John Brewin: There are cracks to fix, but a lot to cherish for England

Our expert writer John Brewin looks back on the tournament England enjoyed and the issues that need fixing after their semi-final loss to Croatia…


There were tears rather than craft beer being spilled as Englishmen began to realise that it would not, after all, be coming home, and will instead be ending up in either Zagreb or Paris.

Everyone knew the score, they’d seen it all before and in years to come, it seems unlikely that Moscow’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia will assume the same legendary status that losing to West Germany in Turin at Italia’ 90 and to a reunified Germany at Wembley during Euro ’96 have since come to assume.

Those were genuine hard-luck stories, of England’s heroes falling narrowly short and suffering the horror of a penalty shoot-out. On both those occasions, England played their best football of the tournament, but that was not the case against the Croats.

Having taken the lead early, England reverted to the panicked type that has done for them so many times. Fatally and predictably they were unable to keep the ball.

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To watch Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic pull strings on what looked a boggy surface in the Luzhniki Stadium was a reminder of what England have been lacking for so long, probably since Paul Gascoigne had one blow-out too many.

Neither of Croatia’s twinned playmakers panic in possession, and their ability to work the angles in midfield supplies comfort to their team-mates.

Jack Wilshere has been in pre-season training at West Ham rather than with the England squad in Repino, and it is ruefully tempting to consider what difference he might have made in Russia had he become the player he looked as a young Arsenal tyro.

He is still just 26, but the best years have been badly wasted. Southgate’s decision to omit Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey, a player of similar talents, proved correct, but it meant that England had nobody with the skill set that might dampen their opponent with measured possession play.

While Jordan Henderson had a fine overall World Cup, to follow on from playing equally well in Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final, he is not in Modric and Rakitic’s galaxy as a ball-playing midfielder and was in any case outnumbered by Gareth Southgate plumping for Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard as the other components of a midfield trio.

Both Alli and Lingard have their uses as attacking players, but both disappointed on Wednesday, with Lingard rueing one bad first-half miss in particular.

And ahead of them, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling struggled to keep hold of the ball for any length of time. These were all familiar failings that have damaged England so often down the years, and are still without an answer.

This time, though, there will be no calls for the root and branch overhauls that usually follow an England exit.

The national game is heading in the right direction, judging by Southgate’s feat of taking the youngest team in the tournament to the semi-final and the successes that young England players enjoyed last year in winning the Under-20 and Under-17 World Cups.

And there is also no need for the tabloids and broadsheets to call for the head of the manager, a new broom to sweep clean.

Southgate has announced himself as progressive, inclusive and realistic, a cool head amid the crescendo of excitement that his team’s run through Russia caused back home – amid fans and pressmen who suddenly believed they were to be in the presence of history being made.

Unless he falls into the Glenn Hoddle trap of revealing some questionable personal views, or is caught in flagrante with a pint of wine and inside info on swerving the rules in the style of Sam Allardyce, he will be in place for Euro 2020 with a group of players with whom he shares a bond.

And there is no sign that Southgate, barring his penchant for waistcoats, is likely to do anything as daft as either of those predecessors.

His crowning achievement lies in bringing the country back to actually celebrating its national team, with a group nowhere as talented as those previous generations that failed to get as far at a major tournament.

A generation of kids who don’t remember 1990 or 1996, let alone 1966, have a touchstone to base future England performances on.

That brings the spectre of great expectation, so long an enemy of the national team, but at least there is something to look fondly back on.

There were great times along the way, with Saturday’s quarter-final dismissal of Sweden as professional a performance as an England team has produced since 1996’s run to the semi-final, and the demon of penalty shoot-outs conquered in beating Colombia in the last 16.

Cult heroes have been created in hyperactive goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, “Slabhead” Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier, the goalscorer in Moscow.

Once the disappointment has dissipated, there remains much to cherish and look onwards to.

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