England played out a goalless draw with Croatia in Friday’s behind-closed-doors UEFA Nations League meeting in Rijeka, but what were the key talking points from the game?
- Wasteful England held in Croatia
The buzz surrounding Jadon Sancho will grow even louder after his lively late cameo at the Rijeka Stadium. The 18-year-old became England’s ninth-youngest debutant when he replaced Raheem Sterling in the 78th minute, and while he had to wait 10 minutes for his first touch, he still managed to make the most of his opportunity.
He showed his electrifying pace with his first contribution, latching onto a speculative through ball from Jordan Henderson and beating Josip Pivaric before his cross was blocked, and shortly after that he almost set up a late winner.
Pivaric was beaten once again, with Sancho then showing impressive composure to chip his cross towards the far post while running at full speed. If it wasn’t for a fingertip intervention from outstretched Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, his delivery would surely have been turned in.
It was a continuation of his fine form for Borussia Dortmund, where he has contributed six Bundesliga assists in just 215 minutes on the pitch this season, and it will surely be enough for Southgate to consider using him again against Spain on Monday.
“He gave us a bit of excitement – getting the ball, being direct, trying to make things happen,” said Sky Sports pundit Alex Scott. “He’s shown no fear. He’ll be in contention against Spain.”
“There wasn’t too much attacking excitement but it did seem to liven up a bit when Jadon came on,” added Jamie Carragher. “He provided that bit of trickery out wide, that freshness.”
Missed opportunity for Barkley?
Ross Barkley was handed his first England appearance since May 2016 as he joined Henderson and Eric Dier in Gareth Southgate’s midfield. The 24-year-old has impressed for Chelsea under Maurizio Sarri this season, but could he carry his club form onto the international stage? Could he provide the creative spark England have lacked?
Barkley worked hard and improved as the game wore on, but there was little in the way of creativity. In fact, over the course of the 90 minutes, he did not fashion a single scoring opportunity.
Spain vs England
October 15, 2018, 10:00pm
The statistics showed he registered an 89 per cent pass completion rate, but few of those passes provided the penetration Southgate might have hoped for. In fact, more than half of them went backwards to Dier, Harry Maguire and John Stones. Barkley only passed to Sterling and Marcus Rashford three times each. He did not find Harry Kane once.
The lack of link play is a concern as England continue their search for midfield creativity, but Southgate will at least take heart from some of England’s attacking work in the second half. The openings did not come from midfield, but on another night Rashford would surely have put one of his two one-on-one chances away.
Set-pieces were once again a source of danger, too, with Dier glancing a header against the outside of the post from a corner in the first half, and Kane sending another effort onto the crossbar from a free kick after the break.
Sancho was not the only youngster to get a chance, with Ben Chilwell making his first England start at left-back. The Leicester man produced an assured performance, defending solidly and showing impressive energy as he bombed up and down the flank.
He showed his attacking threat with a string of crosses – the best of which came after 12 minutes when he collected a long ball forward and sent a wicked, low delivery into Croatia’s six-yard box. Sterling was waiting to pounce, but Pivaric did well to scramble the ball clear.
“I thought he was excellent,” Southgate told Sky Sports afterwards. “His defending was composed. He had some very good players up against him but he didn’t dive in. His use of the ball was excellent and he showed good energy going forward. It’s not easy in this final third to provide really high quality, but I thought he should be really proud of his performance.”
England enjoyed a great success with a back three during the World Cup, but Southgate insists he no longer sees it as a long-term option, with England reverting to a back four against Croatia. Crucially, however, Dier’s presence in defensive midfield allowed him to drop into the defence when England were in possession.
“We’ve had success building with the three, and with Eric in that position it’s perfect for him to drop into the back three,” explained Southgate. “At times was the idea and there were other times where John and Harry just built the game themselves and Eric was a little more advanced.
“It meant we could get our full-backs a bit higher, so it’s good to have that option, but definitely without the ball, it meant we were able to press higher and get closer to their midfield.”
Carragher believes the flexibility will help England in the future.
“A lot of people sometimes say it’s not about formations, it’s about players. I don’t necessarily agree with that. Different formations give you different things. I think the beauty of that is that he saw the problem in three at the back not with the ball, but without the ball. So he doesn’t want to change three at the back with the ball. So it gives him flexibility.”
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