England claimed a 1-0 win over Croatia to start their Euro 2020 campaign on the front foot. Raheem Sterling scored the only goal of the game as Gareth Southgate’s side edged out the team that eliminated them from the World Cup three years ago.
There was a sense that England played within themselves for much of the match, but three points sets them up nicely to get out of Group D with games against Scotland and Czech Republic to come.
But who impressed in the game, for both England and Croatia, at Wembley and who didn’t?
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The first 25 minutes saw England produce a very different performance to the one produced at the 2018 World Cup against the same opponents and Kalvin Phillips was key to this.
Not only did the Leeds United midfielder give England a level of control, he led the high press. Southgate asked Phillips to play higher up the pitch than many would have anticipated, but this was a ploy that worked well as Croatia struggled to get a grip of the game early on.
When the breakthrough arrived in the second half, it was Phillips who made it happen, breaking through the Croatia midfield after a particularly passive period of the match for England.
With Harry Maguire not fit enough to feature, Southgate had a big decision to make over who to partner John Stones with for this one. Tyrone Mings was given the nod and the Aston Villa defender was impressive in the way he helped repel the Croatian attack over the 90 minutes.
Not only was Mings a physical presence in the air for England, he was important to the way they played out from defence. Only Kieran Trippier (65) played more passes than Mings (62), with the latter completing 90% of those passes. His use of the ball allowed England to keep Croatia at arm’s length.
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The selection of the Manchester City forward over Jack Grealish raised some eyebrows given the contrasting form of the two players over the 2020/21 season, but Sterling justified that selection by scoring the winning goal.
Sterling looked sharp throughout and gave England the sort of cutting edge they might have expected from Harry Kane. His runs beyond the Croatian last man also provided England with forward thrust that prevented their play from becoming too stodgy in the centre of the pitch.
No team at these Euros have a stronger selection of right backs than England. It was therefore galling that Kyle Walker, the man picked to play in that position, produced a below-par performance.
This was accentuated by Kieran Trippier on the left side, who offered next to nothing as an outlet due to being naturally right-footed. This saw England’s two full-backs attempt just two crosses in the first half and complete zero.
Walker, in his favoured position, had no such excuse. Southgate might argue he did well to counter Croatia's threat on the wings, while his pass into Phillips played a role in creating the space from which the Leeds United midfielder burst into to assist the breakthrough goal, but England will need better from their right-back against Scotland.
As the focal point of England’s attack, this was an underwhelming performance by Harry Kane. The 27-year-old was too eager to come deep to collect the ball. While this isn’t exactly uncommon for Kane, it congested England’s build-up play in the middle of the pitch.
On top of this, Kane spurned the one big goalscoring chance he had in the match, somehow slicing wide at the back post when he should have converted Sterling’s ball across the six-yard box.
Despite winning the Golden Boot at the 2018 World Cup, it still feels as if Kane has still to produce his best form at a major tournament for England. It was somewhat surprising that Southgate hooked him after 82 minutes, given Kane’s standing in the squad, but he can have no complaints.
With Mario Mandzukic now in international retirement, it was up to Ante Rebic to provide Croatia with an attacking focal point. That, however, proved to be beyond him as the AC Milan forward failed to truly test Jordan Pickford in the England goal.
Rebic attempted more shots than anyone in a Croatia shirt (three), but only mustered one shot on target. The 27-year-old was a bit erratic in his execution, taking on too many efforts while off-balance. This possibly reflected the pressure Rebic felt to make something happen as Croatia’s main man up front.
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