NNever throw anything away. That was the lesson of this amusing and advanced victory of England. On an unexpectedly epic afternoon at Wembley, Croatia was beaten by a team from England 2.0 who decided to brush their hair, throw the folder out the window, create a little chaos with long free throws. and win, in the end, a bit like England 1.0.
There was a wonderful theater note about the finish. As the sun set under the edge of Wembley's roof, England was 1 x 0 down at 1-1, five minutes from relegation for the first time in its history – and indeed at the first opportunity. A slightly savage onslaught afterwards and England now march ahead (says here) Portugal for a semi-final against anyone who has drawn December at the home of football (AKA, the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin) decides to play their way.
Yes, it's the good old League of Nations. And yes, there will be a standard reflex to end the competition, to suggest that there may be something a little caricature about this peculiar mini- Euro league.
It does not matter all that for now. On a bright and bellicose afternoon, England's 2-1 win provided three significant happiness scores. First, this is considered the best moment of England in just over 10 years at the new Wembley, a rare and old flower of euphoria shared by a crowd that has been so often gray and disgruntled.
International football needs these moments, it fuels the sense of its own importance. Without it, it quickly loses its way. The crowd was remarkably young, strident and scarred for all those sad days watching boring teams of Premier League players, the real threat to the lasting relevance of this form of football. Memories were made here, snapshots of cut and preserved happiness. They will be back for more.
There was also a hidden note of catharsis after the disappointments of the World Cup, an uninteresting glimpse of how it might have been. In the final whistle, it was the players from Croatia that sank on the pitch. St George's Flags Waved. Gareth Southgate punched himself in the air and composed himself a little self-consciously. Football Coming Home grew over PA.
Finally, and more importantly, there was evidence of how hard Southgate worked to trim the edges of an already successful team. He was there on England's show, even though he was initially unable to shoot. The last time England played in Croatia, the midfield ended up being knocked over, Jordan Henderson asked to gallop after Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic as an old and faithful horse competing on his daily paddock circuit.
Here, the Southgate risked five months of delay for the midfield shield, guarding a flat of four with Eric Dier and Fabian Delph, the England midfielder equivalent to a pair of piano men. Ross Barkley played well for 10 minutes, then faded, but his presence also made sense. The lack of invention in the midfield was an obvious spot in the World Cup. It was a blur here too, but Barkley can offer creativity and started ahead of Dele Alli. Southgate spoke of being ruthless, of showing his prey, of seeking to promote a constant revolution. That's what the winning teams do.
Yet England struggled for a while, caught in the old patterns of attack. With 25 minutes gone, they had 70% possession, doubled passes and had seven kicks for the three of Croatia. But again they looked like a team full of avid runners, well-trained in their passage and movement, but without that small element of high-quality creative mestizo.
One of the criticisms of this generation of refined, academically powered English players has been the lack of a more instinctive razor wire. They said something similar in Germany before their well educated generation win the World Cup. For a while this may have been history: the same story as before, which is itself a rather English story.
Croatia moved on despite Andrej Kramaric. The prospect of another almost-but-not-enough appeared. Something different happened at this point. England threw away the weeds, Southgate brought an 18-year-old in the last 17 minutes. In the end, England had five attacking players and two side players on the pitch, and had placed 11 players under 25. While playing everything they had in Croatia's defense, often without much precision, you kind of expected. from gray coal graffiti catering sinks to Wembley's hospitality to reach the Wembley windows. Jesse Lingard, a sub, got the equalizer. Kane achieved a great success, his 20th goal in his 35th game.
And so England is on its way to Porto or Guimarães, just as Porto and Guimarães may have already taken a sip and had some sneaky thoughts about the prospect of English fans coming out for a week in early June next year. post-Brexit double header. At that time, Southgate England might have returned from here, finding new forms and new forms, but hopefully retaining, as they have done here, something ancient and pleasantly worn to keep up with the balance of the new age.