Blooming marvellous – Gareth Southgate throws off weeds of caution

Barney Ronay at Wembley on 18 November 2018

Never throw anything away. That was the lesson from this fun, late-breaking England victory. On an unexpectedly epic afternoon at Wembley, Croatia were beaten by an England 2.0 team who decided to muss their hair, throw the briefcase out the window, create a little chaos with long throws and free-kicks; and win, in the end, a bit like England 1.0.

There was a wonderful note of theatre about the finish. As the sun dipped below the lip of the Wembley roof England were 1-0 down then, at 1-1, five minutes from relegation for the first time in their history – and indeed at the very first opportunity. One slightly wild attacking surge later and England are now marching on instead to (it says here) Portugal for a semi-final against whoever December’s Uefa draw at the home of football (AKA the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin) decides to throw their way.

Yes, it’s the good old Nations League. And yes, there will be a standard reflex to trash the competition, to suggest there may be something a little cartoonish about this peculiar little Euro mini-league.

Never mind all that for now though. On a bright, bellicose afternoon England’s 2-1 victory provided three significant notes of happiness. First, this counts as the best England moment in just over 10 years at the new Wembley, a rare old bloom of shared euphoria for a crowd that has so often been grizzly and disaffected.

International football needs these moments, feeds off the sense of its own importance. Without this it quickly loses its way. The crowd was notably young, shrill and unscarred by all those dreary days watching dreary teams of drearily entitled Premier League players, the real threat to the enduring relevance of this form of football. Memories were made here, snapshots of happiness clipped and preserved. They will be back for more.

There was also a hidden note of catharsis after the disappointments of the World Cup, an oddly unsettling little glimpse of how it might have been. At the final whistle it was Croatia’s players who sank to the turf distraught. The St George’s flags waved. Gareth Southgate punched the air, then collected himself a little self-consciously. Football’s Coming Home boomed over the PA.

Finally, and most important, there was evidence of how hard Southgate has worked to trim the edges from an already successful team. It was there in England’s lineup, even if initially it failed to fire. The last time England played Croatia the midfield was eventually overrun, Jordan Henderson asked to gallop about after Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic like a faithful old horse competing its daily circuit of the back-field paddock.

Here Southgate plumped five months too late for the double-midfield shield, protecting a flat back four with Eric Dier and Fabian Delph, the England midfield equivalent of a pair of brawny-shouldered piano removal men. Ross Barkley played well for 10 minutes, then faded, but his presence also made sense. The lack of invention in midfield was an obvious blot at the World Cup. It was a blot here too but Barkley can offer creativity and started ahead of Dele Alli. Southgate has spoken of being ruthless, of showing his fangs, of seeking to promote a constant revolution. It is what winning teams do.

Still England struggled for a while, stuck in the old mannered attacking patterns. With 25 minutes gone they had had 70% of the possession, made twice as many passes, and had seven shots to Croatia’s three. But once again they looked like a team full of eager running, well-drilled in their passing and movement, but lacking that little element of high grade creative mongrel.

One of the criticisms of this generation of refined, academy-fed England players has been the lack of a more instinctive razor edge. They said something similar in Germany before their own well-schooled generation won the World Cup. For a while this might have been the story: the same story as before, which is in itself a very England kind story.

Croatia went ahead though Andrej Kramaric. The prospect of another almost-but-not-quite loomed. At which point something different happened. England threw off the weeds of caution, Southgate brought on an 18-year-old winger for the last 17 minutes. At the end England had five attacking players and a pair of flying full-backs on the pitch, and had fielded 11 players under the age of 25. As they threw everything they had at Croatia’s defence, often without much precision, you half expected one of Wembley hospitality’s charcoal grey graphite composite catering sinks to come hurtling out through the club Wembley windows. Jesse Lingard, a sub, got the equaliser. Kane poached a significant winner, his 20th goal in his 35th game.

And so England are on their way to Porto or Guimarães, just as both Porto and Guimarães will perhaps have already taken a gulp and had a few furtive thoughts about the prospect of England’s fans turning up for a week in early June next year for their first post-Brexit double-header. By then Southgate’s England could have kicked on again from here, finding new forms and new shapes, but hopefully retaining, as they did here, something old and agreeably ragged to go with the poise of the new era.

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