Things have changed since Croatia knocked the Three Lions out of the 2018 World Cup semi-final. In the coming weeks we will find out how much.
In Russia, Croatia’s technical ability and tactical nous took them from 1-0 down to win 2-1 in extra-time.
For England’s previous semi-finalist managers (Bobby Robson at the 1990 World Cup, Terry Venables at Euro 96), it was the end of the road. With Gareth Southgate, it felt like a step on the journey.
Teenagers Mason Mount, Phil Foden and Ryan Sessegnon were sent to Russia for work experience, watching the game against Tunisia and visiting the BBC television studio. For the first two out of three to be playing at this tournament is a good success rate.
Speaking over Zoom yesterday – unforeseeable three years ago – as a 22-year-old 16-cap international and European Cup winner, Mount sounded mature, intelligent and confident.
“When you’re playing for your country you have to step up when the moment’s there,” he said. The moment is here.
Mario Madzukic, scorer of Croatia’s winner, has retired along with Ivan Rakitic, Danijel Subasic and Ivan Strinic. Luka Modric is 35, still exceptional but Mount’s Chelsea demonstrated in May’s Champions League semi-final capable of being over-run without fresh legs around him. Mateo Kovacic is a doubt.
For England, Ashley Young has shuffled on, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard regressed – the latter’s upturn too late to make this squad. Yorkshiremen Kyle Walker and John Stones were written off, then written back in.
Above all, the team has had an exciting injection of youth in Mount, Foden, Jack Grealish, Reece James, Jude Bellingham, Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka.
Mount spoke of how Chelsea’s academy honed him, James and Rice (now at West Ham United), but what stands out is they do not stand out in this squad – the others have developed similarly. “We have players who can handle the ball, keep the ball, play possession football, create chances and be a threat,” he argues. “A lot of the squad are very technical, players that have had experience abroad, the boys from Germany (Borussia Dortmund’s Sancho and Bellingham), and Spain (Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Trippier). I played in Holland (loaned to Vitesse Arnhem).”
There is also a footballing intelligence which Mount personifies, the most adaptable of a group who can play anywhere between holding midfielder Rice and Harry Kane, who since 2018 has gone from out-and-out No 9 to just as happy dropping deep to link play. “It was very tactical,” says Mount of his upbringing.
“The focus wasn’t always too much on winning, it was a lot about learning how to play in tough games, how to swap formations or play in different positions.”
So many options can be a blessing and a curse. Southgate must leave very gifted players on the bench without upsetting harmony. Introducing them at the right time will be a skill.
England’s 2018 3-5-1-1 formation was set in stone. The following season it became a 4-3-3 which took four Nations League points off Croatia and in 2020-21 it shifted again, usually 3-4-3 against the elite. Southgate must balance tactics tailored to each game against stability.
Amidst all this sophistication is room for John Bull qualities.
“We talk about fearlessness, that desire to win,” says Mount. “We’ve never won a Euros before so we’re hungry to create history.”
With potentially six out of seven Wembley games, the experience of Russia blended with youthful vigour in a squad bearing comparison with some of the finest to wear the Three Lions, history will be written between now and July 11. Quite what it will say we are about to find out.