5 Things We Learned From England v Croatia

Getty Images/Robin Jones

England won their opening game of Euro 2020 on Sunday by seeing off Croatia, who had knocked them out of the 2018 World Cup. A 1-0 victory gives little away looking ahead to the Three Lions’ next match against Scotland on Friday. But what are the take-home points from this opening day win?

1. Southgate’s loyalty to Sterling paid off

The weeks before this opening match saw clamour for the inclusion of Aston Villa’s richly talented Jack Grealish in the starting line-up. But Gareth Southgate stuck with one of his most trusted players instead. Raheem Sterling ended the season with one goal in his final eight matches in the Premier League. However, he headed into the Croatia match with 12 goals in his last 16 internationals for England. Southgate gave him the vote of confidence.

Sterling grew up less than 550 yards from Wembley Stadium, and the hashtag ‘#BoyFromBrent’ was trending once he had burst through to net the game’s only goal. There was real fervent vitriol for Southgate ahead of the kick-off due to his supposedly cautious team selection. But Sterling won UEFA’s man of the match award and justified his inclusion with disciplined pressing and by scoring the winner.

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2. England’s midfield looks more comfortable than in Russia

England’s 3-5-2 at the 2018 World Cup was a formation that maximised that team’s threat and masked its deficiencies. But a large part of its functionality was made possible only by the incredible work of Jordan Henderson, who grafted as if he was two defensive midfielders despite being the team’s only pivot. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard were then afforded the space to affect play further up. Against Croatia three summers on, Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice and Mason Mount formed a much more balanced and practical midfield three.

The star performance of Phillips earned him England’s official man of the match award, as well as a great deal of back-page clout on Monday morning. But Rice and Mount did their jobs well too. All three shared out the work quite evenly, and that bodes well for England as they look to feature in the third and fourth weeks of this tournament. The quality of Henderson, returning to fitness, is already well-documented. But the cameo of 17-year-old Jude Bellingham provided the latest set of evidence that he’s good enough and mature enough to feature prominently for Southgate’s team as they progress.

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3. Croatia have aged — but England made them look ancient

The Croatia England met on Sunday could be summed up as a side level with a Ukraine-type team in goal, defence and attack but as strong as France in midfield. There is no doubting that, since the World Cup, Croatia have felt the effects of the retirement of talismanic striker Mario Mandžukić, a lack of quality at full-back, and the extra three years’ worth of miles clocked up by their ageing ace Luka Modrić.

Real Madrid string-puller Modrić was involved as he always seems to be, but in this version of England versus Croatia, his powers were largely nullified by the disciplined and efficient players in the centre of the park for England. Croatia lacked quality out wide, partly due to the tight defensive pressure applied to their fullbacks by Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling. At other moments, it was their attack that was lacking; why couldn’t Andrej Kramarić and Ante Rebić hold the ball up properly? The answer of course was down to further England solidity, provided this time by centre-back pair John Stones and Tyrone Mings.

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4. Gareth Southgate is working hard to master tournament pragmatism

Gareth Southgate spent the first couple of years of his England tenure accused of being an FA ‘yes man’, a PR puppet and a manager with little autonomy or backbone. Then he reached a World Cup semi-final and the criticism, for a while, abated. Since memories of 2018 have faded, the allegations have returned. But the England manager’s selection of a right-back on the left, of the heavily criticised Mings as Harry Maguire’s replacement, and of an off-form Raheem Sterling ahead of more exotic options, are all decisions that took courage.

The manager was never going to set up in a way that allowed for a 3-2 England victory, because to concede twice in the tournament opener was the antithesis of the start he wanted. Instead, he sought to cancel out Croatia’s quality on the ball and to nick a 1-0. Southgate has clearly studied the similarities between successful international teams of the 21st century. What he has quite rightly found that they all have in common is a pragmatic nature that seeks to do just enough at moments when taking risks might harm the team in the long-term.

The first victory is sealed. Southgate will now turn his attention not to the rest of the group stage, but entirely and only to the Scotland fixture. There is no risk of him getting ahead of himself. He’s become much too canny.

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5. England can win their opening game at the Euros

There was disappointment when England failed to win their opener at their first Euros, back in 1968, against Yugoslavia. There was disappointment when England failed to win their opener at the last Euros, in 2016, against Russia. And there was an unbroken spell of disappointment at every single Euros opener in between. Finally, at the tenth time of asking, the Three Lions made a winning start to a European Championships campaign, seeing off their (former) bogey team Croatia.

Easy games don’t exist in the Euros, especially in England’s tricky group. Scotland next is the most historic match in international football history bar none. The Czechs after that are off to a storming start after beating the Scots, and pack a punch as English fans who have watched Vladimír Coufal and Tomáš Souček at West Ham United this season will know. Sterling’s goal won England’s opener, not the final, but it ended a dismal run of draws and defeats in opening games. The momentum produced by this win must now be harnessed.

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