In the end it did not come down to set-piece excellence or even deeper energy reserves after all. The notion Croatia would wilt as this game dragged on, that they might cramp up after two exhausting knockout ties that had extended through periods of extra time and nerve-shredding penalty shootouts, was folly. The sight of Ivan Perisic, a glorious brute of a player, muscling his way forward so aggressively late on shattered that naive theory.
This, actually, was a far more conventional elimination. Gareth Southgate’s side may have composed some of their most fluent football of the tournament through the opening half here but it was a lack of ruthlessness in that same period of ascendancy which in effect did for England’s hopes of a first appearance at a World Cup final in 52 years. That combined, of course, with Croatia’s cannier game management as they sensed they had been let off the hook. This was an education, one imposed by Perisic’s dynamism, the subtle promptings of Luka Modric whose influence would not be subdued, and arguably Mario Mandzukic’s single yet utterly decisive contribution all night.
England have never conceded a goal so late in a World Cup game and, while it felt such a cruel blow to endure, leaving a team deflated and defeated while their supporters bellowed in pride and defiance, this collective will be stronger for everything they have experienced in Russia. The third youngest team in the tournament have fuelled belief that theirs is a bright future. Yet the frustration that will nag them over the months and years ahead was that this had been such a glorious opportunity, with familiar failings their undoing.
All the fluent and enterprising approach play yielded only half‑chances or missed opportunities. It was end product they lacked. Jordan Pickford departed cursing an ability to conjure “that second goal to kill off the tie”. Southgate echoed such sentiment in the numbed aftermath: “When you’re in charge of the game and have the chances we had, you have to take a second goal.”
It can seem perverse to be citing a lack of cutting edge when England will probably boast this tournament’s golden boot winner. But retreat back, briefly, to Volgograd when, in that swarm of biting flies, they had boasted only Harry Kane’s early tap-in as reward as an appealing game against Tunisia drifted into stoppage time. On that occasion the captain still plucked victory in the end. Yet when his radar was slightly off as it was here – he had a glimpse of a free header at a free-kick in the final minute of normal time – or when he was drawn ever deeper into midfield, England lacked composure elsewhere to compensate.
Raheem Sterling was arguably their best player at the Luzhniki Stadium over the first hour, England’s scouts having identified a lack of athleticism across the Croatian back-line which the Manchester City forward had sought to exploit. Domagoj Vida and Ivan Strinic were vulnerable, so Sterling hovered in the pocket of space between them, confident he could spin away whenever England lofted passes into the void of space behind the defence. Dejan Lovren was embarrassed even when Sterling offered the centre-half a 10‑yard head start.
The 23-year-old’s game is about short, sharp sprints rather than volume of ground covered. A quintet of Englishmen, led by Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, ran more than Sterling’s 5.06km in the first half. But it was the No 10 who dragged his markers into uncomfortable areas to leave Croatia’s defence appearing ramshackle. He was excellent, a live wire. But what did that effervescence actually yield?
Sterling himself seems to doubt his own finishing, underlying anxiety betrayed by an apparent reluctance to shoot not least when he accepted Strinic’s wayward touch midway through the opening period. There was indecision, too, when liberated momentarily by Jordan Henderson’s pass after the break. This was a 25th consecutive cap without a goal, though Sterling may be troubled more by the fact that, the penalty gleaned from Iceland’s Hannes Halldórsson at Euro 2016 aside, he supplied just a single assist at three major tournaments.
Yet he was far from alone. The same lack of conviction seemed to hinder Alli and Lingard, players who never stopped running but whose influence was eventually dimmed in the company of opponents just as eager to hog possession. Kane, striking a post from close range, looked leggy. It was Croatia, “battle hardened warriors” according to Southgate, whose understanding came to the fore, particularly once Perisic had equalised.
Even that should not have come as a surprise. “Lots of their players have been involved in huge matches, they’re more experienced than us,” the England manager said. “We lost Kieran Trippier, and others had given absolutely everything. Much as we tried to refresh with substitutions, players had run out of steam, and that’s partly down to age as well. They’re still physically maturing. You have to credit Croatia for coming through three extra-time periods to get to the final. It tells you a lot about the team they’ve got.”
This defeat said much about England’s, too. They are young, spirited but still learning. They are far from the finished article and yet they have thrilled a nation when no one had dared to dream. Now, once the disappointment subsides, they must emerge stronger for having experienced all this.