England 1 Croatia 0 - Gareth Southgate rewarded as Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips shines at Wembley
England have come into this oddest European Championship unashamedly saying they want to make history and one match in, they already have.
For Kalvin Phillips in particular, it felt like the significance of the 1-0 win over Croatia extended way beyond the record books or even the three points which meant that less than 48 hours into the tournament, it was already hard to see England not reaching the knockout stages.
This is the ninth time England have played at this level and, incredibly, their first opening-game win. Whilst they did not batter Croatia – of course they did not, they were playing the World Cup finalists – it was nevertheless a hugely impressive victory.
With so much talent, there are quite a few options in this squad where it would be hard to be unhappy whichever one manager Gareth Southgate went for.
For those not as familiar with his work as Leeds United fans are, Phillips as the “No 8” – the link man between defensive midfield and attack – was probably not one of them. Was.
Phillips generally plays as an out-and-out holding midfielder at club level, where he is trusted implicitly by Marcelo Bielsa, a fairly good judge of a footballer, to be his ball-winner and deep-lying playmaker but not someone who tends to venture far in front of the defence he is protecting.
Southgate’s thinking for this squad is all about just picking highly talented, versatile and intelligent players and asking them to do the job that particular phase of that particular game demands. He is fortunate, because few of his predecessors had so many of those to choose from. Asked about Phillips after the game Southgate shrugged, “He’s just a good footballer.” He could say that about quite a few.
Like Bielsa, Southgate trusts Phillips, picking him for a game Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford watched from the bench (only Rashford came off it). Jadon Sancho was not even one of 12 substitutes.
So whilst La Liga champions Kieran Trippier played left-back as two specialists, one a European Cup winner a matter of weeks ago, watched on, Phillips played what could be the most important role of the team, linking the offensive and defensive departments which were sometimes disconnected in last season’s biggest games.
It is such an important job Jordan Henderson was called into the squad to play it despite 45 minutes of friendly football under his belt since February. That made you assume Henderson was a shoo-in as soon as he got fit. Phillips’s performance – even though it was only one game –made you question that.
Before the game Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic told anyone who would listen it was his team’s midfield that would win them the game, just as it had in the 2018 World Cup semi-final between the sides. Why would you not be confident about a midfield containing the magical Luke Modric and with Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic doing his leg work?
Livakovic was right. It was the midfield that won it at Wembley.
So to an extent did England’s mindset – uninhibited at the start, doggedly disciplined once Raheem Sterling collected Phillips’s pass and put them in front. If you have as much talent as England have, it is often what is between the ears that can stop you fulfilling it.
England flew at Croatia from the first whistle at Wembley.
Phil Foden, still learning his trade, collected the ball after a run by his Manchester City team-mate Sterling – far from the most in-form of Southgate’s many attacking options this season but another with his trust – and curled a shot against the post.
Two minutes later Phillips, understanding the full scope of his role and undaunted by it, waited patiently for the ball to drop out of the sky and executed a volley Livakovic had to save.
Croatia were seriously under the cosh, not having an effort themselves until the 27th minute and Ivan Perisic’s effort was not worth the wait.
But as David Baddiel and Frank Skinner pointed out, deep down when it comes to England everyone seems to know the score. We have seen it all before.
Pessimism is the defence mechanism of every football fan not afflicted by disappointment-inducing hopefulness, and that told you that England being all over a team without scoring was the warm-up act for an against the run-of play goal. Croatia gradually found their feet but England kept their nerve, even in the second half as the visitors began to control possession and the fans grew restless at how the Three Lions stood off.
They were not doing any harm.
Instead it was Sterling finding the net against the run of play, converting his first major tournament goal when Phillips ran down the inside-right channel, turned inside and weighted a perfect pass.
Then came the ugly side of the game but not a backs-to-the-wall effort, instead keeping Croatia at bay in a very controlled manner as Southgate made a series of defensive changes – beautifully, successfully defensive changes.
It was then Phillips showed the other side of his game manning the barricades without making a song and dance about it.
In a squad so loaded with eye-catching talent it could easily be anything but, there was a wonderful balance about England.
Bigger tests lie ahead but they and Phillips should at least have the confidence to face them. Even in an era where anyone who has ever got paid to kick a football has been Wyscouted to the nth degree, international tournaments still have a habit of catapulting players.
On June 13 2021, Phillips went from someone who played for England to a serious international footballer.
It made his country’s chances of making the history they really want a tiny bit better.