England will never get that World Cup semi-final back . Nothing they do in Rijeka tomorrow night can redress any balance, or make any amends for what happened on 11 July. All they can do is try to avoid the same mistakes.
Three months on from the Luzhniki, distance and perspective does nothing to diminish the historical importance of the night. Like a mountain that only looks bigger as you start to drive away from it. For those players and for Gareth Southgate – even after he signed his new contract – it is unlikely that they will ever play in a game that big again.
That sense of history and permanence is why that defeat felt like more than a defeat. It felt like a judgement. And that is why we are all still agonising about it now, and about what went wrong and why England lost.
It has not been easy, especially for those players who were just over 20 minutes away from the immortality that a place in the final would have brought. Speaking at St George’s Park ahead of last month’s games, Harry Maguire admitted that he still found it “tough” to watch the game back in full, because of how close England had got.
But it is Southgate’s job to pore over the footage with his staff and try to get to the bottom of what had gone wrong. How did a 1-0 lead, pregnant with the promise of swarmed airport returns, national holidays, open-top bus parades, knighthoods, and lives transformed for ever, turn into a 2-1 defeat in little over half an hour?
Southgate’s initial diagnosis, speaking in St Petersburg before the third-placed play-off, was that England had given the ball away too easily in the second half. The first five games of building the ball out from the back in Russia had been thrown out of the window when it mattered most. “We could have been a bit braver in our support positions,” he said. “We went longer and turned the ball over a bit more, it allowed Croatia to have more possession.”
Anyone who saw the game will remember in that long stretched second half how willingly England gave the ball up to Croatia. And how England’s tiring legs sapped the energy from their attempts to press. Soon enough, every time Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic got the ball, they had a split second more time on it. Gradually but inevitably, the tide had turned back against England.
After a long summer of reflection, Southgate came back to international duty saying that the rot had set in even earlier than he first thought. It was the end of the first half, when England were still 1-0 up and on top, that they had started to go against what Southgate had taught them. “Our biggest issue was not keeping the ball,” Southgate said. “We have to keep the ball better under pressure, and we stopped doing that. It seemed like it was the second half, but actually there were moments in the first half where we were the same. Because we were ahead, we went a bit safer.”
This has been Southgate’s central post-World Cup message to his team: being braver in positioning and passing when they have the ball. Although the evidence of the 2-1 defeat to Spain at Wembley, when England took the lead before being technically outclassed, showed how difficult that will be. Good intentions and accurate diagnoses will never be enough.
But then how could England improve much on the World Cup for that Spain game when they went in with the same midfield? With Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard in midfield again there was little prospect of any improvement. That was a midfield trio built on energy and running, and when their energy ran out against Croatia, they had nothing left to contribute. Against Spain at Wembley it was not a very different story.
Had Southgate taken the same players to Croatia this week then we may be facing the prospect of another repeat. Of the lessons of the Luzhniki still going unlearned, of English energy eventually depleting, as Modric and Rakitic take control of the crucial moments once again. But events have intervened. Alli and Lingard are out, and Southgate has not selected Ruben Loftus-Cheek or Fabian Delph. So England will go in with a new batch of midfielders ahead of Henderson: Harry Winks, Ross Barkley, Mason Mount and James Maddison.
Winks, remember, would surely have been part of the World Cup squad had his 2017-18 season not been ruined by ankle injury. “He’s a good connector of the game,” Southgate said when he brought Winks back into the squad. “It’s a shame that he missed a long period but he’s a technically good player who retains the ball really well. That’s an area we are trying to progress in our game.”
There is no point wondering whether England would have done better with Winks, Barkley or any other combination of midfielders at the World Cup semi-final. That game is long gone. All they can do, as they wonder whether they will ever get a chance like that again, is find a way to keep the ball better, especially under pressure, especially against the best midfielders, when the clock is ticking and every instinct is telling them to go long. It will not be easy, but where better to do it for the first time than against Modric and Rakitic tonight?