England have taken just 10 players to the Euros that were at the 2018 World Cup. Yet Gareth Southgate is nothing if not loyal. Raheem Sterling probably did not – all things considered – warrant a starting spot for England. Yet, it was the Manchester City man who delivered the crucial goal against a subdued Croatia to seal England a 1-0 opening win at the Euros.
Further, Southgate selected no fewer than five - John Stones, Kyle Walker, Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Sterling – of the seven Champions League final-participating contingent that missed the warm-up matches. The two players that missed out were Ben Chilwell and Reece James.
It was a gamble. And one that nearly paid dividends immediately when Foden hit the post following smart work from Sterling with six minutes gone. However, just as in the semi-final of three years ago, England faded as the first half and then the game wore on as, perhaps, early game adrenaline wore off and a lack of chemistry came to the fore.
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Yet, while England have grown in the three years since that semi-final, Croatia have wilted and are a now a weaker proposition. Zlatko Dalic’s side asked few questions of the Three Lions and have now won just two of their last 10 games – against Cyprus (1-0) and Malta (3-0) – and the Three Lions will be given far greater examinations of their credentials.
Croatia punished English hesitancy at the Luzhniki Stadium but they no longer seem to have the tools to do so.
Nominally a 4-2-3-1 but often it morphed into a 4-3-3 with Mount dropping in alongside Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, with the responsibility of cutting supply lines to Luka Modric falling on Rice and Mount.
With Rice and Mount tasked with Modric duties, it was left to Phillips to parole the rest of the midfield area and the Leeds star was excellent. Further forward, Sterling picked up the player of the match award but this clash was won in midfield and Phillips was central to that.
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BIG WINNER – Kalvin Phillips
No question here. There has been clamour for the excellent Jude Bellingham to start but Phillips was exceptional for much of the match. He disrupted Croatia’s tempo, set England’s and laid on the winner.
He should be the first name on the teamsheet come Friday.
BIG LOSER – England’s left side
Kieran Trippier is a fine ball-playing right-back. However, he can’t replicate that efficiency on the left because, put simply, he is not a left-back and not left-footed.
England struggled to progress the ball on the left at any sort of pace and it was of little surprise that Sterling grabbed his goal when he came away from his berth on that side. Sterling was able to benefit from England's more efficient work on the right, where the ball was progressed forward with far greater speed.
England need to replicate that on the left and the easiest and quickest way to do so is to station a left-footer on that side.
Pickford 6 - The Everton keeper dealt with Croatia’s only shot on target with ease. He was rarely troubled and distributed the ball well throughout.
Walker 6 - Perisic remains one of Croatia’s most potent attacking threats but was marshalled extremely well by the Manchester City right-back. However, Walker, who steps into midfield at club level, offered little as a threat moving forward.
Stones 6 - It is difficult to evaluate the performance of a centre-half when the opposition posed so few questions. However, Stones was solid on the ball and composed when called upon.
Mings 6 - The same applies to Mings, who, bar the odd occasion, was rarely called upon to perform more than modest defensive duties. However, that side of the England defence remains a problem. Harry Maguire's reputation grows with every passing game.
Trippier 5 - He stole the ball from Atleti colleague Sime Vrsaljko early in the second-half before charging away down the left. However, his inability to whip a ball either down the channel or into Kane at centre-forward crystallised the folly of playing a right-footer at left-back.
Phillips 9 - After an average showing in the final warm-up game against Romania, the Leeds player exerted far more influence here. He was excellent - diligent in his pressing, resolute in his positioning and displayed a full range of passing. His excellence was epitomised by the England goal as he broke free from the attention of three Croatia defenders before slipping in Sterling.
Rice 7 - The West Ham midfielder has developed a more rounded game over the last year and a half but he excelled here in the basics, operating as a protective shield ahead of the England defence.
Sterling 8 - The argument that Sterling did not warrant a starting spot was not without merit, However, he set up Foden early on and there were flashes of his class throughout. He scored the crucial goal that secured a winning start for England and also offered Kieran Trippier excellent cover. A performance full of industry and class.
Mount 6 - A typically scurrying performance best exemplified by a ferocious challenge early in the second half that saw Kovacic booked. However, there was little of the creative garnish that’s seen in a Chelsea shirt. England needed a focal point in midfield and Mount was unable to provide it.
Foden 6 - A couple of flashes of excellence – most notably an early effort that came back off the post – but was unable to exert much influence over the game and was subbed.
Kane 6 - The England captain led the line well and produced a wonderful decoy run for the winner. However, he failed to fashion a clear sight of goal over the course of the game and was subbed late on.
Rashford 6 - When he moved up front, he offered a threat in behind that Kane could not - a great outlet.
Bellingham 6 - Exudes calm. Incredible he is just 17.
Calvert-Lewin - N/A
This was a promising start against a team who are on the wane. There are issues to be worked through – namely on the left side of the defence. However, Croatia remain a collection of players – if not a team – that are able to punish profligacy. England were comfortable without dominating, and bigger tests will come.
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