England get going, Gareth Southgate gets one big decision right.
For all the justifiable questions about some of the selections, and even aspects of the side’s performance in this first game at Wembley, England secured a valuable 1-0 win over Croatia largely thanks to one of the most debated calls.
Kalvin Phillips just removed all uncertainty and hesitation with one supreme run that set up Raheem Sterling for a goal that already gives England a foothold in the last 16. Such is the nature of this tournament. As to the nature of this team, that is something we’re still finding out. So are Southgate and the players.
A hard-fought win over the same Croatian team that knocked them out of the World Cup semi-finals will help with everything, even if questions remain.
There were boos when Jack Grealish wasn’t brought on despite Jude Bellingham performing so well instead. Harry Kane didn’t look fully fit and had to go off. The team performed in installments. The knee was booed. Just as with that admirable stance from the players, though, the final sound was cheers of celebration.
England had done enough.
It should not be overlooked that this wasn’t the Croatia team that got to the final of the last World Cup. They only had some of the same qualities.
It was still pointed that the winning move came through the midfield area that Croatia are supposed to be masters of, and that has been such an area of contention for England for so long.
Here, Phillips just took charge of it. That was generally true with how he handled Mateo Kovacic, and especially true with that match-winning moment.
It was what England needed on the day, and might prove a day that England needed for the tournament.
That is all to come, but it was difficult to divorce some of this match from the peculiar context of an opening home game.
England did start as if so many attacking players were realising how to rampantly link together. Sterling set up Foden to hit the post before just rampaging through himself, culminating in Phillips driving from distance. You might have thought a tone was set but that was it for some time.
England dropped off as quickly as they’d started.
That is something that has been seen countless times before, it must be said - both in host opening games and in so many England tournament matches. See both Euro 96 and Euro 2000, two very different tournaments.
Some of the initial surging play was undoubtedly down to the adrelanine of the occasion, but then some of what followed was undeniably down to the weather on the occasion.
The heat began to weigh on the players, but also play into Croatia’s approach. From a period where they couldn’t keep the ball or keep up with England, they started to finally take possession and take control.
We’d seen that before, too. They were winning everything in the middle.
One difference is that this Croatian team just isn’t as incisive as some of their predecessors. They did look that bit older and slower than 2018.
The best they had to offer in the first half was two blazed efforts from Ivan Perisic and Josko Gvardiol, both finding the far corner flag. There was also the constant risk over what would happen if England found their way again.
The eventual goal did seem a real sucker punch. For Croatia’s part, there wasn’t much warning. The minutes preceding it had seen the crowd groan at one pass backwards to John Stones, and even Phillips almost put Declan Rice in danger.
That certainly wasn’t a sign of what was to come. Phillips, more than anyone, just stepped it up. It did have the feel of a player sensing the game was there to be seized. So, on getting on the ball inside the Croatian half, the Leeds United midfielder just skipped past two ailing challenges and sending through the perfect angled pass for Sterling.
The forward’s finish didn’t even have to be that good, as there was enough on the move to take it past Dominik Livakovic.
That, remarkably, was the winning of the game.
There was very little for the remaining 33 minutes. Croatia had nothing. There were a few speculative balls, a few wayward passes, and some moments of aggression where they squared up to England players.
But that was it. It was the look of a beaten team. It was no longer the look of a top team.
England may not have quite had the look of a champion team in this game. But they got the start any champion team would take.
The rest can come. Here, Phillips - as a consequence of Southgate’s faith in him - made it happen.
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