Dean Ashton Q&A: I was surprised by how tired England looked

England’s unexpected run to the World Cup’s final four came to a halt when Croatia beat Gareth Southgate’s side 2-1 in extra time on Wednesday.

Related: England out after Mandzukic’s extra-time strike sends Croatia to World Cup final

The Three Lions’ semi-final effectively ended with Mario Mandzukic’s goal in the 109th minute, and there are few people more upset after that result than Dean Ashton.

In his final World Cup Q&A with theScore, the former England striker said he believes Harry Kane has had a quiet tournament despite his six goals, expressed his surprise at how tired the team looked, and admitted he doesn’t care about the third-place play-off.

How is your mood after the match?

Dean Ashton: I’m devastated. When you go out like that it’s heartbreaking, but in the same token it’s hard not to feel super proud of the players.

Is it refreshing to end a tournament without a national scapegoat?

DA: Yes. You only have to look at the supporters and the feelings we’ve had in getting to the semi-finals. Although it’s devastating right now I think you’ve got to appreciate what that young team has done for us all. It’s lifted us and given us faith for the national side again. It’s just hard to see through the devastation right now.

Going back to happier times, how was the reaction to Kieran Trippier’s free-kick at your house?

DA: Incredible. It just erupted – hugs and everyone up on their feet. It was brilliant. We were excellent in the first half, we dominated Croatia and made them look ordinary. We were all getting the feeling that it could be like Sweden where we’re just too good for them. You start to think about the possibility of getting into the final, but Croatia are a top side and they showed that.

Harry Kane’s first-half miss was initially flagged offside. But, if he had netted his effort, it would have likely been allowed following video review. Does a miss like that weigh on your mind a few days after?

DA: Any chances you miss as a striker play on your mind. For him, that’s the type of thing he’ll never forget throughout his whole career because of the magnitude of the game. There’s no need to criticise – they’re split-second moments, and he did what he thought was right – because this tournament can’t come down to one moment.

Kane had a couple of half-chances, but for the most part he was quiet. How did Croatia do that?

DA: He’s been pretty quiet for the whole tournament. He’s not been involved as much as people have thought because he’s going to be the Golden Boot winner in my eyes. He hasn’t had that many shots and that many chances because of the way we played. At times he can be isolated, as we certainly don’t give him a lot of service from balls being cut back from wide areas. He’s done very well to get the goals he has, and he’ll probably look back on the tournament and feel he didn’t have as many chances as he would have liked.

Were you disappointed with how deep England sat to begin the second half?

DA: Yes, but you always knew Croatia were going to come out and try and dominate. Human nature is to sit back and hold the lead, but I think with a bit more experience and quality we could’ve been on the front foot which would have been better. But I can’t really criticise the players as it’s human nature to try and see it out.

Was Raheem Sterling being substituted after 74 minutes a surprise?

DA: Not really. He’d done very well but maybe his quality wasn’t as good in the other games when he was making very good runs. (Sterling’s replacement Marcus) Rashford is a very good player in his own right. The defeat was more of a team thing. I don’t think there are any individuals you can blame. As a team we got deeper and deeper, and didn’t play with as much quality as we did in the first half.

You have to give credit to Croatia. They were really good in that second half, showed the quality players they’ve got, and it eventually was just a step too far for us.

How did you rate Southgate’s substitutions in general? I thought they were very like-for-like and didn’t really change the approach until Jamie Vardy came on.

DA: Yeah, I agree, but when he turns around to his bench I don’t think there’s a vast amount of quality to go ‘right, we can bring him on and that’s going to change the game.’ He’s just got like-for-like substitutions.

That’s where we’re at, our strength lies as a team. The team as a whole have been brilliant; the way we played in that certain formation has worked, and I think praise is due in finding a system that works for us. We now just need to try and add more quality to that squad.

Jesse Lingard has been a great player for the system, but he looked extremely tired during extra time. Should he have been withdrawn?

