England played Croatia behind closed doors on Friday night and, somewhere, paint dried. Fans debated which to settle their eyes upon and those who’d opted for the former witnessed a thoroughly tedious spectacle
From the empty stadium to the game itself, England and Croatia was not the sort of event anticipated by most. Two of the World Cup’s last four countries re-staging a bruising battle with two talented, refreshing squads. It would surely be a clash of the titans and an example of international football in its unadulterated prime.
At least, that’s how it was billed.
The reality was far duller and England supporters across the country were sent into synchronised pint-staring, trying to find better entertainment from the stream of bubbles running its way through their numbing nectar.
However, the evening before England ground out their mind-numbing bore-draw, Spain were schooling a defensively inept Wales side to the tune of four goals. Having slaughtered the lamb, Luis Enrique’s squad now turn their attention to the lion.
More accurately, they are turning their attention to the Three Lions.
Spain had Wales beaten within half an hour and realistically looked reserved for the rest of the game, fully aware that a tougher challenge lay just around the corner.
For England, however, Gareth Southgate’s team looked impotent going forward with Harry Kane failing to act as the all-scoring talisman he once embodied. Marcus Rashford squandered two sitters and Eric Dier could only hit the post following an England corner.
One issue arose from Southgate’s decision to switch his winning formation from 3-5-2, or 5-3-2 depending on how you look at it – to a supposedly more solid 4-3-3. By doing so, he lost the notable threat posed by England’s talented full-backs and thus the pace and width that tormented countries so well during the summer.
It’s telling that two of the Three Lions’ best players were the full-backs, with Ben Chilwell in particular having a solid game. Further, it was Kyle Walker’s ball that led to Rashford’s golden opportunity to put England ahead. So, returning to the focus on wing-backs would suit Southgate far better for Monday’s encounter.
However, the England boss himself has said that it’s time to shake up the old system in favour of something less exploitable; a plan for the future that will survive the battles of Euro 2020 in a way the old formation simply wouldn’t.
Gareth Southgate, as we all know, is the master of risk. After all, he was seen by many to have nowhere near the experience required to manage football’s founding country.
He then shook-up his newly inherited England side and implemented an exciting attacking system which the rest of the world struggled to pin down for enough games to take them to that stinging night in Moscow.
Since then, he’s called up a plethora of surprise names to his squad, including the young, the inexperienced and the otherwise unnoticed.
His gamble worked before and so there’s no reason to suggest this latest shake-up won’t pay dividends in the future.
Having said that, new systems take time to work and England were fast becoming comfortable with their tried-and-tested 3-5-2. They looked far from their best on Friday and will face a Spanish side firing on all cylinders.
Monday’s game should worry England fans and may not bear the fruit that some will be expecting.
Whatever happens, though, ol’ Gazza is the man with the plan. Ignore the paint for now, no matter how disinterested you find yourself. Keep an eye on England, because big things are coming.