Southgate set to give another crop of youngsters the chance to impress against the team they met in the World Cup semi-finals
England's accelerated revolution continues amid threat of Nations League relegation
“We were 20 minutes from a World Cup final. That is going to live with me forever.” Gareth Southgate was speaking in the summer. Three months later, the events of July 11 will be still harder to forget as England face a rematch with the team who ensured football did not come home.
To be precise, they were 22 minutes away when Ivan Perisic levelled in Moscow. Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time winner instead meant Croatia became the smallest country since Uruguay in 1950 to reach a World Cup final.
A reunion in an empty stadium in Rijeka – Croatia’s punishment for past problems – will not contain Mandzukic. He retired from international football after scoring at both ends in the showpiece against France.
Yet the consequences of a night at the Luzhniki Stadium continue. Southgate began life after Russia by demoting Kyle Walker, who was caught out for Perisic’s goal, in place of Joe Gomez, a more natural right-sided centre-back.
If anything, the already swift pace of change was accelerated. Southgate has been England’s polite revolutionary. If injuries to Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and Fabian Delph are the major reason why James Maddison, Jadon Sancho and Mason Mount could be granted debuts against the man named the World Cup’s best player, in Luka Modric, the most significant selection may be of a player with a solitary international appearance to his name.
Harry Winks looks likely to slot in for one of the absentees. Croatia exposed England’s lack of a playmaker three months ago, Modric and Ivan Rakitic elegantly and elusively wresting control of the game.
Like Modric, Winks has time at Tottenham Hotspur on his CV but if comparisons between master and apprentice are unfair, his inclusion is a sign Southgate recognised England’s need for someone who can keep the ball; who could be a bridge between the holding midfielder and the runners further forward.
The other structural flaw in his 3-5-2 formation that Croatia also exposed was the space it can afford the opposition full-backs. Sime Vrsaljko, now ruled out of the rematch by injury, set up Perisic’s leveller and inflicted a different sort of damage with his words after the game, accusing England of “punting long balls upfield”. Old habits, he implied, die hard. Under pressure, England reverted to being English.
It explains Southgate’s willingness to turn to those untarnished by the failures that preceded his appointment. With the World Cup wing-back Ashley Young swiftly discarded and Danny Rose joining Luke Shaw among the injured contingent, Ben Chilwell should win just his second cap on the left.
Only four of this squad went to the 2014 World Cup, with none, after reserve goalkeeper Alex McCarthy’s withdrawal, born in the 1980s and no one who has reached 50 caps. The numbers underline the sense a project is beginning, but the size of the opportunity in the summer means their best chance may have already passed.
Indeed, a kind of decline is threatened. If the past forms the context, the future is uncertain for one. “It’s not about revenge,” said Kieran Trippier, England’s semi-final scorer, this week. It might be about relegation. Both have already lost to Spain, with Croatia suffering the humiliation of a 6-0 thrashing as Rakitic won his 100th cap.
England went down 2-1, again unable to stop a side with passing midfielders. One of the World Cup’s overachievers is likely to be condemned to the Nations League’s second tier.
Southgate could have adopted the pragmatic, risk-averse tactics of club managers threatened with demotion. The sight of Sancho, set to become the first England international born in the 21st century, and Mount, whose only experience of top-flight football has come in Holland, shows he has plotted a different path altogether.
It was a route that almost took England to the World Cup final, but could also mean that they are facing Finland or Montenegro in the next Nations League.