It still came home
In the end we just didn't have the experience and quality to see it through. The first half was near perfect. We could have and should have scored a second goal. Then came the break and something shifted, psychologically and physically. Croatia upped their tempo and we started to sit back and make mistakes. A touch of naivety perhaps from the players and possibly even Gareth Southgate (in looking to change things quickly which he didn't). We can sit here and over analyse the substitutions and our shape and the countless reasons for why it went wrong. But there's no point. I'm personally drained. I need a break from all of this*.
*I'll probably still offer some suggestions for deeper discussions below as this stream of consciousness mixed with copy and pasted Tweets is my evenings therapy session. Need to release it all before I go away and flat-line for a bit.
We had it in our hands and lost it and perhaps the momentum that took us to the semi-final also masked our deficiencies. If it took Luka Modric and company to ever so slightly push forward with more application and desire to boss the game then God only knows what France could have done to us. I still would have wanted us to face that test. Alas no. Not this time. Not yet for this team.
Football has still come home. This summer has been magnificent. Southgate and the players have given us identity and pride. Everyone believed and that is what binds the entire process of football and its escapisms together. Sometimes the glory is in belonging. We finally belong to England again and they belong to us.
It's a good platform to build on. I'm sure once it all sinks in this will hurt as much as 1990 did but for different reasons. We had none of this before the tournament, none of how we feel right now about the team. The disappointment and dejection is a consequence of the success we've had in getting this far. You wear your heart on your sleeve and then roll with the punches. As difficult and as uncomfortable as this result is making you feel it's because of how far England got. The lows only exist because of the highs. It hurts but it's better than feeling nothing.
That aforementioned deeper discussion content:
Southgate's biggest conundrum is in the middle. We do not create enough from open play. I read that we've only had six shots on target. Six. From open play. That's pretty damning. We can't simply rely on set pieces all of the time. Although, oh boy, how glorious was that Trippier free-kick? That moment was as close as most of us have ever come to a World Cup final. I've never celebrated a goal that much in my life. It already seems a lifetime ago.
You also can't have Harry Kane running himself into the ground, coming deep constantly. He was a magnet for crunching, bruising tackles. He gave his body to the cause. You have to build the team around him, feed him and support him. It's been said already but he's doing the job of two players - a number 9 and a number 10. We just don't have the creative player centrally to lessen the pressure. It's not viable tasking him with this much responsibility. He'll shoulder it, he has done so. But it isn't a long term solution.
Southgate said in the post-match that he wasn't carrying a knock but he looked shattered. Not quite 100%. Still, a gentle reminder that his last gasp winner in the opening group game set us on our way and let's not forget his monstrously brilliant display in the game against Colombia. I'm protective of Harry. I'll fight anyone that isn't.
We never truly shaped up to make the most of his strengths. That opportunity he had in the first half. Oh man. It will haunt him no doubt because he's such a perfectionist. But to blame him in that single moment is being ridiculously unfair and also illustrates the reality that at this level you need to be creating more chances in and around the box. I know you might be thinking at this level you should be scoring those chances (which is true) but in that first half Croatia were there for the taking and we didn't do enough in possession to take them to the cleaners. Jesse Lingard's effort should also have hit the target. It's easy to weigh down these moments with extra what if baggage.
Yes, a 1-0 score-line can be protected and the issue then fades away from Kane's miss and settles with how we defended for both goals. If you can't miss rare chances up front then you cannot be making mistakes at the back either. At key moments we made key mistakes. They simply waited for us to make the errors and punished us with finality. In these instances the errors manifest in fine margins, decisions defined by nano-seconds. A defender moves a moment earlier and it plays out differently. You'll go insane trying to rationalise why X did this and X didn't do that (replace one X with Walker and the other X with Stones, but only if you want to). Also, it's worth not dwelling heavily on this because to do so would suggest their players were gifted the chances. They weren't.
Again, if I wanted to over analyse I'd focus on the space Croatia had and the reasons for their expansive freedom. We faded because of game management and the necessity to reshuffle tactical, something that we probably couldn't do regardless, in attempting to match the opposing side and their productivity.
Henderson ran his guts out. Rashford seemed to be a desperate attempt to make something happen. We missed Sterling when he went off. Rose perhaps should been subbed on earlier along with Dier. It's all theoretical now. I'm not too sure about the headed Kane chance and whether it was a genuine one. A half chance perhaps. Maybe another case of not being perfectly posed in anticipation. Also, what did the ref drink at half-time? Seemed to be visibly bullied into softening up for the opposition. I'm bitter, there's no doubt. Ah...I'll leave all this for you to chew over.
There are still micro-criticisms to be had. Some players not releasing the ball quick enough, options for others to deliver a pass were limited because of positioning. That extra step up in performance we've been waiting for never materialised. We haven't quite worked out a style, a swagger. One that works back to front and where our best players can blossom and dominate. The spirit and togetherness and the passion is there. The refinement isn't. Others, including Croatia, are far more accomplished. We remain fledgling. Not an excuse. Just a fact.
It's also worth noting this isn't just about England. Give Croatia the credit they deserve. With experience comes mental fortitude. That second gear. We don't yet have that trait. It's harsh to scapegoat our lads and it's also disrespectful to dismiss Zlatko Dalić's men and their dogged display to claw their way back and win it. Technically, they stood tall and looked down at us. Although I'm confused by the suggestion that they were motivated by our lack of respect for them. I'm pretty sure nobody under-estimated Croatia in the build up to this game. Win gracefully chaps yeah.
Whether the answer (in the middle) is Harry Winks or someone else, we'll have to wait a little longer to find out. I know this much, rival fans wishing to scapegoat, wanting to point at Spurs for being the reason England failed should perhaps look closer to home and ask what their club is doing to help promote and develop Englishmen. Where is our visionary? A question for another day, sometime in the near future.
I'm proud of the manager and all of the players regardless of their club affiliation. I adore this group of players. The players adore Southgate. My passion for the national side has been rejuvenated to levels that I never expected. Up and down the country pints chucked above heads in celebration, fans unified for the Three Lions. Thank you for that penalty shoot-out victory. What a night that was. It's undeniable, the connection we have now with England. It can't be underestimated and it needs to be celebrated.
I'm gutted. Proud but gutted. It's a far cry from singing 'You've let your country down' to Frank Lampard and having him point to his Chelsea badge and grin. The dream is over. The reason you had this dream in the first place was because of them and not in spite of them. It's taken us 28 years to be this lucid. Hopefully our next awakening is sooner rather than decades later.