By Simon Evans
MOSCOW (Reuters) – England’s first run to the World Cup semi-finals in 28 years represented real progress and provided cheer to their long-suffering supporters, but there remain clear shortcomings for manager Gareth Southgate to address when the emotion fades.
The 2-1 extra-time defeat to Croatia on Wednesday exposed the limitations of Southgate’s inexperienced side, weaknesses that were evident at other times in the tournament, but were often masked by the euphoria of unexpected success.
For all the talk of a new, modern, passing style of football, England found it difficult to play out from the back and keep possession in midfield, when put under real pressure.
Had they come up against France in Sunday’s final, a team which managed nullify world-class creative talent like Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard in their semi, that limitation would probably have been exposed even more emphatically.
Southgate tried to compensate for the lack of a real creative midfield player by designing a formation that focused on attacking down the flanks and then using withdrawn forwards for the more intricate play near goal.
At times in the tournament it worked very well but against the best opposition they faced, England sorely missed a player capable of dictating the tempo in midfield.
Solving that problem will not be easy — there was no such player available to Southgate and there is no sign at the moment of an ‘English Luka Modric’ emerging in the Premier League. Other tactical ideas will, therefore, need to be explored.
The cold facts are that England narrowly beat Tunisia with a late goal, ripped apart a woeful Panama and lost to Belgium in a strange match featuring both teams’ second-string.
In the knockouts, they needed penalties to get past a Colombia team shorn of their top player, James Rodriguez, and then beat Sweden with two headers and with keeper Jordan Pickford making some crucial saves.
Yet England are no longer the team who collapsed in defeat to Iceland two years ago and they are better than the side which could not get out of the group stage in Brazil four years ago.
As Southgate acknowledged, the run to the last four has also created a new standard for his team, which raises the low expectations of this tournament.
“We’ve come an incredibly long way in a short space of time,” Southgate said after the loss at the Luzhniki Stadium. “The whole thing is beyond where we thought we might go…
“Now we have a new benchmark, a new level of expectation, a new scenario. But many of these players have come of age on an international stage. I couldn’t be prouder with what they’ve done,” he added.
There is genuine cause for optimism for England fans.
Last year, England’s junior teams won the Under-20 World Cup, the Under-17 World Cup and the Under-19 European Championship.
The Football Association’s work in creating a ‘DNA’ to England’s teams is delivering real results and offers genuine promise.
Yet the well-established problem of young English talent not finding a regular starting place in their Premier League clubs remains, with no obvious quick-fix available.
Genuine top quality players do get through eventually, as 27-year-old Kieran Trippier, released earlier in his career by Manchester City, showed after winning worldwide admiration for his performances at this tournament.
One thing the FA do not need to worry about is the manager with Southgate having done so much to modernize the England set-up and get the most out of his inexperienced squad.
Yet, while he has become a hugely popular figure in England, Southgate is himself lacking experience as a manager in top-level competition and is on his own learning curve.
He will surely look back self-critically at his decision-making at key moments, particularly in the semi-final when there was an air of inevitability about Croatia’s equalizer yet he made no move to try to shift momentum back towards his side.
Southgate has taken England to the brink of glory but if they want to be pushing for a title at Euro 2020 or at the World Cup in Qatar two years later, another leap forward in quality will be required.