For England, it was a job done. It wasn’t the prettiest victory, and there are areas that will require significant improvement if Gareth Southgate’s team wants to advance to the Euro, but a 1-0 win against the World Cup finalist is never something to be ruled out, especially given this. it was the first time that England won their first match at a European Championship.
Certainly, there was a lot more to worry about Croatia. They have lost four players since the World Cup, when they beat England in the semi-final, and the attempt to bring in younger talents has not been entirely successful. Until the last 20 minutes or so, when England, who usually do with Southgate, fell eerily deep, Croatia seemed slow and uninspired. It’s the early days, but that’s emerging as a theme in this championship – Western European teams look faster and sharper than eastern ones.
England’s first problem was off the pitch. There were boos from England fans as the players knelt, but this time, unlike the two pre-tournament friendlies, they were immediately countered with applause that almost drowned out the jeers. The same top section of Wembley also booed the Croatian anthem, a notable difference from the relaxed cheer when the Euros last arrived in England, in 1996.
On the England side, the only real surprise was the inclusion of Kieran Trippier, more naturally a right back, as a left back. With Harry Maguire out until at least Game 3 of the group, and Tyrone Mings, who had looked shaky in the last two friendlies, operating in his place as the left wing of the two central defenders, perhaps it made sense to have a more natural defensive player. there than Luke Shaw or Ben Chilwell, but Trippier’s tendency to look inward with his right foot made it harder for him to overlap, and that had a ripple effect on Raheem Sterling.
Sterling was an expected selection, but not indisputable. He has gotten along well with Harry Kane before, but has been in a bad mood for the past few months. Every now and then his pace threatened to get behind the Croatian defense, as it had in that World Cup semi-final, but that danger was sporadic and his isolation compounded his natural tendency to falter when out of shape.
But when the opportunity came after 57 minutes, Sterling seized it, almost. Kalvin Phillips, England’s best player of the day, did so with a diagonal dart from deep to take advantage of a forward pass from Kyle Walker. Having outplayed a defender, he slid for a second before feeding Sterling, whose blow came through the hand of Dominik Lovakovic, his first goal in a major championship. A whip with the left foot on a very good opportunity 17 minutes later was embarrassingly deflected.
There were two other areas of contention in the selection. Mings himself was solid enough, albeit under little pressure from largely toothless Croatia. And then there was Phil Foden, preferred over popular choice Jack Grealish. However, he never looks as effective on the right as he does on the left, and his involvement was intermittent before being replaced by Marcus Rashford.
England started the game extremely positively. It seemed more aggressive than Croatia. Foden, coming in from the right, hit the post and Phillips landed an awkward low save from Lovakovic with a volley through the crowd after a corner had been half cleared. But when the breakthrough did not come and the adrenaline wore off, England became a bit anxious, as had happened in both the opening match of Euro 96 and the World Cup semi-final three years ago, and her demise was came back less decisive. The pace slowed, much of the game was played against the Croatian midfield and Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic became more influential.
Maybe it was the heat, but there was a worrying lethargy early in the second half. This felt like a very familiar England pattern. But just as the moans began to become audible, the breakthrough occurred. Harry Kane, who rarely prevailed, was denied a second over a brilliant challenge from Duje Caleta-Car, but after that the game became largely a matter of keeping Croatia at arm’s length.
England did quite well, and a sticky afternoon may offer some excuse, but they will need more sustained intensity, more penetration, against better teams. Tournaments are not won in the first week and at least some of the immediate pressure is gone. The platform is there to be built.
More Euro 2020 coverage:
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.