Football's not coming home but Gareth Southgate is building something to be proud of

Lawrence Ostlere
The Independent

Croatia are into the World Cup final and England are going home. England went ahead through Kieran Trippier’s free-kick are five minutes but spurned presentable chances to go two ahead, and were eventually punished by Ivan Perisic’s equaliser.

England appeared to tire in extra time and were finally seen off when Mario Mandzukic reacted quickest to Perisic’s header to smash the ball past Jordan Pickford.

Here are five things we learned:

Could Southgate have shuffled his pack?

It is easy to say with hindsight, but England finished this match with the look of a team who ran out of puff. It would have been a brave call by Southgate to change a winning team, a team which almost went 2-0 ahead before half-time, but in the second half it seemed clear that Dele Alli was stretched, that Ashley Young was being pulled this way and that, that Raheem Sterling’s influence was dwindling. Harry Kane could barely move in extra time and Kieran Trippier hobbled off.

READ MORE: England player ratings after heartbreaking Croatia loss

READ MORE: England’s World Cup dream ended by Croatia

Could Southgate have made changes coming into this game? Could he have used some of the fresh legs from his bench? Had he done so and lost he would have faced criticism, so perhaps there was no way of winning. But there was no denying that England left this World Cup a shadow of the energetic side that started it.

Croatia deserve credit

Croatia had been something of a basket case heading into this World Cup. There is the court case hanging over Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren, the change in management during qualifying, the constant tinkering of tactics before Russia.

In the tournament they have changed personnel and formation throughout, as Zlatko Dalic searched for a combination that worked. He seems to have found that in this 4-3-3, but the players should take most of the credit for adapting to everything thrown at them in this World Cup, and earning their place in the final.

Croatia-Win.jpg
Croatia-Win.jpg

(Getty Images)

Trippier, Southgate’s masterplan

What was Trippier’s first professional goal? A curling free-kick from 25 yards. His second? A curling free-kick from 25 yards. His career has been a slow burner, showing promise at Barnsley, quietly impressing at Burnley, patiently waiting at Tottenham, and it is hard to conclude anything other than that this must have been another one of Gareth Southgate’s cunning plans, a stroke of genius to scurry away the best right foot in English football for the past eight years in order to unfurl it in all its glory in the fifth minute of a World Cup semi-final.

And what a right foot. He doesn’t drive his foot straight through the ball, nor does he wrap it round. Instead he finds a sweet spot between the two, a furious whip that imparts bend and dip. The first-time volleyed cross halfway through the second period was sublime, while his delivery from set-pieces was consistently on point. It is not an exaggeration to say that in England’s best tournament since 1990, since the days of Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker, their best player was Kieran Trippier.

Trippier.jpg
Trippier.jpg

(AP)

England’s new dawn

When the pain subsides and the montage fades, this will be remembered as a campaign when England came together to achieve far more than anyone could have expected. Yes, it was a missed opportunity, but perhaps the bigger picture is that this was the start of something greater, something new. A shift to trust technical football and technical footballers. A change of mindset, no longer fearing penalties, or failure, or anything at all. It will take a while, but there is a silver lining somewhere.

France are the favourites

This was an opportunity not just to reach a World Cup final but to send out a message that the tournament could be won. England went out and Croatia struggled on, but neither looked like a side capable of beating France. Croatia will go to the final in Moscow, but they will go as huge underdogs.

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