DA: You could look at a lot of players who got tired. When the other team starts to dominate the ball you will get tired. I don’t think you can ask for any more from the players, I thought they gave absolutely everything. Maybe, as the game wore on, the experience told in how to manage the game, keep the ball, and be positive. We seemed to lack that, and that’s where Croatia had the edge – certainly in extra time.

How did an older Croatia squad appear to be the team with the most energy while playing in its third-straight match with extra time?

DA: They had more of the ball, which helped. When you’ve got the ball you don’t have to do quite as much work. Also, experience tells in usage of the ball and identifying the opposition’s weaknesses.

We struggled in midfield. At times Jordan Henderson looked isolated and they started to really dominate the midfield. It was getting more and more difficult for Dele Alli and Lingard to get back and support Henderson. When you lose that midfield battle it’s very, very difficult to win any game, and once Croatia got a grip of that they weren’t going to let go.

Did Mandzukic’s winner – John Stones seemed to momentarily switch off when the attacker got in behind before firing past Jordan Pickford – come down to fatigue or inexperience?

DA: Definitely fatigue. A lack of concentration. But that’s a striker’s job: to anticipate where the ball is going to go before the defender does. Mandzukic did it brilliantly; he expected that ball to be headed down behind Stones and for it to fall for him, and it did. Stones and Harry Maguire didn’t expect it.

It was the same with the Ivan Perisic goal. Trippier and Kyle Walker are not expecting the ball to land where it does, but Perisic does. They were both sloppy goals and the defenders will kick themselves.

Were you disappointed by any particular individuals in Moscow?

DA: No. Individually none of them disappointed me. It just surprised me how tired they looked, especially considering how much football Croatia have had to play. First half we were excellent, but it amazed me how suddenly tired we looked. That’s the only criticism I have. Other than that, it was an immense team effort to try and get through.

We’ve discussed how good Ryan Sessegnon is, and Ryan Bertrand is still on the periphery. Do you think this could’ve been 33-year-old Ashley Young’s last game for England?

DA: I’m not too sure. It depends how he plays for Manchester United when he goes back. I think if he keeps his form going he’s a player that Southgate rates and trusts. A lot depends on other players. If Danny Rose gets himself properly fit he’s a wonderful left-back.

We shouldn’t be ruling anyone out for the next time England get together. It’s time to reflect and realise how well this team has done considering nobody expected them to get to the semi-final. We should be praising the team’s achievement.

Is there a risk fan expectations could be too high after England’s World Cup performance?

DA: Yes, but I think this team can handle that. They know how to be able to play and relax. I didn’t think we tensed up in this game, but we just looked tired and lacked experience from being in that situation in certain games.

With the experience from this tournament and the young players coming through, I am excited looking forward for England.

Luka Modric was influential again. Should he win the Golden Ball?

DA: A lot will depend on what happens in the final, and I think Kylian Mbappe will have a word to say about that. I think Raphael Varane has been outstanding as well. They would certainly be my three players in the reckoning.

Modric is a wonderful player. I thought he struggled in the first half against England, but in the second half you see the quality of a player who can take the ball under pressure and keep it when the game’s difficult. Maybe that was what Croatia had over us – someone who can keep the ball and relax the team.

Do you care about the third-place play-off against Belgium?

DA: No. Don’t care at all. It’s a game you’ve got to play. I’d prefer England to win it but I honestly don’t care. It’s a total irrelevance.

Would it have been difficult for you as a player to motivate yourself for a match like that?

DA: Yeah, very difficult. The whole point of tournament football is to get through, to get to a final, to win the competition. As soon as that has gone, what relevance has that game got? I can see there being a lot of changes for both sides, it will almost be like the game that Belgium and England played in the group stages. Who cares?

Are you going to watch it?

DA: I really don’t know. I’ll see how everyone feels here, whether they want to watch it. I think any time England play I’ll probably watch, but it’s a bit of an irrelevance – just a good chance for those who haven’t played to get on the pitch.

Do you have a prediction for the World Cup final between Croatia and France?

DA: I think France will win comfortably. They’ll have far too much attacking flair, and I think the experience they have of losing the European Championship in front of their home fans will be crucial for them. I can see it being very comfortable.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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