Gareth Southgate was heartbroken but proud after England’s extraordinary summer ended just short of the World Cup final.
The country came to a standstill during Wednesday evening’s semi-final as the Three Lions lined-up against Croatia looking to keep the dream of bringing football home alive.
Kieran Trippier’s early free-kick put England on course for their first final since 1966, but Southgate’s men will not be able to replicate Sir Alf Ramsey’s heroes after Croatia staged a fightback to instead face France this weekend.
Ivan Perisic levelled and Mario Mandzukic secured a 2-1 win in extra-time, propelling the country to a first World Cup final as England’s manager wondered what could have been – 22 years on from his semi-final heartache at Euro 96.
“I think that’s maybe something for a couple of days’ time because at the moment we all feel the pain of the defeat,” Southgate said when asked how the loss leaves England.
“Did we expect to be in this position? I don’t think realistically any of us did.
“But when you’ve got to this point and we’ve played in the way we have, and as well as we did in the first half, then you want to take those opportunities in life.
“So, the dressing room and all of the staff is (in) a very difficult place at the moment.
“Having said that, what I will say is that I am remarkably proud of the group of players that have really advanced.
“I think the reaction of the supporters to them at the end compared to two years ago tells them that, first and foremost, experiences with England can be positive, that the country are very proud of what they’ve done and the way that they’ve played.
“And, yeah, there will in time be a lot of positives to take.
“It’s of course very hard to put that into context and a bit too soon, really, because I think you have to suffer the result a little bit.
“It’s too easy sometimes to move on quickly.
“But, certainly, I’m hugely proud of what they’ve done.
“I couldn’t have asked them to give any more for me or for the country.
“They have broken through a number of barriers over the last few weeks.”
England secured their biggest major tournament win in Russia, as well as winning their first World Cup penalty shootout and first knockout match since 2006 en route to just their third ever semi-final in this competition.
But the defeat to the smallest nation to reach a World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950 is a body blow that leaves the Three Lions reeling ahead of an unwanted third-placed play-off against Belgium on Saturday.
“It’s impossible to say anything to them to make them feel better at this moment of time,” Southgate said.
“I don’t think when people look at the experience and last 18 months, that people expected us to be in a semi-final of the World Cup.
“But, once we were here we really believed we could win the game.
“For us, it was an opportunity to do something which only one team in our nation’s history has ever done.
“We’re still one of only three teams ever to get to a semi-final, and I think for all of the players and staff they have got to be proud of that.
“I don’t think any of them could have given any more.”
England’s grand World Cup adventure came to an end on Wednesday as they lost to Croatia 2-1 in the semi-final after extra-time.
The result meant Gareth Southgate fell just short of becoming the second England manager to lead his side to a World Cup final after Sir Alf Ramsay’s famous winners of 1966.
But,vhe can hold his head high as he prepares his side for the third-place clash against Belgium on Saturday.
Here’s a closer look at England’s semi-final performance.
Goals – 1
Shots – 11
Shots on target – 2
Possession – 45%
Pass Accuracy – 76%
England’s manager didn’t spring any surprises, naming an unchanged side and sticking to his usual 3-4-3 that has served him so well.
His substitutions were fairly formulaic: Marcus Rashford for a tiring Raheem Sterling, like-for-like changes at left-back and midfield – Danny Rose for Ashley Young and Eric Dier for Jordan Henderson – and switching to a 4-3-3 and taking off defender Kyle Walker to bring on striker Jamie Vardy when England were chasing a goal.
Ultimately, however, it was all in vain.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
With diminutive midfielders and occasionally shaky defenders, Croatia’s rearguard seem like a unit that could be vulnerable to balls over the top, especially with the high line they can play. England continually exploited that, with the pace of Sterling and Jesse Lingard coupled with the strength of Harry Kane exposing Croatia’s defence. It also allowed England to negate Croatia’s pressing game.
However, although the tactic exposed a seeming weakness in Croatia’s game, ultimately it didn’t pay off.
Southgate had said England could achieve something special, but on the day, they fell short, struggling to impose themselves and own the moment.
What will bother the England manager is how his side didn’t take advantage of their first-half dominance on Wednesday, yet again failing to create enough chances. Apart from their goal they had only one shot on target, and they ceded control after half-time despite having bossed the game before that.
They faded even as a fatigued Croatia rose to the occasion.
RATING – 6/10
For another four years at least, it is not coming home. Mario Mandzukic made absolutely sure of that when he struck an extra-time winner to beat England 2-1 and book Croatia’s place in the World Cup final, with France lying in wait.
Kieran Trippier had given England an early lead with a sublime free-kick, but Ivan Perisic equalised in the second half before Mandzukic’s winner.
England’s pace and movement were key in pulling Croatia apart in the opening 45 minutes.
Starting with Harry Kane, the number nine has hardly been England’s furthest player forward at this World Cup and that was the case again as he regularly dropped deep to show for the ball.
Raheem Sterling was the one running beyond him, alert to any flicked headers from his captain. The Manchester City man once again worked extremely hard for the team and was integral to England’s efforts to stretch the Croatian defence.
The long ball into space for Sterling was always on, keeping centre-backs Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren on their toes and running them ragged. Meanwhile, Jesse Lingard also found himself operating beyond Kane as well.
The Tottenham striker would use his physique to receive the ball to feet before turning his man and running at the defence. He would then have forward runners on either side of him for options. However, England failed to capitalise on this strategy while it lasted in the first half with the final ball or finish lacking.
CROATIA SWITCH GEARS
The two sides that emerged for the second half were almost unrecognisable from those that played the first. Croatia were desperate not to leave it late and came out on the front foot.
England seemed to be caught off guard by their opponents’ raised tempo and retreated to the edge of their own half.
Zlatko Dalic’s side gleefully accepted the bulk of possession and the upper hand that came with it. Indeed, England only had 30 per cent of the ball in the second half.
Luka Modric barely had room to operate in the first half, while Marcelo Brozovic was largely bypassed and Ivan Rakitic was far too deep.
That all changed in the second period. As England backed off and invited Croatia onto them, the midfield trio were far more influential, taking up positions much higher up.
The equaliser had been coming with the Croats taking advantage of England’s retreat, eventually scoring from a cross.
From then on, the momentum was with Croatia and the Three Lions were rattled. They struggled in possession and after being breached, looked even more nervy on the ball.
John Stones’ sloppy pass at the back almost led to a second for Croatia while the likes of Lingard and Alli dropped further back, creating a huge gulf between midfield and attack, isolating the forward line.
SOUTHGATE FALLS SHORT
The man who masterminded his young team’s run to the semi-finals, turned a nation’s pessimism into unchecked belief and inspired ‘Waistcoat Wednesday’ must be called into question. He’s shown himself to be tactically proficient at this World Cup and has conducted himself impeccably but wasn’t proactive enough on this occasion.
His substitutions with England chasing the game were strange. Sterling always looked like a threat in behind, but he was hooked for Marcus Rashford who failed to make an impact.
Lingard and Alli clearly got worse as the game went on but both remained on the pitch until the bitter end, while Henderson – who was most assured in possession – was replaced.
Meanwhile, Kane’s withdrawn positioning was increasingly bewildering. While he did drop off in the first half, he seemed to set up camp around the centre circle towards the end of the game.
He almost played like a holding midfielder at times, trying to feed balls through for the likes of Rashford and Alli.
Southgate deserves credit for an unprecedented semi-final berth, but he must shoulder the bulk of the blame for this defeat.