- England missed their chance against Croatia
- Croatia’s press exposed England’s lack of technique
- England lacked a ball-playing playmaker like Modric
We live in interesting times. The old Chinese curse has been on a bit of a roll over the last few years, what with Brexit, Trump, and most preposterously of all, the idea that England could win the World Cup.
Until Mario Mandzukic restored a sense of normality to our lives late on Wednesday evening, it was possible to feel like Abe Simpson: utterly bewildered by modern life, bereft of answers, and confused by the sheer insanity of Jordan Henderson in the World Cup final.
There is a tendency to rationalise things after the event. Today, we can pinpoint where it all went wrong for England and assume that the Croatians simply needed time to drive home their technical superiority. But let’s not fool ourselves. England should have been two goals up by the break. Croatia, for all their remarkable energy and ball control, were absolutely dire in the first half.
Ivan Perisic, who grew into the game’s great threat, was lamentable in the first hour. Harry Kane really should have beaten Danijel Subasic when clean through despite being flagged offside. Had he scored, VAR would surely have added another goal to his Golden Boot tally.
In hindsight, that was the difference between winning and being dragged back by Croatia’s much improved second-half display, characterised by an energetic determination to press the English defence. The margins were that fine. Once Kane missed, Croatia still had a chance.
In the first period, John Stones and co were allowed to stroll up the field unencumbered. After the break, Perisic and Ante Rebic closed them down with intent, turning freedom into claustrophobia. As full-back Sime Vrsaljko said after the game, “the all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield, but when we pressed them it turned out that they haven’t.”
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic wove their pretty triangles, providing perpetual motion to overwhelm the English with numerous good passing decisions. In essence, England couldn’t get near the Croats in the second half. Their technique had found them out. It was then only a matter of time.
Wins over Tunisia, Panama, and Sweden were no grounds for suggesting that the great English curse – the inability to comfortably retain possession under pressure – had lifted. Only the Colombians, shorn of James Rodriguez, threatened to reveal that truth. Only the diligent preparation of Gareth Southgate, keen to practice penalties and change the defeatist mentality enveloping the English game, hid the reality.
Faced, finally, with a team of superior ball-playing technique, England faltered. But there are grounds for optimism. At the last European Championship, England were eliminated by a team who simply had more guts and togetherness than they had. Technique didn’t even come into it.
For all that, there was little sign of Croatian superiority for an hour in Moscow. In a tournament that has seen technically adept teams like Germany, Spain, and Portugal exit early, one wondered if England were going to be the simple beneficiaries of events, humbly maximising what they had while those who had more fell over their own hubris.
Then Croatia applied the press, and for England, the grass turned to ice. For the first time in the tournament, they were precarious. Every incisive Croatian pass cracked the surface of England’s previously-assured footing. Finally, Mandzukic found his icepick.