Reasons for optimism despite England’s missed opportunity against Croatia

Mario Mandzukic struck the decisive winner in Moscow to send England out of the World Cup and Croatia into the Final against France.

Every Englishman will be proud of the performance of the England team this summer, they have been superb on and off the pitch, but this is a major point in the future of the English game.

It was an opportunity missed against a decent, but very beatable Croatian outfit. They should have been packed up and on the 8pm flight to Zagreb had England made the most of their first half dominance following Kieran Trippier’s stunning early free-kick, but football matches are not won in the first half.

As it was, England sat off and allowed Croatia to get a foothold in the game, and though Southgate’s boys looked comfortable, it only needed a moment of magic for Croatia to get back into the game. As it happened, it was a fairly straightforward equaliser; a cross from the right, unchallenged, and Ivan Perisic got in front of his marker to level.

The winner was similarly easy for a striker such as Mandzukic, always alert to a half-chance, and when the ball dropped he buried with England a yard off.

Southgate and his side will now return home (after a third-place play-off with Belgium), head held high, but thinking what might have been. It was, undoubtedly, a massive chance of picking up their first trophy in 52 years.

And it’s now they should, and will, dissect their performances. What was good, what was not so great, and look to improve in those areas. And with Gareth Southgate in charge, that is certainly what will happen.

The Gaffer will work on finishing and belief in front of goal: Raheem Sterling netted 23 times in 46 games as Manchester City won the Premier League last season, but never really got going in Russia – he will definitely be a key man going forward.

Harry Kane looks like he’ll end up the golden boot winner, but netted three penalties and was quiet against Sweden and Croatia. Who can England bring in to back him up?

Why did England allow Croatian players so much space in wide areas? Both goals, and Mandzukic’s late close-range effort came from unchallenged balls from the flanks.

Were the substitutes the right ones? Sterling was actually having a decent game but got the hook, and England’s chances in behind Croatia’s uncertain defence were reduced.

Henderson will go all night, and wasn’t slowing down, but Dier came on and didn’t offer anything more than the Liverpool skipper.

Why did England have energy in the first half, then sit so deep in the second, giving Croatia space and a chance to get a foothold, with Modric and Perisic pulling the strings?

Why did Croatia have so much energy after two two-hour matches, with penalty shootouts, in a week?

These aren’t negative questions, they are the points Southgate will be raising himself. This team has over-exceeded, but solving those questions could be the answer to England winning the UEFA Nations League – where they face Spain and Croatia, again – Euro 2020 or (and) the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

This team can most certainly succeed, and will need to find those answers, while with more young talent coming through – players already World Champions at U17s and U20s level – England fans once again have reasons for optimism about their national team.