As the dust begins to settle on last night’s defeat, the time is now to build on what Southgate and his team have achieved.
For most of us, there will be a mixture of feelings today. The bitter pill to swallow however is that Croatia were much the better side for the majority of the semi final clash.
This is despite most the pre match analysts rhetoric that England were favorites and that it was a golden opportunity. Despite the optimism and the momentum that looked to be building following the professional job done over Sweden, England ultimately fell at the final hurdle before a first Word Cup final since 1966. Worse still it was an old enemy that contributed to their fall.
The vast majority of England’s tournament exits down the years have left you feeling frustrated and unsatisfied. In the majority of cases England have come undone against teams capable of getting the ball down and stiffling the play with clever possession.
Many will snort at this comment and point to the plethora of penalty shootout defeats the nation has suffered. However this only tells half the story.
In matches against the likes of Portugal in 2004 and 2006 as well as Italy in 2012, and certainly Germany in 2010, England were exposed to significant passages of play were they simply couldn’t get on the ball. The opposition each time were technically superior and capable of strangling the game with neat ball playing midfielders.
It was exactly the same last night. Modric, Rakitic and Brozovic stepped up in the second half and damaged England with neat passing, shifting positional play and clever movement.
England by contrast were left trying to break with direct balls and searing pace. It was a tactic completely futile against such technically superior opposition.
Pride in defeat
It’s a nice change to see the headlines reporting on England’s defeat to be so full of pride and praise for the efforts of the team. Rightly so. This was still a massive improvement from what we’ve all been subjected to for years.
They still have the chance to finish third which is one hell of a leap up from the 26th place finish under the dismal stewardship of Roy Hodgson in 2014. In Gareth Southgate too they have a coach the nation has warned to. However he must address the burning issue of technical inferiority that continues to blight the national team.
He has four years to build for 2022. In that time England must work towards a more effective use of the ball. Nobody wants to see the dull, toothless passing employed by Spain in their defeat to Russia, however, England must be able to field a team that can keep the ball for prolonged periods.
Ultimately the two really decent technical sides they faced in Russia beat them. Belgium and Croatia were a step up in class, and the void showed in both games. England’s lack of creativity and composure ultimately game back to hurt them.
There are plenty of positive signs on top of what Southgate has done in Russia though. England’s pace and improved ability from set pieces is encouraging. More than this though, the manager will be able to pick youngsters from the ranks who have already delivered in tournament football.
England’s Under 20 World Cup win last summer bodes well for Southgate’s ability to pick quality youngsters with experience of delivering under pressure. The likes of Alexander-Arnold, Pickford, Ali, Sterling and Kane will all hopefully have their best days ahead of them as well, something we should be excited about.
He must build some of these talented youngsters into his plans and build a team that can for once turn the tables. England have gone very close this year, the biggest disappointment will be if they allow this to be a one off and go another three decades without success.