England’s Nations League campaign continues on Friday night with a visit to the side that ended their World Cup dreams during the summer – Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia team.
Croatia find themselves a little weaker this time around following the retirements of Mario Mandzukic and Danijel Subasic at opposite ends of the pitch, and Gareth Southgate will like to feel his team – albeit missing some key names in this instance – has grown a little wiser from their heartbreak in Russia.
So, will England claim revenge over the Balkan nation or could the Three Lions suffer another harsh lesson at the hands of a country currently fourth in FIFA’s World Rankings? This week’s experts, Football FanCast’s England-mad duo Greg Potts and James Jones, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of the Nations League clash…
Southgate’s philosophy as England boss has centred around building for the future, something his new four-year contract until after the 2022 World Cup directly alludes to. But there’s a time and a place for giving young players a chance and although the Nations League’s importance remains debatable, England have an incredibly young squad with an average age of less than 24 for two away games that could compel them to relegation to League B.
Is Southgate right to look to the future or has he overlooked proven players that could help England win two important games?
Greg: “I think Southgate is definitely right to bring in the younger players who are impressing for their clubs. With the talent coming through in this current generation and the tournaments won at youth level, it’s important that the players now become used to playing with each other for the senior side before 2020, so we don’t have the same problems as the Golden Generation era. I don’t think we should be too worried about the Nations League, it’s all about working towards the major tournaments.”
James: “I’ve always wanted to see an England manager pick young players on merit and move away from the ‘big club mentality’ that held the national team back for decades, so it’s great to see Southgate do that, but I can’t help but feel he’s still picking players on trust and personal relationships. Nathaniel Chalobah is definitely not deserving of an England call-up, yet he’s in the squad.
“Jonjo Shelvey arguably deserves a call-up but Southgate could be recalling the time midfielder pulled out of his England U21 squad and is therefore not willing to give him a chance in the first team. Who knows? That said, I think it’s a very good England side and one that certainly has one eye on the future. It’s nice that we’ve finally moved on from seeing the same under-performing, underwhelming old names in the squad.”
So which young players are you most excited to see make their mark against Croatia?
James: “Jadon Sancho is obviously the name on everyone’s lips, and rightly so. He’s an exciting young talent and if he continues to improve, he can be the flair boy England should’ve had in Ravel Morrison. Mason Mount and James Maddison also intrigue me and it will be interesting to see how they perform on the international stage.”
Greg: “I’m hoping Southgate will give Maddison a chance to start in central midfield. The 21-year-old has taken to Premier League football with ease and has been hugely impressive for his new club so far. I’ve got no doubts that he has the ability to step his game up again for international football too. With Dele Alli out injured, Maddison can be the one to provide our creative spark.”
Of course, this game comes with an unusual dynamic in that it will be played behind closed doors for the most sinister of reasons. While already serving a behind-closed-doors-ban, someone decided to scratch a Swastika onto the pitch during one of Croatia’s home last games under UEFA’s remit back in 2015. The Three Lions then, will play in an empty and silent ground – a strange atmosphere for a football match at any professional level – and it remains to be seen how that will influence the game.
Will playing behind closed doors be a benefit or hindrance for Southgate’s side?
James: “I don’t think it really matters. It’s going to be a bit strange and the game may lose a bit of competitive edge as a result. But if it’s going to benefit any team it’s going to be England because they won’t have a baying Croatian crowd there to intimidate them, while Croatia won’t have their home support there to assist them. It shouldn’t matter, though, These guys are the best footballers in the country, according to Southgate, and should be able to perform at their best in any situation.”
Greg: “Surely this can only help England. Not only are the Croatian fans a bit of a force to be reckoned with, but also the quiet in the stadium will mean that Southgate and his backroom staff are able to coach the younger players through the game. After just a couple of days training together and with plenty of new faces in the squad, expect to hear a barrage of tactical and positional instructions from the sidelines.”
After England built up so much optimism with impressive performances against lesser sides during the early stages of the tournament, the World Cup semi-final with Croatia brought them crashing back down to earth. This was an experienced and talented side with key players in their peak, compared to a young Three Lions team relying on potential and an unusual formation. The 3-1-4-2 setup too, despite playing such a big hand in taking England to the penultimate stage in Russia, proved to be their undoing as Croatia’s midfield controlled the game before coming out as 2-1 winners.
What must England do differently this time to avoid another defeat to Croatia?
Greg: “I really do not enjoy thinking back to that evening in the summer when we were still all so full of hope, but although it would offer little consolation, a win in this fixture would serve to support my opinion that we are now firmly up there with the best international teams at the moment. The main improvement from that semi-final specifically would be for Southgate to be bold with his substitutions. When we aren’t creating anything, things need to change.”
James: “Improving in midfield is a must as that’s what let us down in the World Cup, I think. The introduction of Maddison gives us something a little bit different going forward, which we lacked in Russia, and that could be key for this England team moving forward if Southgate can hit upon the right formula.”
And where will this game be lost and won?
James: “Again, in the midfield. It’s where this game was won and lost in the World Cup semi-final and think that’ll be the case this time around. I just hope it’s us coming out on top this time.”
Greg: “Dalic has released his starting line-up a full 24 hours before kick-off, but if we’re honest there isn’t really any surprises. Personally I think Ivan Perisic is the danger man and whoever plays at right wing-back for England will need to be at the top of their game to ensure the Inter Milan winger is dealt with. In Southgate’s favoured 3-1-4-2 though the wing-backs are also one of the biggest attacking threats, so whether it’s Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker or Trent Alexander-Arnold their job will also involve keeping the Croatian winger pinned back.”
And finally lads, let’s hear your score predictions…
Greg: “That Croatian side is unbelievably strong, but I’m hopeful that youth will prevail and England will run out 2-1 winners.”
James: “3-1 England. I can’t handle another relegation in my life having seen West Ham go down twice in the past.”