To criticise England so soon after their defeat to Croatia might seem churlish but it is the right thing to do. Football is about the pursuit of perfection and so it is that we must ask what went wrong for England and what must be done to put it right. If we do that, the future can be very, very bright.
England’s journey to the semi-final was not the hardest but it was the manner in which they won their games that gives the most cause for optimism. They passed the ball well, were strong at set-pieces and were resilient when they needed to be. Most pleasing of all however, they tried to play the ball out of defence, as all top, top sides do.
This is something new and refreshing, and it is a directive that comes straight from Gareth Southgate and the St George’s Centre of Excellence where the blueprint for England’s future is being forged. It is also something that is only now possible because of its prevalence in the Premier League where the players are exposed to it week in and week out.
Against Belgium, Colombia, Sweden and Croatia however, England’s ability to play out from the back was tested with ever-increasing rigour. For much of the match against Belgium’s ‘B’ side, England’s ‘B’ side was penned back in its own half, reduced to counter-attacks and balls over the midfield.
England fared better against Colombia, playing out from the back and dominating midfield until the last half-hour of normal time when the magnitude of the occasion overwhelmed them and they reverted to a tactic we all recognise as part of the England psyche: to clear danger by whatever means necessary, usually by lumping the ball blindly upfield when under pressure.
It was immediately obvious in England’s next match against Sweden that the Swedes had identified this as a key weakness, assigning their front free to get up close and personal with England’s back three as high up the pitch as possible. Initially, Stones, Maguire and Walker reverted to type, but after a quarter of an hour adapted and began to play around and through Sweden’s technically inferior players.
Against Croatia, however, England were found out. While Trippier’s early goal non-plussed the Croatians for the majority of the first half and England were largely successful in playing out of defence, their midfield could not create clear-cut chances for Kane or Sterling.
Slowly but surely, Croatia took control of the game, harrying England’s defenders who, when they could find Henderson, almost always found the ball coming right back to them and their options limited.
While the problem might be easy to identify, the fixing of it is the tricky part. To some extent, the solution is underway at St George’s where England teams of the future are playing to a blueprint that demands that they play the ball out of defence. For young England players coming through the system, that should become second nature.
The short-term difficulty stems from the reluctance of British clubs to play young English players at the top level, which is forcing them to seek opportunities abroad, Reece Oxford, Jadon Sancho and Ademola Lookman being prime examples.
What that means is that very few England defenders have experience of playing at the top-level of English and European football where being able to play the ball out of defence while under intense pressure, and then being able to join in an attacking phase of the game, is a prerequisite.
Of the England team that lost to Croatia only Stones and Maguire play regularly at centre-half for their domestic teams and even Stones lost his place for a while after he was injured. That England should have to recruit Walker as a make-shift centre-half says much about the paucity of choice at Southgate’s disposal.
While addressing this weakness would go a long way to making England a fearsome opponent, it would not alone have overcome Croatia. England’s deficiency in that regard was largely tactical and concerned their inability to nullify the every-growing influence of Luca Modric in the second-half and extra time of their semi-final game.
That was a tactical error and one for which Gareth Southgate must take most of the blame.