For England, it was a job done. It wasn’t the prettiest win, and there are areas that will require significant improvement if Gareth Southgate’s side is to progress deep into the Euros, but a 1–0 success against the World Cup finalist is never something to be dismissed—particularly given this was the first time England had ever won its opening game in a European Championship.
Certainly there was far more for Croatia to be concerned about. It has lost four players since the World Cup, when it beat England in the semifinal, and the attempt to integrate younger talents has not gone entirely smoothly. Until the final 20 minutes or so, as England, which it often does under Southgate, dropped troublingly deep, Croatia looked slow and uninspired. It’s early days, but that is emerging as a theme at this championship: western European sides looking quicker and sharper than those from the east.
England’s first problem was off-pitch. There was booing from England fans as the players took the knee, but this time—unlike in the two pre-tournament friendlies—it was countered immediately with applause which, just about, drowned out the jeers. The same upper section of Wembley also booed the Croatian anthem, a notable difference from the relaxed cheeriness when the Euros last came to England, in 1996.
In the England side, the only real surprise was the inclusion of Kieran Trippier, more naturally a right-back, at left-back. With Harry Maguire out until at least the third group game, and Tyrone Mings, who had looked shaky in the last two friendlies, operating in his place as the left of the two central defenders, it perhaps made sense to have a more naturally defensive player there than either Luke Shaw or Ben Chilwell, but Trippier’s tendency to check inside onto his right foot made it harder for him to overlap, and that had a knock-on effect on Raheem Sterling.
Sterling was an expected selection, but not an uncontroversial one. He has linked well with Harry Kane before, but has been out of sorts for the past couple of months. Very occasionally his pace threatened to get in behind the Croatian defense, as it had in that World Cup semifinal, but that danger was sporadic and his isolation compounded his naturally tendency when out of form to dither.
But when the chance came after 57 minutes, Sterling took it—just about. Kalvin Phillips, England’s best player on the day, made it with a diagonal dart from deep to seize on a forward pass from Kyle Walker. Having outmuscled one defender he glided by a second before feeding Sterling, whose poke at the ball went in via the hand of Dominik Lovakovic—his first goal at a major championship. A left-footed lash at a very good chance 17 minutes later was embarrassingly off-target.
There had been two other areas of contention in the selection. Mings himself was solid enough, albeit under little pressure form a largely toothless Croatia. And then there was Phil Foden, preferred to the popular choice Jack Grealish. He never looks quite so effective on the right as the left, though, and his involvement was intermittent before being replaced by Marcus Rashford.
England started the game extremely positively. It looked more aggressive than Croatia. Foden, drifting in from the right, hit the post and Phillips drew an awkward low save from Lovakovic with a volley through a crowd after a corner had been half-cleared. But when the breakthrough didn’t come and the early adrenaline wore off, England became a little anxious—much as had happened both in the opening game of Euro 96 and in the World Cup semifinal three years ago—and its passing became less decisive. The pace dropped, a lot of the game was played in front of the Croatian midfield and Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic became more influential.
Perhaps it was the heat, but there was a worrying lethargy to the beginning of the second half. This felt a very familiar England pattern. But just as the groans began to become audible, the breakthrough came. Harry Kane, who rarely imposed himself, was denied a second by a brilliant challenge from Duje Caleta-Car, but after that the game largely became a matter of holding Croatia at arm’s length.
England did that well enough, and a sticky afternoon perhaps offers some excuse, but it will need more sustained intensity, more penetration, against better sides. Tournaments are not won in the first week, and at least some of the immediate pressure is off. The platform is there to be built upon.
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