- Gareth Southgate's England developed a new self-belief
- The nation rediscovered its passion for international football
- Unexpectedly, Croatia grew in strength through the semi-final
By Laure James with England
England and their fans had begun to dream of a showpiece Final with geographical neighbours France. They were playing their most fluent football of the tournament and Kieran Trippier, who had been close to his first international goal for weeks, combined precision with composure for a sublime early opener.
Yet before long the Three Lions were running on empty. And whether it was the occasion, the panic of watching their FIFA World Cup™ dreams slipping away, or the fact that one of the competition’s least experienced sides couldn’t fast-track itself through world football’s education system quickly enough, it will be a painful period of introspection for this young group of players.
Of course, what will be easier to look back on are the new England’s qualities: this side, brave enough to write its own history, has done so in indelible ink. They proved lethal from set-pieces, deployed a modern system which plays to their strengths, and have shown themselves capable and unflustered when it comes to game management. Their team spirit was inspirational.
Records were broken, including the country’s largest ever margin for a World Cup victory, and Harry Kane is still on course to lift the adidas Golden Boot. For the 24-year old captain who emerged from an emotionally and physically bereft dressing room, however, this will be little consolation. For the first - and probably last - time, he’s looking to the recent past for comfort.
“It shows we can be up there,” said Kane. “It shows we can win knockout games, it shows we can get to the semi-finals. It’s a great foundation we have built over the last couple of years with the gaffer, and we’ve just got to carry that on. We are proud of what we’ve achieved, but we want more. We’re sad that we couldn’t give the fans here and back home a Final.
“It’s tough. We’re gutted, you know. We worked so hard. I’m sure there was stuff we could have done better, but we worked as hard as we could. It hurts, it’ll hurt for a while, but we can hold our heads up high.
"Maybe we dropped too deep at times. In big games, it’s small margins. There’s a lot we could have done better, but they played well. We’ve fallen a bit short. It just hurts. It shows we can win knockout games; the next stage is to go one further. We’ve got to dust ourselves down and go again in a couple of years.”
Ultimately, their supporters have been England’s motivation for success, and as the thousands joyfully celebrated Trippier’s goal from a direct free-kick (the first from an England player since David Beckham’s against Ecuador in 2006), the feeling was that the nation had rediscovered its heady passion for international football, not felt in almost thirty years. The fans remained in the stands for an hour after the final whistle, singing and celebrating a new era and a bright future.
Croatia stopped England from doing what they’re good at. Space was kept to a minimum, the channels were closed down and England’s wing-backs sat deeper, in anticipation of a counter-attack.
Moreover, rather than cowering through fatigue as the game grew on, the team who had come through two penalty shootouts to reach the semi-final became stronger. Ivan Perisic became more determined, Luca Modric dictated the tempo in midfield, and while Raheem Sterling was getting the better of Dejan Lovren, the Croatian defence had enough presence to prevent the England front-line from getting many shots away.
England are not yet the finished product. But they have not only written the opening chapters of their new history, but a blueprint for the generation that will follow them.