent abuse, the residual effect of which is still being felt five years later. It is no leap to suggest that what he went through then is at least part of why he and his teammates admirably take the knee now.
On Friday he was awarded an MBE for his services to racial equality in sport. On Saturday he dreamed of scoring for his country at his second European Championships in front of a raucous home crowd at a stadium he grew up within view of. On Sunday he realised that fantasy with his second major international tournament goal for England after his strike against Italy at the 2014 World Cup. Be quiet. It went in.
If any player was to score the decisive goal in England’s first ever opening game win in this competition then it had to be him: a truly remarkable man achieving phenomenal things on and off the field. Go and buy your mother a new house. Go and shop at Poundland. Go and travel on a budget airline, so long as you book a ticket for football as you accompany it on its journey home.
2) Gareth Southgate is too well-natured and magnanimous to make the point but plenty will and should do it for him: the performative frenzy that greeted his starting line-up was predictably laughable and almost every decision he made was entirely justified.
His three biggest calls – Kieran Trippier at left-back, Kalvin Phillips in central midfield and Sterling on the wing – were crucial in laying the foundations to this victory. Trippier was solid in an unfamiliar position with the couple of rare mistakes he made in defence countered by the support he provided to Tyrone Mings. Phillips was sensational alongside Declan Rice and the game’s best player throughout after a lively start and a fantastic assist. And Sterling was a constant danger whose goal was the tangible reward for 90 tireless minutes.
#SouthgateOut was trending before the game, as was ‘2 CDMs’ and ‘2 GKs’. His selection was decried as ‘dull’ and ‘ridiculous’, among many other more inflammatory things. It turns out he knows slightly better about what these players are capable of than your average punter on Twitter. Apologies are presumably forthcoming for a coach who is greater than many are willing to admit.
3) Trippier’s inclusion on the left raised the biggest eyebrow but it was not quite as inexplicable as many made out. Southgate played four at the back – something else it is important to credit him for after the fears expressed over him starting three central defenders – and felt Kyle Walker’s pace was important on the right. Trippier’s set-pieces proved vital at the World Cup and was something they wished to tap into again, so he featured on the other side. He also played well there against Austria in a preparatory friendly and started at left-back in the win over Belgium last October.
There is a difference between disagreeing with that decision and pretending it is baffling. Too many fell into the latter camp.
Another aspect behind that thought process would have been Mings. There was a call for Ben White to partner John Stones but the Aston Villa defender was chosen for balance as a left-footed centre-half. Playing Trippier there gave him a more reliable outlet in support; Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw in particular are more prone to surging forward and attacking, which might have left Mings exposed. Sime Vrsaljko got the better of Trippier once in the first half but the Atletico Madrid right-back battle went to the Englishman overall. He was great and remains a worthwhile option on that side against stronger teams.
Trippier *twice* closed Vrsaljko when the ball was on its way down from his first touch. That's intelligent because it forces a player to focus on his second touch and the man which often results in a “safe” second touch. Vrsaljko tried it twice and Trippier read it perfectly.
— UtdArena (@utdarena) June 13, 2021
4) Mings was actually England’s best defender, though. He was the player I feared about the most when the line-up was leaked early, the 28-year-old having struggled against Austria and Romania in the build-up on the back of a decent but hardly stellar season at club level. On this stage and under such pressure Mings felt like the perfect candidate to make a pivotal mistake.
He was close to faultless. While he was excellent throughout it was a ten-minute spell before and after half-time in which he had three crucial moments. That long ball over the top to Sterling to win a free-kick from Duje Caleta-Car’s handball was sumptuous. His block on Ivan Perisic as the Croatian winger advanced into the area a couple of minutes later was vital. His touch to delay Ante Rebic’s burst through and give Stones time to recover early in the second half was essential. No player made more interceptions (4) or clearances (3). It was a mature breakout performance that I would be happy to watch again over some humble pie.
