Usually by this time of year, the public is ready for England to disappear into hibernation. International breaks sap the soul and disrupt club football’s momentum, and rarely has the national side managed to provide much compensation.
2018 has changed that. England may not have become an irresistible force over the past twelve months, but a restorative World Cup campaign and a series of strong Nations League performances have left them well in credit. For anyone younger than 25, that will be a strange reality. In previous eras England performances have blended together, their grey, insipid themes spilling over into each other. Now, with Gareth Southgate’s young squad growing together and the coming generation beginning to appear, there exists this enthusiasm for what this side may do next.
Spain have been beaten, the United States were swatted aside four days ago and at Wembley, in a rematch of that semi-final, a jaded Croatia were made to look limited. It was a victory and performance which needs context: the visitors had won a passion play of a game against the Spanish on Thursday night and clearly left much of their energy in Zagreb. Nevertheless, it was much the same in Russia, when a succession of extra-time victories failed to dull their spirit.
This time, it was different. From an English perspective, it was particularly pleasing to note the style of the win. Following defeat in the summer, the Croatian players had crowed their way through the mixed zone, mocking the direct style of Southgate’s team and laughing away the suggestion that England had evolved.
Southgate’s players fell behind at Wembley to Andrej Kramaric’s deflected shot. They’d played almost all of the football up to that point, passing up a host of opportunities in both halves. When the equaliser came, it arrived courtesy of some karmic payback: Joe Gomez’s long-throw bobbled across the Croatian area, Harry Kane tucked the ball under Lovre Kalinic and beyond Dejan Lovren’s hapless scuff, and substitute Jesse Lingard tapped over the line. Route One. Glorious, glorious Route One.
It was incongruous with the game’s tone up to that point. Prior to Croatia’s goal, England had been all clever angles and slick interchanges, with their mobile forwards threatening to overwhelm the visiting back-four. Once Kramaric had stolen his goal, though, confidence quickly vanished and all the spaces which had been exploited up to that point suddenly vanished. Actually, it began to look a lot like that semi-final: Croatia pushing the ball around comfortably, England huffing and puffing.
This time, though, the cracks did disappear. Where there is Lovren, there will always be a chance. First he missed his clearance with Lingard behind him, then he lost Harry Kane as Ben Chilwell’s free-kick slid across the Croatian six-yard box. England had a lead that they would never surrender and are now headed for next summer’s final tournament.
The last twenty minutes of Sunday’s game wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was a new kind of chaos inspired by the Nations League format. Nevertheless, the pile of English players who descended on Kane after his goal provided the visual of the day, even the year. Moreover, it was an image which captured why this group has succeeded where others have failed. This England are infectious; they aren’t dogged by swagger and arrogance, playing instead with the kind of earnest endeavour which encourages good things to happen.
Not that they were without technical merit, though. In fact, England’s absentees didn’t cause them any great difficulties. Harry Maguire had pulled out before the international break began and Jordan Henderson was a late withdrawal over the weekend, but Southgate will be pleased by how well his side functioned. In fact, his team’s performance on Sunday was a symptom of his healthier management. Eric Dier and Fabian Delph forged a quick partnership in midfield, with the former providing a steady base and the latter periodic thrusts, and Ben Chilwell also grew further into international football, recovering from an unsteady start to provide overlapping width down the left hand side and, ultimately, the ball which won the game.
These are players who understand their roles. Most importantly, this is a manager who understands how to use those players to win games. To other, more successful countries that’s a meagre strength, but for England it’s startlingly novel.
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