England vs Croatia: Gareth Southgate’s pleasing pragmatism helps maintain rekindled love affair

Southgate's side have the energy and passion to make throwing paper planes onto the pitch a distant memory of the past

Luke Brown
Wembley
Sunday 18 November 2018 17:07
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Forget the result for a moment. Forget about England topping Uefa Nations League Group A4, ahead of Spain and Croatia. And forget about next summer’s jaunt to Porto with the international big boys. No, the clearest sign of the real, inexorable progress England are making under Gareth Southgate came from the nosebleed seats at Wembley, where not a single paper aeroplane found its way floating onto the pitch.

Such is the impact that Southgate has had on this young squad that it is easy to forget that, twelve months ago, the soulless suits at Fifa actually felt moved to issue The FA with an official warning for “improper conduct among spectators” for the paper plane hi-jinks. England had just laboured to a 1-0 victory over the mighty Lithuania and the second-half, at times, resembled an origami version of the Royal International Air Tattoo.

The relationship between the English public and its national team was skirting perilously close to a historic low. No longer. Football may not be coming home — but it’s on the road to Lisbon.

There was little danger of a volley of mocking paper planes floating down from the gods this afternoon. Instead, the sun-kissed stadium hummed with a nervous excitement in those pregnant few moments prior to kick-off. On a Wembley atmosphere scale it was decidedly more NFL than Tottenham Hotspur at home. The players strolled out for the national anthems to rapturous applause and the sight of thousands of fluttering flags, and it felt more like the Last Night of the Proms than yet another meaningless international.

And, in the end, the decidedly youthful crowd got the rousing crescendo they deserved. Not without a customary wobble, of course. Croatia looked to have pinched an utterly undeserved victory after a slipping and sliding Andrej Kramarić somehow retained his balance to skilfully loop his shot home. Cue a late comeback that was as ultimately unexpected as it was thrilling.

First Jesse Lingard levelled the score. Then Harry Kane scraped home the winner. Finally, the full-time whistle blew. As England celebrated the stadium announcer could not resist blaring out the now infamous Three Lions — the song which supposedly single-handedly fired Croatia to the World Cup final.

For the second time in just five months then, England are through to the semi-finals of an international tournament. Perhaps more importantly: the nation’s rekindled love affair with this affable young team continues unabated.

Kane was named Man of the Match of course. His 20th international goal in just 35 appearances. But it is Southgate who is behind not only England’s Nations League success, but also their wider revival. Unlike the vast majority of his fellow young cosmopolitan coaches, he is not ideologically wedded to any one system or formation. Instead, he has over these past few months proven himself to be tactically flexible, always willing to adopt or discard starting line-ups and strategies dependent on the occasion, the opposition and the players he has available to him.

Gareth Southgate saluted the Wembley crowd

That takes guts. Especially considering the Kafkaesque management structure in place at The FA, where tactical continuity is seen as hard evidence that a wider ideological transformation is in place.

It was the same here. Against the United States, Southgate exhibited a new 4-3-3, afterwards claiming that the stylish 3-0 victory was — in spite of a geriatric Wayne Rooney — “a glimpse of the future”. He was bold enough to stick with that new formation and although the goals would come at the end of a frantic second-half, the intelligence of that decision was most obvious much earlier on.

In an inexplicably goalless opening half England were outstanding: repeatedly threatening from out wide, creating several goal-scoring opportunities and, perhaps most impressively of all, stifling that famous Croatian high-press.

It is one of the game’s great misconceptions that all it takes to press effectively is ten committed players and twenty bottomless lungs. Those things might help, but a good team press is also an exercise in communication and co-ordination: a meticulously rehearsed kaleidoscope of movement to rival anything seen in the synchronised swimming pool. Croatia are masters of it.

And yet here were England hassling and harrying them into mistakes, dominating possession and springing forward. Croatia weren’t just beaten. They were outplayed.

It was over a candlelit dinner in an expensive restaurant on the Black Sea that Southgate and Steve Holland first decided to roll the dice and play an unfamiliar 3-2-2-2 formation in Russia. But football doesn’t stand still. The emergence of a new crop of young players meant another change was necessary, and over the past week England have flourished in a variation of the 4-3-3 that both Roy Hodgson and — briefly — Sam Allardyce experimented with.

Whether Southgate adopts a new system for next summer’s Nations League finals in Portugal remains to be seen. You wouldn't bet against it. As you wouldn’t bet against it emphatically paying off. What strange, giddy times to be an England fan.

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