Raheem Sterling puts England over Croatia

Sterling’s second-half goal was the only one as Gareth Southgate’s side beat Croatia 1-0.

England got their Euro 2020 campaign off to an ideal start as Raheem Sterling’s second-half goal earned them a 1-0 win over Croatia. It’s the first time they have won their opening game at the European Championships.

A fast start by England very nearly resulted in the game’s opening goal, Sterling hurtling forward from a throw-in before slipping in Phil Foden, whose shot curled against the far post. Dominik Livakovic saved well from Kalvin Phillips soon after, a low drive through the bodies that had assembled in the Croatia box for an England corner.

After a grueling start to their tournament, Croatia looked to be establishing themselves on the contest and were dominating possession in the first half, at least until just before the hour-mark. Phillips, England’s best performer on the day, picked the ball up just inside the Croatia half, beat one man and delivered a wonderful no look pass to Sterling, whose first-time shot Livakovic could only parry into the net.

The hosts rarely looked like letting their winning position slip away with Harry Kane coming close to doubling their lead soon after, clattering the post rather than the ball as he tried to get on Mason Mount’s cross.

After all the hype, nerves and expectations emanating from the nearest Euro 2020 has to a true host (the semifinals and final will be played at Wembley Stadium), the endless debates over lineups and the sweating on the fitness of Harry Maguire, this was as good a start as Gareth Southgate could have wished.

There was pace to England’s attacks that Croatia simply could not live with. Time and time again a long ball into the left channel unleashed Sterling, who did almost everything that could have been needed to justify his selection over Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho. At times it seemed that success for Duje Caleta-Car was just to get near him. A driving run in the fifth minute was followed by that component that has on occasion been lacking at Manchester City this season, the right action at the right moment.

A well-placed through ball gave Foden the chance to attack Josko Gvardiol one vs. one, the young forward beating him with ease before curling a shot against Livakovic’s far post. Sterling drew a good tackle from Caleta-Car after swift feet and smart interplay with Phillips, another whose contentious place in the side was justified through his dynamic running and accurate passing. 

Meanwhile, Mount was everything he had been at Chelsea. In one passage of play, he would be spotting the pass from deep by a Croatian defender, the next lobbing a brazen pass to Sterling in behind the backline. For the first half of the first half, England looked like serious contenders. All that was missing was the goal.

The baking heat of the London sun, coupled with Luka Modric’s elegance, took something of the early sting out of England. As the pace of the game slowed, so did Croatia grow more imposing. That will be cause for some concern where Southgate is concerned. He will know that his side did not show quite enough ball progression early in the second half, at least until Phillips’ brilliant dart through the middle.

When the great master got on the ball with time to pick his pass, Croatia looked like more than a match for England. There was a period either side of the halftime whistle when Modric was really stamping his mark on the game. The home team were still pressing, but they simply could not move as fast as the ball, flashing across the pitch in the blink of an eye.

Croatia’s issue rather seems to be that when Modric cannot dictate terms (and it is natural that a 35-year-old will be unable to run the show for 90 minutes once every three or four days for the next month) there seems to be little else that Zlatko Dalic’s team can do to discombobulate their opponents.

Crosses from Sime Vrsaljko rarely asked all that much as Croatia looked to test Kieran Trippier’s defense on the opposite flank to that which he usually plays. The front three did not particularly press, create or impose themselves on John Stones and Tyrone Mings. Only Mateo Kovacic really looked like easing the playmaking burden on Modric, always taking the ball on the turn so he could attack the English defense.

Perhaps, as the tournament wears on and energy reserves already depleted by the past year are fully used up, a Modric-led possession game will become more effective. But right now, after years when Plan A saw Croatia punch far above their collective weight, it looks like they need more ideas.

If any performance was a reminder not to judge a side’s approach based on how the players line up on paper before kick-off it was Phillips’ today. The plea not to go for a back three or two sitting midfielders has been a common refrain of pundits and fans, many of whom seem to want nothing more than for Southgate to take his cavalcade of wonderful attackers, chuck them on the pitch and see what happens. Two DMs was, of course, trending on Twitter in the United Kingdom before kickoff.

The idea that Phillips was anything as prosaic as a defensive midfielder was swiftly dismissed at Wembley. With Declan Rice focusing on shielding the back four, the Leeds midfielder was unchained to drive through midfield, looking every inch a Marcelo Bielsa player as he barreled through the opposition.

Sterling may have scored the goal, but it was made by Phillips, judging his run expertly, drawing Caleta-Car and slipping a wonderfully inventive no-look pass into England’s No. 10. That was one of a string of well placed deliveries. Only the Leeds United midfielder, “The Yorkshire Pirlo,” completed every pass in the first half.

With Jordan Henderson on the bench and Jude Bellingham looking impressive in possession coming on to make history as the youngest player in the history of the European Championships, suddenly Southgate has options for how to structure his midfield. 

Each of these players bring qualities of their own. Henderson is shrewd in progressing his team forward with passing and hugely effective at shielding for advancing full-backs. Bellingham looks to be a more forward-looking option from deep whilst Phillips is robust and dynamic.