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England can learn two things from this World Cup

Saturday 14th July 2018

If there was a way to prove it, I would lay serious money on playing to the whistle being the most difficult lesson to both learn and remember. I mean in life as well as football but let’s stick with the latter rather than getting into a theological argument.

Today’s footballer is especially susceptible to switching off. He makes tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds or euros per week. All he’s asked to do is care for his fitness and kick a ball around to entertain people with real problems. When you have it that good, the notion nothing bad can happen to you is breaking down the door to your consciousness without a warrant.

Bad things do happen, however, especially when you don’t play to the whistle.

England came into this tournament with few expectations. The players were mostly young and naive. Their manager was inexperienced. But they worked hard, kept a positive attitude and, for 548 minutes, played to the whistle.

That discipline carried England through three group games, extra time and penalties [!] against Colombia, then comfortably past an even more regimented but slightly less talented Sweden into Albion’s first World Cup semifinal since 1990. It even took them through the first half against Croatia during which they decisively controlled the match and maintained the slim lead Kieran Trippier’s free kick gave them five minutes in.

Gareth Southgate has exhibited excellent attention to detail since taking over for Sam Allardyce, whose failure to do so limited his tenure to a single match and one foolish evening of braggadocio. At the half, you must believe Southgate warned his squad Croatia had come from behind to win both their knockout matches and that 45 dangerous minutes remained in which England could not switch off.

At some point, especially after everything has gone so swimmingly that confident young minds realise they have travelled further than legends who came before them, it seems like reaching the final is written in the stars. It is not. The plain truth is destiny is never a script written by someone else. It is always an autobiography. England’s youngsters dared to believe otherwise. In the second half. They switched off, didn’t play to the whistle.

Early on there were some loose passes that weren’t seen earlier. John Stones nearly played Croatia in on goal with a lazy backpass that an alert Jordan Pickford managed to reach first. Twenty minutes after the restart, Kyle Walker had the wind knocked out of him in a collision. After extended treatment, he stood gingerly, then drank half a water bottle as he walked to the touchline. When he returned, he wasn’t fully focused; his head was no longer on a swivel. A cross came into the box. He waited on its arrival but failed to consider an opponent might come from behind. Ivan Perisic did. The winger rose over Walker and headed the equaliser home.

Doubt clouded England XI’s collective mind. They tried to remember what they should do but their thoughts were no longer clear.

In extra time, an innocent header rose in the England 18 like a lazy pop fly on a baseball infield. Mario Mandzukic saw it rise, his back to goal. Nursing an unspecified muscle injury, the Juventus assassin had been on the carpet several times since the 80th minute, just as he had in every game since the Argentina match in the group stage. Ten feet behind him, John Stones had the same view. The Manchester City defender was nearer to where the ball would come down, and in much better shape, but Mandzukic reacted first. He not only played to the whistle but through his pain. When Stones finally gave chase, it was too late. The Croatian had time to take a touch then drive the ball beyond the helpless Pickford.

England had switched off and paid for it. Croatia had refused to stop and were rewarded for their persistence.

That said, there was one other telling difference between the Three Lions and Blazers. Croatia had not one but two talented playmakers in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. England had none.

This World Cup has been dominated by teams who can run at defenders whether it be on the counter or after a brief build-up. England have such players in abundance. So do the other semifinalists. But Belgium also have Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne to unlock defences with pinpoint through balls and intricate one-twos in tight spaces. France have Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann.

For some reason, fate has not tolerated a trequartista in England colours since Paul Scholes was a young lad. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick, Scholes in his later years, were all registas. There could have been two at this tournament under different circumstances.

Jack Wilshere’s entire career, let alone the international portion, has been checked by injury. He was healthy at season’s end this term but world-class form requires a consistent run of games year in, year out. Xavi Hernandez once rated Wilshere as the next great playmaker. Fate intervened. Repeatedly.

The other possibility was something of a surprise. Like Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had struggled for playing time at Arsenal. In his case, injury was only partially to blame. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez’s presence limited his opportunities. Arsene Wenger had even tried to turn him into a right-back before the second-generation talent had enough and forced a transfer.

Little changed when he first arrived at Anfield. Liverpool had Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Mo Salah. Then Coutinho forced his own transfer. Jurgen Klopp found himself short a playmaker. Ox stepped up. His work was so impressive, he became intrinsic to both the German and Gareth Southgate’s plans. A knee injury against Roma in the Champions League ended his World Cup dream and left England in familiar territory.

Beyond the youthful naivete that finally caught up with the Three Lions, their weakness was scoring from open play. Only three goals from their twelve arrived in that fashion. The final ball was missing.

The philosophy in England is changing. Harry Kane, who only scored one goal from open play in Russia, sorely missed his Tottenham provider, Christian Eriksen. Manchester City have David Silva. Pep Guardiola added Bernardo last summer, foreseeing the 32-year-old Spaniard’s decline. West Ham had young Manuel Lanzini, who joined Oxlade-Chamberlain in the orthopaedist’s office just before the tournament. How Argentina could have used him. Now they have Wilshere. With Fred now at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho seems ready to take Pogba off his leash to romp in the final third. Arsenal and Germany have Ozil but that brings the conversation full circle to not switching off before I make the point there are no young Englishman being groomed as trequartistas. Clubs must import them.

England needs to start developing their own Modrics and De Bruynes if this generation is to be both successful and golden.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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