Phillips came away from Wembley with an assist

Raheem Sterling’s second-half goal secured England a victory in the opening match of the European Championship for the first time in history. Sam Wallace, our Chief Football Writer, was watching at Wembley. Here’s how England beat the World Cup finalists.

Phillips comes of age for England

The driver of the press – when England did press — was Kalvin Phillips, who Southgate confirmed later had been given a role that allowed him to push on further than he usually does for club or country. It meant that he made tackles higher up the pitch and his shot was England’s one attempt on target in the first half. He did not catch it cleanly enough to make it difficult for Dominik Livakovic. Phillips looked dynamic and confident and when England needed to spark back into life after half-time, he was the man who seized the opportunity. His pass for Raheem Sterling’s goal was an outstanding moment.

The ball from Kyle Walker to Phillips broke the line — a despairing lunge from Josep Gvardiol — but the Leeds United man had just one thought: to go forward. He put the ball into an area where goalkeeper Livakovic had no choice but to come out for it. That speed of counterattack, one passing movement, has epitomised Southgate’s England at their best since the 2018 World Cup.

How Phillips had license to roam

Danger when England pressed

The best period of England’s first-half performance came from around the moment Phil Foden struck the post cutting in from the right on his left foot, one of only four attempts his side had on the Croatia goal all half. In that part of the game that lasted until around 20 minutes, Southgate’s players squeezed up on the Croatia back four and their opponents’ usual pass out from the back to the deepest midfielder Marcelo Brozovic was never comfortable. When they had the chance England would also go direct – a long ball from Jordan Pickford fell straight to Harry Kane who laid it off first time for Foden.

The pitch felt claustrophobic for Croatia and the momentum was with England. This golden period passed them by and for some reason they dropped back around the midpoint of the first half. It was a hot day with pitch-side temperatures at Wembley nudging 30C and after a while England retreated. Brozovic was again free to collect the ball from the two centre-halves and goalkeeper, and the momentum was lost.

England’s defensive actions in first 20 minutes

England need runners in behind

Sterling’s goal was more of a break but his willingness to take off as soon as England won possession put Croatia’s defenders in an uncomfortable place. The first half for Southgate’s team saw precious little of that running in behind with Kane coming short to lay the ball off and not enough penetration beyond the England centre-forward who himself was limited in what he could do. 

Although the goal was initiated down the right there was a heavy bias towards attacking down the left, with most of England’s attacks coming from the combination of Phil Foden and Kieran Trippier before the break. That might have been a consequence of a problematic first half in particular for Kyle Walker, but either way – it was under-exploited.

Southgate said afterwards that he would have liked to see his forwards get in behind more often. The heat, he admitted, was a factor. “We had to pick our moments to retain possession and make Croatia run and then when to get in behind,” he said. “If we have got in behind more that was the threat … you have to have those runs in behind.”

England’s left-sided bias

Pickford gets it moving

The distribution of the England goalkeeper is fundamental to the way that this team plays, and Jordan Pickford is Southgate’s first choice for that reason. In the first half he seemed to strike the ball long more often than not when the preference is for him to play through the phases. The Everton goalkeeper is encouraged to mix it up between short passes and going longer when he has to do so, and a long ball to Kane on 11 minutes was effective. 

Overall, however, this team works better when he plays out patiently from the back. It also would have helped England’s underused right side if he had gone that way more often. 

Pickford’s long ball struggle

Modric’s influence wanes

Over the years the great Ballon d’Or winning playmaker has played his part in filleting England teams, all the way back to the worst-ever night in the new Wembley for what was then Steve McClaren’s side. That was Nov 21, 2007, when Modric was a leading figure in a 3-2 Croatia victory that ended England’s Euro 2008 qualification and plunged the national team into a crisis of confidence. He was superb again 11 years later in Moscow when England lost the World Cup semi-final to Croatia.

On the ball he is still formidable. This time he struggled to find a pocket from which he could run the game. At one point in the second half he was so deep that he was picking up possession in the right-back position. His touch map demonstrated that he dropped much deeper throughout the 90 minutes. He started just behind the lone striker Ante Rebic, but as the game went on he was forced to collect it further away from the positions where he could do damage to England. Euro 2020 is not over for Croatia, but their attacking threat – post-Mario Mandzukic – is weak.

How Modric was forced deep