5) That arguably reflects just as well on Stones, whose Manchester City renaissance has been framed as the result of Ruben Dias’ influence. The Portuguese has had an undeniable impact at the Etihad since he signed last October but it is more than a little disrespectful of Stones to suggest the 27-year-old has only excelled because of the player by his side.
The difference between his display and that of Mings is that Stones had no real standout moment. He was almost effortlessly in control of every situation and essentially went unnoticed. Be under no illusion that that is anything other than a compliment.
6) It was probably the most settled and established defender that threatened to let the unit down as Walker struggled on a couple of occasions. His passing was so weak in the first half, putting simple switches to the left flank out for a throw-in under no pressure at least twice and looking out of his depth on a few interchanges down the right with Phil Foden. Which is far. But it was his mistake that granted Croatia their first shot, giving the ball away before Rice blocked a Rebic effort for Jordan Pickford to save.
Walker did settle eventually, playing an important pass in the build-up to the goal and cleverly blocking off Perisic at a dangerous cross late on. But Reece James should be confident of displacing the 31-year-old as the tournament progresses, if not Trippier with Chilwell or Shaw coming in on the left.
7) It feels so long ago now that England started with a purpose and verve, buoyed by a thunderous home crowd against a Croatia side that seemed sapped of energy in the London heat. Foden curled an effort against the post. Sterling forced a corner when he perhaps should have shot. Phillips came close from the subsequent delivery. The hosts pressed so effectively as a team. The excitement was tangible but the audible gasp of anticipation at what might unfold whenever Foden had the ball was quite something. This was not to be his game – even then he had the highest passing accuracy of any starter with 95.5% by the time he was substituted – but that ability to harness an entire crowd and have them enthused by what your next touch might bring is brilliantly unique.
8) The 20-minute spell of dominance England enjoyed from kick-off reached a crescendo with two moments, both of which included Phillips. First, he clattered into the excellent Mateo Kovacic before forcing a save from Dominik Livakovic, the shrill of Daniele Orsato’s whistle lost in the Wembley roar. Then a minute later his bursting run was not quite found by Sterling after Mason Mount’s deft ball over the top.
It felt like a matter of time that England would find their breakthrough. The unfortunate truth was that they failed to make their period in the ascendancy count before Croatia finally reacted.
That midfield trio of Kovacic, Luka Modric and Marcelo Brozovic were too experienced to let the game pass them by for much longer and they took matters into their own hands thereafter, slowing the tempo down and taking the sting out of England’s game completely.
From the first minute to the 20th England had 64.6% possession and a 90% pass-success rate in comparison to Croatia’s 75%. From the 21st minute to the 32nd Croatia had 66.9% possession and a 92% pass-success rate in comparison to England’s 68%.
Kovacic, Modric and Brozovic had 42 touches in those 12 minutes to settle Croatia down, and 47 touches in those 20 when England were threatening to run rampant. They posed a similar level of attacking threat themselves but the idea was only ever to prevent the English charge and it worked perfectly. It probably helps having three world-class midfielders who complement each other so well.
9) That sterile possession led to the lovely advent of five seconds of stoppage-time but also meant England had to take more care of the ball when they won it back. There were two elements to this and they managed both excellently: eight of their 11 tackles over 90 minutes were in the first half and that right side in particular was careful and precise in their choices. Stones, Phillips, Mount and Foden misplaced four passes between them in the first half as solid foundations were favoured over frenetic risk-taking.
It deflated the crowd somewhat and was met with accusations of being boring and uninventive in the oft-forgiving online spheres. It might be hindsight but a short emotional burst of attacking, followed by a period of slower play from both sides was fairly predictable and pretty standard for tournament football. The positive thing is that Southgate and his players seemed prepared for it rather than taken aback.
10) Croatia started the second half better, Modric testing Pickford from range after a decent passing move while Rebic almost got in behind on the right. England rolled with those jabs and landed a knockout punch of their own almost immediately when Walker and Phillips combined to put Sterling through.
