It is rare nowadays that an England starting line-up is released to universal approval. That’s a good thing. It is a marker of the depth of talent and how many legitimate options Gareth Southgate has at his disposal that he can always be criticised for leaving out this or that player.
Take Sunday’s line-up as an example. Kieran Trippier’s inclusion as a left back was the most eye-catching call. Southgate has talked up the Atletico Madrid full-back’s versatility all season but in a career of 456 appearances, he had started on the left just four times before Sunday.
That decision seemed stranger still given that Ben Chilwell, naturally left-footed and recent Champions League winner, was left out entirely. So too was Jadon Sancho, possibly the most gifted young player in the squad. Uefa regulations insist on three goalkeepers being included in the 23-man matchday squad, leaving those two to sit out with Harry Maguire.
Meanwhile, three players who have come under some scrutiny during the build-up to this tournament all started. The inclusions of Tyrone Mings, Kalvin Phillips and Raheem Sterling were widely questioned on social media before kick-off. By the final whistle, there was an argument that they were England’s best performers.
Mings’ place in the squad - let alone the starting line-up - was relentlessly and excessively questioned after the two warm-up games, to the point where many wanted to see Ben White start his first competitive international in a game of this importance. Mings has flaws but his aerial ability is a strength and was well suited to combatting Croatia’s crossing-heavy gameplan.
Sterling was the goalscorer and the matchwinner but also England’s brightest attacking threat. Based solely on his form for Manchester City over the past few months, he should not have started but Southgate takes a wider, fuller perspective. He counts Sterling as one of the most dependable players in his squad, somebody who has consistently delivered since the last World Cup. That faith was repaid.
And then there is Phillips, who enhanced his reputation more than any other player at Wembley on Sunday. The complaints about him lining up alongside Declan Rice in midfield have been incessant all season long. Occasionally, they have been fair. England have looked too conservative with them playing alongside each other at times. And so, Southgate changed something.
Phillips’ role as more of an eight alongside Mason Mount in possession, rather than sitting as a six alongside Rice, made England more dynamic and unpredictable in attack and allowed them to exert more pressure on Croatia’s build-up play. If his first-half display was one of ferocious, combative pressing to disrupt England’s opponents, the highlight of his second half was sitting Duje Caleta-Car down to set up Sterling’s goal.
“Kalvin was outstanding,” Southgate said. “We watched him a lot last season in the Championship and were going to bring him into the squad ahead of the Euros a year ago. He's technically good and we also knew the athleticism in midfield today would be so important.
“We know we're asking him to play a slightly [more] advanced position than at his club but he's got the technique to be able to do that. It gives us more solidity in midfield and allows us to play four attacking players, with Mason in midfield as well. We think that three in midfield has a good balance.”
And though Southgate’s strangely large band of critics might not admit it, that is good management.
It is slightly ironic that Southgate’s starting line-ups are so widely criticised when generally, England have set up and started well more often than not during his reign. If anything, it is his in-game decision making which deserves close scrutiny. A failure to react quickly enough to a changing game at the Luzhniki three years prevented England from reaching their first World Cup final since 1966.
Had the breakthrough not come just before the hour mark, it would have been interesting to see how Southgate would have approached the final 30 minutes. Yet the breakthrough did come, and it came through two players in Phillips and Sterling who many would not have selected. There is some vindication in that for a manager who gets a lot more right than he gets wrong, and who should by now be trusted when the teamsheet drops.
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