13 Jul England’s World Cup journey comes to a heartbreaking end in Moscow
There was something eerily poetic about the rain returning to British shores on Thursday morning, just mere hours after the golden summer of 2018 came to an end for Gareth Southgate and his overachieving team in Russia.
England fell to an impressive Croatia side in the second semi-final of the 2018 World Cup as Luka Modric took complete control of the match from the middle of the second half. Kieran Trippier’s incredible 5th-minute free-kick handed the Three Lions an early lead, but it was missed chances that plagued their first half.
Harry Kane spurned a glorious opportunity to double their lead only for Croatia to come back into the match after halftime.
England’s journey to the Luzhniki Stadium was one which brought the country together in a way reminiscent of Italia 90. Fans watched the matches together and genuinely believed in the team for a change. This is a feeling that will last, especially with England now due to restart their travelling tour around the country, instead of playing every match at Wembley.
Unfortunately, for all the positives of the campaign, you get nothing for losing a, and this latest chapter of pain for supporters will sting all the more when you consider how well the World Cup draw opened up.
Germany, Spain and Italy will all be back in the future, and England will rue their missed opportunity, even if they exceeded expectations.
As ‘Don’t look back in anger’ played around a half-empty Luzhniki Stadium, the travelling supporters sang along. It was a remarkably apt moment, although they were soon treated to England’s players and coaching staff returning to the pitch to thank them for their support.
It was a moment of togetherness between the two parties, one which hasn’t been present for a long time, and that’s the real success of the campaign in Russia, even if it doesn’t feel like it at this precise moment.
Memories have been created for everyone involved, especially the playing squad, and the signs are present for a positive future.
Southgate’s use of various coaching methods has allowed England to utilise a new playing style, one which depends on retaining possession. Throughout the first half against Croatia, it was England who controlled proceedings, and they kept their opponents at bay by recycling the ball throughout their defensive line and then springing forward with Raheem Sterling.
It was telling that after Manchester City’s forward was substituted England lost their attacking impetus. Making the most of set-pieces was a vital facet of the team’s strategy in Russia, and it was intriguing to watch how every kind of delivery had been worked on before the tournament.
Often international coaches bemoan the lack of time they get to spend with their players, working on tactical systems, but one of the former Middlesbrough boss’ most significant achievements was just how efficient he was with his time with the group.
Yet, for as much as things change they instead stay the same. Individual quality was the difference maker in Moscow as Modric was Croatia’s best performer. His passing was a joy to behold, and it was something even more intricate which punished England.
Prior to kick off the belief in England was that the Croatians would fatigue quicker due to the fact they had played two full extra-time periods in their previous knockout fixtures. Modric’s work from midfield negated this physical fatigue as he played short passes across the width of the pitch, not making much ground, but it pulled England’s wide players across in short five-yard shuttle runs.
These eventually took their toll and England looked a spent force by extra time, even if John Stones’ header that was cleared off the line could have made things oh so different.
Euro 2020 will now take on the newfound importance for England, they have emerged as real contenders for the title, they have a playing style that teams find difficult to defend against, and it leaves England in control for large portions of matches.
Southgate has earned his extended contract, and the work he’s done thus far has been nothing short of phenomenal. The end is altogether too familiar though, heartbreak.
Croatia’s achievement in reaching the final must be appreciated, especially when you consider the off-field struggles the nation has been forced to overcome in recent times, things which extend far beyond the perceived importance of sport.
A nation which is smaller in population than London, Zlatko Dalic has done an excellent job in steering them to Sunday’s World Cup final. France will be the toughest opponents they have faced to this point, but there is every chance Croatia could cause an upset and deliver a miracle to their country.
England now has to bounce back, and ironically their first opportunity to do so will be in Croatia in the UEFA Nations League.
These matches will provide Southgate even more of an opportunity to develop his team and the future is undoubtedly brighter for England than in recent years, but that doesn’t make yet another semi-final defeat any easier to take.