Something strange happens as you approach Wembley Stadium. It vanishes. The sweeping white arch you’ve been fixing your gaze on for the last three miles of your journey suddenly disappears behind a forest of fancy new high-rise apartments. The vast edifice that looks like an entrance is actually a business hotel. Somehow, the closer you get to one of the world’s most famous stadiums, the less you can see of it.
For what feels like for ever, Gareth Southgate and his team have had the satnav pointed at this stadium, this game, this date. Every friendly, every training camp, every hopeful trek to the Amex and Turf Moor, has been aimed at this point.
Croatia. Wembley. 13 June. And yet somehow the closer we got, the less we could see of it. Instead, the prologue to England’s biggest home fixture in a generation ended up getting obscured in petty bickering, in pointless arguments over fourth-choice right-backs, in a confected war over anti-racism gestures.
Perhaps the hardest part of an international tournament is maintaining your focus amid this gauntlet of confusions. And at half-time in this game, England looked as if they had lost themselves a little. As if the noise of the last few weeks had drowned out their thoughts. As if they couldn’t see the wood for the knees.
On a baking afternoon, they had started brightly but run themselves into confusing dead ends. Croatia and Luka Modric seemed to have the game on strings. In England’s own garden, a familiar setting, a stadium festooned with home comforts and the reassuring motifs of the past, a team featuring six of the players who started the 2018 World Cup semi-final between these sides seemed to be sleepwalking towards a very similar outcome.
There are few footballing nations as instinctively nostalgic as the English. And for fans of a certain age, as well as large sections of the media, a lot of the mood music around England this tournament has been instinctively tinged with a yearning for Euro 96 or Russia 2018 to happen all over again. What is Three Lions, after all, if not a wistful lament for the past, a plea for things to be as they once were?
But this is not 1996 and Phil Foden is not Gazza and on Wembley Way at 1.15pm there were fans desperately administering nasal swabs to themselves in an attempt to get a negative test in time for kick-off. It is the present that is a foreign country these days.
Southgate, for his part, had made his own concession to nostalgia by starting a right-footer at left-back, just for old times’ sake. And as the game began to slow to Croatia’s pace, as England began to wilt a little at the edges, Southgate seemed to be stuck in his own 2018 time warp, a slow death of slow passing and predictable movement. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the man to break England free of the past was one of their newest players.
This time last year Kalvin Phillips was a virtual unknown playing in the Championship with Leeds. But Southgate had already spotted something there: not simply a willing engine and a sound technical base but that rarest of qualities in the English midfielder. Unlike many players who like time and space on the ball – and instinctively, who doesn’t? – Phillips seems to prefer it when the midfield is packed to suffocation, when the breath is hot on his neck, when the margins are at their finest and the tackles are snapping in from all directions.
Phillips does not have the passing range of a Jordan Henderson or the immaculate reading of a Declan Rice or the effortless class of a Jude Bellingham. But in the most congested area of the pitch, he demands the ball and gets the ball and almost always does something useful with it.
The less time you give him, the more he seems to enjoy it. He is brilliant at finding the little pockets of space that turn a simple passing move into a dangerous attack. And thus it was here, just before the hour, as he surged into the right channel to latch on to Walker’s pass.
In the space of a couple of a seconds, Phillips had turned, ridden one challenge and slid Raheem Sterling in for the only goal of the game. It was a goal of infinitesimal margins: the exact run and the exact pass and the exact finish all aligned. And during these 90 inspired minutes, Phillips offered something new and hopeful: a vision of English midfield play based not on Hollywood passes or bloody head bandages or 30-yard screamers, but on quiet, restless excellence.
England seemed to creep into Russia almost apologetically. As if they were spurned lovers at our door asking us to give them another chance. The subtext to this tournament has been quite different. This is a team surer of itself, more confident in its own skin, less contingent on our approval on and off the field.
How many times have we seen England choke under this sort of spotlight: bewildered, distracted, lost in the noise? Here, instead they outran and outpassed a very good Croatia side who were supposed to overwhelm them in midfield. And they did it with an unheralded midfielder inspired by the teachings of Marcelo Bielsa. Maybe, just maybe, this time won’t be like the others.