Written by Toby Foster (@TobyFost)
For England, this was a chance to inflict revenge. A competitive fixture, three months on from their frenzied World Cup summer of surprise, against the very team who had brought that dream run to such a disappointing conclusion.
Croatia were the side who had gone one better than England. They were the killjoys, the hope-crushers, the unlikely spotlight-stealers, but above all – according to their FA Director Davor Suker’s pompous pre-match statement – ‘the Vice-Champions of the World’.
The UEFA Nations League, for all the to-ing and fro-ing about its validity, appeal and coherence as an international tournament, had neatly provided England with a golden opportunity to test Suker’s claim. This was the night to right wrongs, excise demons and quite literally settle old scores.
It was never going to be the World Cup semi-final all over again – there was no grand anticipation, no crowds congregated with beer to throw, no half-ironic, half-hopeful jeers of ‘It’s coming home’. Gareth Southgate was bereft of his waistcoat, the TV pictures were bereft of Clive Tyldesley’s assured tones, and (most jarringly of all) the match itself was bereft of a crowd. UEFA sanctions on Croatia had dictated that this game must be played behind closed doors.
But though the only thing needed to complete the scene as the two sides emerged to numbing silence was a tumbleweed to blow across the pitch, this audience-less match was still a chance to show the football world that Southgate’s youth-orientated England project is beginning to bear more fruit.
Yet remarkably, the opportunity was well and truly squandered. Croatia, despite missing their now retired star striker Mario Mandzukic, looked comfortable all night against an England side which promised so much on paper and yet delivered so little on the pitch.
After underwhelming performances against Spain and Switzerland last month, Southgate opted to stray away from his favoured 3-5-2 formation and experiment with 4-3-3. From this, the creative Ross Barkley could be accommodated in midfield alongside stalwarts Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier. Meanwhile, Harry Kane’s goalscoring threat would be complemented by the pace of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling on the flanks.
But England’s front three created surprisingly little in the way of goalscoring chances throughout this dull, lifeless contest. Kane was well marshalled by Croatian centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, whilst Sterling yet again was unable to translate his impressive form for Manchester City into a creditable performance in an England shirt. Rashford too had a night to forget – twice put through on goal, he recorded a pair of tame, hapless misses. Rashford’s performance perhaps vindicated club manager Jose Mourinho’s comments about the young striker’s recent struggles stemming from a lack of confidence rather than an absence of ability.
Just as in the World Cup, set pieces were where England did look at their most threatening – Dier and Kane proved so when striking the woodwork from a corner and freekick respectively. But the benched Kieran Trippier’s mastery from the dead ball was much missed, as the man who gave England the lead in the World Cup semi-final was this time forced to watch from the sidelines as his former Tottenham teammate Kyle Walker lined up at right-back.
Croatia’s Andrej Kramaric forced a smart first-half save from Jordan Pickford in the home side’s only real chance of note. Manager Zlatko Dalic may be somewhat miffed that midfielders Ivan Rakitic and FIFA Best Men’s Player Winner Luka Modric, both so impressive in the World Cup, were unable to fashion any shots on target between them.
For England, it was debutants Ben Chilwell and Jadon Sancho who made sure the performance was not all doom and gloom. Chilwell, only in the side as a result of injuries to Luke Shaw and Danny Rose, staked a confident claim to become England’s first choice left-back in the future, whilst Sancho’s 15-minute cameo was full of promise and eagerness to attack. The 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund winger’s youthful exuberance brought back memories of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling’s own bold first entrances into the England side. With Sancho’s commitment now clear to see, Southgate may find himself tempted to give the young gun more game-time on Monday against Spain in The Three Lions’ altogether more enticing Nations League clash of this international break.
England, on just one point from two games in this tournament, now have much to prove in Seville. But it is perhaps because of this fact that Jadon Sancho, full of hunger and drive, may yet be just the player Southgate needs right now on the world stage.
Pickford – Only one save to make but was assured in his distribution and comfortable on the ball. Now hard to see him being challenged for the #1 shirt in the foreseeable future. 7/10
Walker – Set up Rashford’s first one-on-one, confident going forward and made a convincing case to stay at right-back rather than be deployed as a centre-half. 7
Stones – Solid enough and positive in his movement. Very much one of the first names on the England teamsheet these days, although will miss the Spain clash due to a booking suspension. 7
Maguire – Sloppy. Lax in possession and looked ill at ease in this back four. 5
Chilwell – A promising debut. Proved a handful and got forward plenty of times. Should get another spin against Spain too- he deserves a run of games based on this inspired performance. 7 STAR MAN
Henderson – Southgate’s Mr Reliable, but lack of creativity remains an issue. Sat too deep. 6
Dier – Another plodding, unambitious, pedestrian showing. Not enough resourcefulness or desire to go forward. Harry Winks and James Maddison will wonder what more they need to do to displace him. 5
Barkley – Not enough shown first half but improved as the contest wore on. Still some way off the Barkley of old but the signs are encouraging. 6
Sterling – Another disappointing outing from a player well capable of more. Nice movement here and there but did little to suggest his record of 2 goals in 45 England games is likely to improve. 5
Rashford – Confidence clearly shot; squandered two golden one-on-one chances. 5
Kane – Starved of oxygen up front but may feel slightly aggrieved not to have put away his crossbar-hitting header. Has now gone six England games without a goal. 6
Sub: Sancho (for Sterling, 78’)– Showed plenty of vim and vigour on his England debut and looks to have pace to burn. Deserves more minutes against Spain. 7
Livakovic 7, Jedvaj 7, Lovren 7, Vida 7, Pivaric 6, Kovacic 6, Rakitic 6, Kramaric 6, Modric 6, Perisic 7, Rebic 5 Subs: Pjaca (for Perisic, 68’) 5, Badelj (for Kovacic, 78’) 6, Livaja (for Rebic, 80’) 5