England

Croatia 0-0 England: 5 things we learned

 • by Ryan Baldi
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In an eerily empty Station HNK in Rijeka, England and Croatia played out a game as bereft of life and atmosphere as it was of goals.

The Three Lions picked up their first point of the inaugural UEFA Nations League and manager Gareth Southgate will take encouragement from the way his side were unthreatened by the team who knocked them out of the 2018 World Cup at the semi-final stage back in July.

But this was a game completely unremarkable save for an electric cameo from the debuting Jadon Sancho and the woodwork struck through Harry Kane and Eric Dier headers.

Here are the fiver things we learned.

New formation, same problems

Southgate elected to mix things up for this Nations League trip to Rijeka. Throughout the World Cup, the Three Lions lined up in a form of 3-5-2, which worked sufficiently to carry England to the last four of the game’s grandest competition for only the third time.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Well, Southgate wisely and boldly decided to tinker with a winning formula, recognising that, despite the summer’s acheivement in Russia, his side still has deficiencies.

The main issues were not cured by the switch to 4-3-3, however, as England’s main midfield problem, a sever lack of creativity and penetration, persisted. This ill is one of personnel rather than shape.

England did, though, look slightly more comfortable and confident in possession than previously, especially considering the starting trio of Ross Barkley, Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson were in direct opposition to FIFA Best Award winner Luka Modrić, Barcelona star Ivan Rakitić and Chelsea’s Mateo Kovačić.

No World Cup revenge but parity, at least

After England lost their opening Nations League game against Spain at Wembley, the Three Lions would have loved nothing more than to exact revenge for their World Cup semi-final defeat by beating Croatia on their own turf.

In the end, the men in white had to settle for a draw, with neither side able to break the deadlock. But England can be encouraged by the way they held their own against the 2018 World Cup runners-up, enjoying spells of pressure and mustering the game’s best chances.

Marcus Rashford was twice guilty of fluffing his lines when through on goal, while Tottenham Hotspur duo Dier and Kane headed against the crossbar and post respectively.

Mandžukić missed

Juventus striker Mario Mandžukić announced his retirement from international football after the World Cup and Croatia’s attack is weaker in his absence.

Against England, Eintrach Frankfurt winger Ante Rebić, a rumoured Manchester United transfer target over the summer, started centrally, flanked by Ivan Perišić and former Leicester City attacker Andrej Kramarić.

The makeshift frontline rarely troubled Jordan Pickford’s goal, while the lack of the kind of aerial presence and physicality Mandžukić made his trademark led to a very comfortable evening’s work for John Stones and Harry Maguire.

Sancho sparkles

It was the briefest of cameos for Sancho on his senior England debut, replacing Raheem Sterling with 12 minutes to play, but the Borussia Dortmund winger quickly showed why he is among the most highly rated young players in Europe.

The 18-year-old is currently the top assist-maker on the continent and he demonstrated his creative skills against Croatia, a willing recipient of possession, always looking to dribble at the opposition and whipping a couple of dangerous crosses into the box.

Sparkling brightly, Sancho lit up this otherwise drab encounter and gave a glimpse of his sky-high potential.

No fans, no fun

There were no fans inside the Station HNK in Rijeka due to a punishment levied against Croatia after a swastika appeared to have been cut into the turf ahead of a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy back in November 2015.

While no one would argue against UEFA’s ruling that Croatia be forced to play two home games behind closed doors, the lack of fans inside the ground undoubtedly affected the game.

In an era of in-depth tactical analysis and statistical scrutiny, it can be easy to overlook football’s intangibles. But, as we saw here and as we have previously seen in fan-less Champions League games, rarely does a behind-closed-doors fixture muster any great on-field entertainment.

The dozen or so England fans positioned on a hill partially overlooking the stadium served only to further highlight the atmospheric void inside the ground. This dull affair could have done with a rousing roar or two.

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