Tyrone Mings impressed in defence for England
In truth, it had been a largely phoney debate as Gareth Southgate had been convinced for some time that Tyrone Mings was the man to deputise for the injured Harry Maguire at the first game of this tournament.
The nation had agonised for the past fortnight over whether or not Southgate would trust Mings to start against Croatia and even whether or not he would try to make up for Maguire’s absence by reverting to a back three.
But it had never been the biggest issue in Southgate’s head and the assured way in which Mings performed at Wembley in his first-ever major tournament appearance justified the England manager’s faith.
Not since Southgate himself, against Germany in 1996, had an Aston Villa player started for England at the European Championships, but Mings looked at home on the biggest of stages in front of Villa manager Dean Smith, who was part of the Wembley crowd.
Ahead of kick-off, England had won 76 per cent of their matches when starting with a back four compared to only 48 per cent when lining up with either three or five at the back and that figure is now even higher.
Given the attacking talent available to Southgate, England no longer need to start in fear when they face an accomplished opponent and the display of Mings and John Stones should provide optimism that the nation’s defence need not be the Achilles heel this summer.
Occasionally guilty over over-playing for Villa, Mings kept things simple in possession for England, often looking for Kieran Trippier to his left or attempting to utilise the pace of Raheem Sterling with a ball over the top. There was no twisting or turning his way into trouble.
Similarly, Mings was unflustered when he had to defend, although England were helped by the fact that Croatia were lacking a top-class centre forward and are not the team of 2018 when they reached the World Cup final.
Croatia tried to take advantage of the fact that Trippier is not a natural left-back, but England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford did not have a save to make in the opening 45 minutes and was largely untroubled for the entire game.
Ante Rebic was no match for Mings when the defender got to a high ball first and the Croatian was also beaten for pace when Mings got to an attempted through ball first and cleared the danger.
Growing in confidence as the first half wore on without him losing any of his duels, Mings was in the right place to clear a cross from Ivan Perisic and produced an excellent block tackle on the Inter Milan winger just before the break.
Rio Ferdinand was full of praise for Mings on the BBC, saying: “Tyrone Mings has been superb. We asked the question before the game ‘will he be able to stand up to this pressure?’. He has not played in this type of high-profile game before in his career. But he has answered the critics. He’s been tremendous in everything that he has done. He defends the box as well as anyone. He’s got concentration and he’s very confident. When he has had to play long at times, he hasn’t been ashamed to do that.”
There was a slight moment of concern straight after the restart when an attempted clearance from Mings deflected back off a Croatia player and into the grateful hands of Pickford.
Given Maguire was not fit enough to be among the England substitutes on Sunday, the way in which Mings and Stones combined in the centre of the back four will be a huge comfort to Southgate. The way they congratulated each other at the final whistle pointed to a blossoming relationship.
Mings also provided leadership at the back with Maguire out, as, just as he does for Villa, he barked orders at and encouraged his England team-mates, many of whom were more senior to him in terms of caps, throughout the game.
Between them, Mings and Kyle Walker defended a high ball from Sime Vrsaljko, as Croatia attempted to respond to Raheem Sterling’s opening goal.
And it was Mings who got up highest in the Croatia penalty area to nod a header back into the path of Sterling, who should have doubled his and England’s tally.
When Luka Modric wanted to take a quick free-kick with time running out, Mings was there to pick the ball up, hold on to it, pretend to limp and allow everyone to take their position. He had highlighted the importance of the ‘dark arts’ ahead of this tournament and he was as good as his word.
A victory and a clean sheet was exactly what Southgate would have been looking for from England’s first game and Mings can be proud of the part he played.