Croatia at Wembley on Sunday, where England can qualify for next summer’s finals of the Nations League – or even get relegated to a lower division – is a proper fixture with a proper prize riding on it. Who knew that adding a competitive edge could make an England game not being played at the World Cup or Euros worth watching?
Beating Croatia would add England to the semi-final pot when the draw for the finals is held in Dublin on December 3.
Had Tin Jedvaj not scored his last-gasp winner in Zagreb to make it 3-2 to Croatia, Gareth Southgate might have been able to treat Sunday’s game as an exhibition; a draw between Croatia and Spain would have meant the English would have already been through to next summer’s finals and he would have had more scope for experimentation.
Thursday’s friendly with Team USA, doubling as a farewell match to Wayne Rooney, served as a timely reminder of the essential meaninglessness of friendlies. But while the crowd cooed at the former captain’s efforts to slot in with Southgate’s young guns, there was evidence of a team continuing its development.
Leicester’s Ben Chilwell, for one, is swiftly taking his chance of establishing himself at left-back in a team that Southgate is keen to evolve.
If he can help it, Russia and that heartbreaking semi-final loss to Croatia will not be a full stop on this England team.
Jesse Lingard scored a superb opener before Trent Alexander-Arnold scored his first ever senior international goal. Lingard will be 26 next month, making him a positive veteran. The only three players older than him in Thursday’s starting line-up were debutants in Brighton’s Lewis Dunk and Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson, who deserved his goal, and Fabian Delph, captain for the night at 28.
At 18, Jadon Sancho’s first start took the eye and the headlines and there were flashes to suggest he can live up to the gathering hype. Borussia Dortmund’s Sancho plays with his head up, the trickery he cannot resist showing off is combined with an eye for a pass that has placed him at the top of European assists tables. Alexander-Arnold’s well-taken goal was laid on a plate by a highly-intelligent Sancho assist.
Sancho and Wilson add options to what is an already fine stock of forwards, and will fill the hole that Danny Welbeck’s latest injury has opened up. Not that either are likely to start against the Croats on Sunday. In the stands, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling were watching, while Marcus Rashford came on for the closing moments.
It makes for an awesome array of attacking talent, probably the best since Glenn Hoddle had Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand, Teddy Sheringham, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen to choose from but it is in midfield where England continue to have problems.
When Rooney made his ceremonial arrival, he did so alongside Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson and England’s speed of distribution noticeably slowed. And that could not purely be blamed on Rooney trying to adopt the playmaker role he always fancied – but never quite mastered.
Even before that, Harry Winks, unlike against Spain last month, had also failed to impose himself on what looked a poor American team. On Sunday, when Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic came to town, having got the better of Sergio Busquets, Dani Ceballos and Saul Niguez on Thursday, the centre will be the area for concern.
In Russia, and particularly in the semi-final loss to Croatia, a lack of creativity was the quality that stopped England reaching nirvana. It is a problem Rooney might recall from the time he was Sancho’s age and Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes were each acting at cross-purposes.
When Harry Kane was struggling to impose himself in the World Cup semi-final, Rooney would also have recognised the meagre scraps an England striker is usually asked to feed off against an opponent capable of far better possession and composure.
October’s game in Rijeka, played in front of an empty stadium saw England stymie Modric and Rakitic in a goalless draw, but that came at the expense of creativity and when settling for a point was a respectable result. Sunday’s game is winner takes all, with a draw letting in Spain, and it remains to be seen whether England can go for broke and not find themselves picked apart by the quality of Croatia’s playmakers.
That represents anathema to the meaningless matches that cause the spirit to slump when the spectre of an international break looms.
The Nations League is a new prize, and history will tell whether it is worth winning.
But England have a chance to win something, to give a taste of success to their burgeoning talent.