It was a great run and finish from the forward but Phillips was the architect and the Leeds midfielder really was brilliant. He set the tone with his pressing and tackling but it was his underrated quality on the ball that proved the difference.
Most appreciate his passing range and ability now but it was the way in which Phillips ghosted into space and lost his marker, rode the challenge of Josko Gvardiol and evaded Caleta-Car before slotting Sterling in to score. This is no ordinary holding midfielder and with no disrespect to James Ward-Prowse, the recent clamour for the Southampton midfielder to be selected felt particularly strange in that moment.
The Yorkshire Pirlo? Sod off. Andrea is the Brescia Phillips.
11) Quite literally central to Phillips having the freedom to advance much further than usual was Rice, whose thankless objective in releasing his partner has been perceived by many as a lack of ambition in a role that anyone could have played.
Bollocks, frankly. It is an underappreciated and nuanced part that requires trust, timing and intelligence. The balance he brings to the team is difficult to replicate and the kind of thing many would only notice when he is not playing. The 22-year-old stood his ground against that Croatia midfield. Rice and Phillips is a combination for the present and future.
12) How refreshing to see England push for a second goal. There has been a tendency for them to sit back and defend one-goal leads before and that has hurt them in major tournaments, but within ten minutes of Sterling’s strike Kane almost converted a cross at the back post and Mount won a free-kick he himself fired narrowly over.
England have often been at their weakest straight after going ahead. Complacency sets in. Minds wander. Roles are forgotten, almost as if the pre-match plan never involved scoring and no-one knows what to do any longer with the game state changed. This team has the wherewithal to ride the wave of momentum without getting carried away.
13) The faith Southgate has in Jude Bellingham is as deserved as it is astounding. With the result still in the balance he introduced the midfielder for Kane with ten minutes remaining, making him the youngest player in European Championship history.
It is both a genuine relief and a real shame that the 17-year-old plays for Borussia Dortmund. As delightful as it would be to see him every week it feels as though he benefits far more from being out of the spotlight at such an age as he is able to properly develop his game outside the media glare. Bellingham slotted straight into the winning team during a major international tournament and still can’t buy his own pint to celebrate.
14) He came on for Kane, who cannot have finished many games with more tackles (2) than shots (1). The captain struggled to assert himself and is still trying to recreate his Tottenham form by dropping deep to partake in the build-up play. It is not difficult to understand why but also clear to see it isn’t quite working for England.
Some will point to his vague decoy run for the goal but those are some mightily slender straws to clutch at when he was simply moving out of the way of the player on the ball. It is a nice problem to have that England played well, scored and won without their best striker being a real focal part of it, but if any other player was the worst on the team their starting role would be questioned. The credit he has built up over so many years can only last so long in a tournament.
15) Modric might have a Ballon d’Or but a win against Mount is proving a little more difficult to come by. The 22-year-old led the press into the closing stages and must be a nightmare to play against.
Mount had started two games for England before October 2020. In 11 matches from the win over Belgium – in which he scored – to this group opener, he has started nine and missed only the friendlies earlier this month because he was busy celebrating becoming a European champion. The speed with which he has established himself as a guaranteed starter at international level is frightening and it genuinely feels as though he might be the most difficult player to directly replace in this team.
Start of discussion:
Mason Mount is world class.
End of discussion.
— Absolute Chelsea (@AbsoluteChelsea) June 13, 2021
16) Far be it for anyone to offer serious input on Southgate’s starting line-up decisions; he has been preparing for this tournament for 18 months or so and seems to have a solid idea of how to approach it. But this victory does give England some much-needed leeway in terms of using the squad.
There should be no repeat of Euro 2016 when Hodgson made six changes against Slovakia to draw the last group game. Four at a maximum, perhaps, but at least a couple per game should keep this group fresh after a gruelling season and properly amplify the depth of what really is a fantastic and varied selection of players. Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and the rest will feature soon enough and that is only cause for more quiet optimism.