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England must learn from debilitating errors that denied World Cup final spot

Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions will, quite rightly, return to England as heroes. A semi-final appearance was beyond even the most optimistic fans’ forecasts, and it was a run that lifted the spirits of a country still seeking resolution after a slender majority voted in favour of Brexit over two years ago.

For once, there is no national team scapegoat. When David Beckham was sent off in the last-16 elimination to Argentina in 1998, the Daily Mirror published a dartboard with the Manchester United youngster’s face in the middle. By contrast, Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire, and Jordan Pickford are now national treasures.

However, just because England isn’t rueing what should have been, it doesn’t mean it can’t learn from what could have been. Wednesday’s exit to Croatia exposed the two biggest issues Gareth Southgate needs to address if England can make a habit of running deep into major competitions: the attack, and ensuring there is variety on the bench.

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

Re-shaping the attack

Before Saturday’s unappealing third-place play-off with Belgium, Harry Kane’s shot count of 12 is two fewer than Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and one fewer than South Korea’s Heung-Min Son. He only tallied one more effort than Wahbi Khazri, a member of the distinctly unimpressive Tunisian side. All three of those players left the World Cup at the group stage.

Kane simply wasn’t given enough chances. Southgate needs to rehash the on-pitch understanding between Trippier and Kane – it was one of the most fruitful links in the Premier League last season, with the former teeing up the latter five times – and the arrangement at Tottenham Hotspur where Dele Alli drifts in behind Kane as a shadow striker. Kane was impressive tracking back and winning fouls, but giving him the opportunities to shoot is the obvious priority.

There are also the overstated struggles of Raheem Sterling, a player who wasn’t able to get to the byline and cut balls back to Kane, just as he does with great regularity at Manchester City. Unlike his club role, where Pep Guardiola has drilled him in the art of opening up his body on the half-turn and kicking up chalk on the flanks, he was shunted into the middle, where he was the intended recipient of flat, powered deliveries from Kane or lofted balls over the top from Jordan Henderson. When City opted for more of a route-one method, Leroy Sane was often the player cutting inside and latching onto those aerial passes.

When England was in the ascendancy in the first half against Croatia, Sterling was working well to meet these balls but, as the team dropped, so did his performance. Southgate should have found a way for Sterling to attack the half-space and wide areas on the right-hand side, leaving space for Kane, Alli, and others to connect through the middle.

Until the elimination to Croatia, the versatile Jesse Lingard had a fine tournament stitching the midfield and frontline together, and could potentially replace Marcus Rashford or Alli in this schematic. If England is losing a midfield battle – just as it was after half-time against Croatia – Eric Dier can be picked in the middle with Henderson, or even a 4-3-3 (a formation many in the team are familiar with) can be adopted to battle for midfield supremacy.

Need for variety

When Southgate was nearing the unveiling of his World Cup squad, he spoke up the importance of versatility. The subsequent selections of Dier, Lingard, Fabian Delph, Ashley Young, and Kyle Walker allowed Southgate to test various shapes and make in-game changes. However, he was reluctant to do so.

In the last-16 meeting with Colombia, his decision to call Dier off the bench knocked the whole system off balance and, eventually, the South Americans drew level in the dying moments. It was this near-failure – Colombia was the best side in extra time before England prevailed on penalties – that perhaps led to Southgate’s tentativeness against Croatia after the Three Lions subsumed Sweden in the quarter-finals.

Sterling was replaced by Rashford, Young was withdrawn for Danny Rose, and Dier took Henderson’s place in Moscow. They were like-for-like changes, and ones that didn’t address the fact that England had withdrawn, granting space to Luka Modric and his gifted compatriots in midfield. Rashford was largely ineffectual – the issue was the deep-lying XI, not that Sterling’s effectiveness had waned. Young was fatigued and getting skinned by Croatia’s superb right-back Sime Vrsaljko, but he was still dangerous as the upfield forays from Rose left gaps behind. Dier, just like Henderson, was isolated in the middle. Southgate only made a clear tweak to the approach when Jamie Vardy came on for Walker, but by then Mario Mandzukic had scored the eventual winner. The change was made through desperation.

Southgate’s substitutes may be late and too careful, but the real issue may lie in his options among the substitutes. There was no Marouane Fellaini-esque figure to fire balls into – there was a small band campaigning for Andy Carroll to be in the squad before he succumbed to his usual injury problems – and no real incisive passer from the middle of the park. Creativity could have been supplied by Newcastle United’s Jonjo Shelvey when there is space to operate, or Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook when there are tighter confines to work in. You pick the strongest squad rather than the best individuals, and Southgate should bemoan the dearth of variety in the 23-man throng he took to Russia.

The World Cup was encouraging, but for England to improve on this performance and successfully integrate a talented contingent of youngsters – including Cook, Ademola Lookman, Ryan Sessegnon, Mason Mount, Jadon Sancho, and Phil Foden – Southgate needs to take this experience and ensure the same mistakes cannot happen again.

This team was assembled around the defence, and that was the most positive part of England’s campaign. However, this team should have been built around Kane and Sterling’s attacking talents, but both weren’t able to exert their brilliance for the vast majority of the tournament. Then, among the reserves the standout attributes were very similar to those in the starting lineup. It was difficult to usher in a plan B.

Southgate has proved himself as excellent at integrating a holistic approach at St George’s Park (the kind of work a technical director does), taking the weight of representing England off the players’ shoulders (a triumph of his man-management skills) and, most impressively, making a disenchanted fan base care about the national team again (more of a public relations duty). At Euro 2020, it’s time for Southgate to show he’s a proactive touchline manager who can fully utilise his attackers’ strengths.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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