It’s over. The collective hazy, lager-sodden World Cup escapade is over. England went like the clappers but were ultimately sent back from whence they came by a Croatia team with too much muscle and might; nous and know-how.
The realisation of how close the Young Lions they were, the narrow margins, is what really frustrates, but the overriding feeling upon exit is one of achievement, of satisfaction, of pride. Those are the rarest of commodities when it comes to England.
While obviously disappointing, by virtue of being such a clean, harmonious elimination, it’s also easy to identify and start addressing the shortcomings.
No root-and-branch investigation into the fundamental failings of the national game will be screamed for this time. Just a sober, methodical post-mortem. A chance to fill in the gaps without a braying horde of imbeciles harrumphing your every move.
Gareth Southgate’s team leave the tournament having mustered the same amount of shots on target from open play as Saudi Arabia (6) in some 600 minutes of trying (compared to the Saudi’s 180), which really serves to highlight their almost total dependence on set-plays.
Eight of their 11 goals at the World Cup came via dead-ball situations, which – while hardly out of step with many other teams in Russia – is rather emblematic of a lack of free-flowing creativity within the team.
Add a player on the Luka Modric spectrum to that England midfield and you’re not a long way off. That’s progress of an undeniable nature.
Speaking of Modric, when speaking to ITV after the final whistle, the Real Madrid string-puller revealed that Croatia had used English “arrogance” as a means to fire themselves ahead of the game.
Luka Modric was equally quick to lambast the perceived English hubris after the whistle, telling ITV:
People were talking… English journalists, pundits. They underestimated Croatia tonight and that was a huge mistake. All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying: ‘Okay, today we will see who will be tired.’
They should be more humble and respect their opponents more.
These sentiments were echoed by Sime Vrsaljko, who also aimed a venomous barb at his vanquished foes:
The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield, but when we pressed them, it turned out they haven’t.
My motto has always been ‘do your talking on the pitch.’ We’re in the final and they can now go sunbathing.
This opprobrium came as a bit of surprise to Pies, as we didn’t really perceive any such presumption and pomposity from the England camp heading into the match.
The general consensus seemed to be that Croatia are a very solid, talented team and victory would have to be hard-fought.
Unlike in prevailing years, England made a point of minding their manners this time round – largely due to Gareth Southgate’s parental moulding of the squad – which is why this tournament exit doesn’t have the same lingering air of toxicity as 2006, to name but one example.
It’s been fun. England have been good. Progress has been made. The players are personable and unified. Egos were checked at the door to St George’s Park. The manager has been a conduit for all that is good in the world and is therefore likely to be canonised as a saint in the near future.
Without wishing to sound too still-drunk-from-last-night, this batch of players and their efforts at the World Cup have brought hundreds, nay thousands of despondent fans to re-engage with a national team they were previously hopelessly, moribundly sick of.
We didn’t win, football didn’t come home (it merely drove through without stopping) but England gave it a ruddy good honest, respectful go, and that counts for more than anything they’ve spewed forth in the past 15 years of tiresome, ego-saturated drivel.
Sounds strange to call reaching a World Cup semi-final a ‘good start’ but here’s hoping the momentum and good work attained in Russia is allowed to prevail.
Onward we stride, together into the UEFA Nations League – whatever the hell that might be!