Sun, 13 Jun 2021 - 10:20 GMT
England’s last game in a European Championships produced one of the worst results in their history. Their most recent in a major tournament brought one of their greatest disappointments. There is a marked difference.
The 2-1 defeat to Iceland in Euro 2016 ranks alongside the 1950 World Cup loss to the United States in English football’s hall of infamy. They exited the 2018 World Cup by the same scoreline, 2-1, but to Croatia.
“We shouldn’t overlook the opportunity we had,” said Gareth Southgate then, but he was talking more about pride than regret. But it was just England’s third World Cup semi-final. They led for 63 minutes, lost their way and lost. They may never get a better chance to reach another World Cup final.Then Southgate said: “Go back 18 months and no one would have expected us to be in a semi-final of the World Cup.”
England didn’t expect. Now perhaps it does. The reunion with Croatia comes amid a different context. This is a more talented team, bolstered by the emergence of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Mason Mount, aided by the recruitment of Declan Rice, then an Ireland international, featuring a sizeable contingent of Champions League finalists and winners.
England have home advantage, potentially in six games and the last two times they could play tournament football at Wembley they won the 1966 World Cup and reached the semi-finals of Euro 96. They have lost a penalty shootout on home soil, but never a match on the biggest stages.
Factor in the sense that Croatia are in decline and England could expect. Mario Mandzukic, scorer of the 2018 winner, has retired from international football, along with Ivan Rakitic, whose axis with Luka Modric led to England being outpassed in Moscow.
And yet some caution is required. England can specialise in early anti-climaxes. They drew with Uruguay in their opening game in 1966 and Switzerland in their first match in 1996. Their tendency to make underwhelming starts to tournaments is especially apparent in the European Championship, where they have never won at the first attempt.
But since Bryan Robson struck after 27 seconds against France in 1982, England have only won three tournament openers, none against European opposition.
Now they begin against what promises to be their toughest group-stage rivals after a build-up that scarcely ranked as ideal.
Some nine of Southgate’s squad have not featured in the two friendlies. When the England manager said he knew 10 of his starting 11, it was both encouraging and confusing: he requires clarity of thought but for outsiders, there were plenty of selection dilemmas.
Some were a product of strength in depth, others of weakness, caused in part by the injuries to Harry Maguire, who should not feature, and Jordan Henderson, who has played 45 minutes since February. There were questions about the shape with suggestions that, for the first time in his England career, Luke Shaw could play on the left of a back three.
The broader question is whether England have addressed their failings that led to their undoing in 2018. Then Southgate proved he could construct a fine initial game plan but struggled to react when the game changed. England have more options now, though that is no guarantees the substitutes will exert a greater influence.
England’s historic struggles against passers who can dictate play highlight the kind of player they don’t produce. Modric’s 2018 display formed a sequel to Andrea Pirlo’s 2012 and 2014 performances.
Minus Rakitic, he could be joined by Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic; the ethos will be the same. For England, in a game laced with history, the danger is that history repeats itself.