Behind closed doors but nothing to see as England’s search for missing link continues

Hopefully we won’t have to experience this again. It was a great chance for England to kick-start their Nations League campaign, but it resulted in an opportunity wasted in subdued, soulless fashion in Rijeka.

They had the home crowd silenced for them, but for all the build-up of how Gareth Southgate’s side would cope with playing behind closed doors, it really was a case of ‘nothing to see here’ in Croatia.

The second-half was considerably better than the first, pierced on the hour-mark by the unmistakable sound a bin lorry makes when reversing. It turned out to be an ambulance but it just about summed this up. It was rubbish.

Josip Pivaric produced a fine last-ditch sliding tackle to prevent Raheem Sterling from the type of far post tap-in he’s made his trademark at Manchester City, while Eric Dier headed Jordan Henderson’s corner onto the post.

Harry Kane rattled the woodwork in the second period while Marcus Rashford missed two gilt-edged chances that sums up his current lapse in confidence that has travelled with him from Manchester.

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England recorded just one shot in the first half – the fewest amount in the opening 45 minutes of an away game since June 2015 against the Republic of Ireland.

Here was proof that players need support from the stands, a revenge mission that will be remembered fondly only by the 16 hardened souls who stood atop a hill outside Stadion HNK, unable to even see one of the goal-mouths.

Before the second half, they could be heard singing, “Pickford, give us a wave?” The goalkeeper duly obliged for the biggest cheer of the evening.

Having found their voice and form, moments later came the ironic chants of “Your support is f****** shit” and slightly more impassioned “F**k off UEFA, we’ll do what we want!”

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They saw the first England international born in the 21st Century, with Jadon Sancho introduced with 13 minutes remaining, the youngest player to play for the senior team since Sterling at 18 years and 201 days.

His lively cameo will have been their one takeaway from this glorified training game, but there was little to get excited about.

Three months on, England confronted their World Cup semi-final foes, rekindling memories of the summer of 2018, Glenn Hoddle’s Love Train, Harry Maguire’s head, Boxpark Croydon and all that.

But it was a Nations League six-pointer in front of an official crowd of zero, and there were zero goals and zero talking points.

Of course, those 16 were the lucky few – around a hundred members of the media, 65 dignitaries from the English FA and the same from their Croatian counterparts were inside, while roads had been blocked off by police aiming to discourage fans from making the 102-mile trip from Zagreb.

Around 500 Three Lions supporters had instantly pressed the ‘purchase’ button when this fixture was first announced, a week before FIFA confirmed the game would be closed to the public as part of a punishment handed to Croatia after a swastika was marked on the pitch before a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy in June 2015.

It was the first time in 988 senior internationals dating back to 1872 that England contested a game behind closed doors. Only three previous games involving English teams have been played under such conditions.

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Most recently in 2014, Manchester City faced CSKA Moscow in a Champions League match in Russia, while you have to go back as far as the early 1980s for the other two occasions.

West Ham hosted Real Madrid B in a Cup Winners’ Cup match in the 1980-81 season while Aston Villa’s home European Cup tie against Besiktas in 1982-83 was also played in an empty stadium.

Former England defender Martin Keown feared the conditions might in fact add pressure to the young players, but it was Sancho who provided the injection of energy in the final quarter of an hour in this snoozefest.

So what, if anything did we learn? Southgate had played his preferred formation of 3-5-2 for over a year, but he dispensed with that on Friday night.

“We think it’s time for the team to evolve a bit,” he said prior to the match. “3-5-2 has been fantastic for us really. We maximised the talents of the players across the summer, but in a couple of the matches against the better teams, we’ve suffered a bit without the ball.

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“We wanted to have a look at a back four, I think it suits the players we’ve got playing tonight, it still gives us the opportunity to move the ball and be a threat, but hopefully we’ll cover the spaces that were a bit of a problem for us in the last couple of games.”

Southgate cited his side being overloaded by Switzerland in midfield and down the flanks towards the end of his time using the old formation, but the shift towards a more attacking system was designed to suit an extra midfielder, and to find the missing link.

Ross Barkley returned to the side for the first time since May 2016 – his first game under Southgate – as part of a three-man midfielder in front of a flat back four. He has looked in good physical condition, and the former Everton midfielder was played in the same position that has led to his resurgence at Chelsea.

This was Southgate acknowledging the need to try out a different approach if England are to ever beat the leading nations when it matters, but what it showed was that an in-form Barkley is the same player he was at Everton without Eden Hazard.

With Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard absent, this was his chance to stake a claim. A chance for England to exorcise some demons from 93 days ago? Barkley has had to wait considerably longer than that, admitting this week he’d watched the Croatia defeat among fans during a family holiday.

That friendly against Australia was the last of his previous 22 caps, coming on as a second-half substitute, while you have to go back more than three years for his last competitive start – against Lithuania in October 2015.

But he was a largely peripheral figure, outshone by the rich talent in midfield whose company he shared, bizarrely opting not to appeal what looked a good shout for a penalty when he was clipped by Ante Rebic inside the box.

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Barkley was not alone in scurrying down blind alleys, but there was little to suggest he will be the long-term answer to England’s search for a midfield playmaker.

Two chances in quick succession were squandered by Rashford, showing too much of his intentions on both occasions as he opened up his body and found the gloves of Dominik Livakovic, but neither side controlled proceedings for any significant period.

There was an eerie feel to this fixture in a stadium with a capacity of 8,217 on the northern Adriatic coast, with Southgate warning his players to watch their language due to the absence of an atmosphere.

Only Henderson was clearly heard barking profanities at Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic after a decision went against him. “Are you the f***** ref?!” he said after 30 minutes. It was an all-too brief reminder of what was at stake.

The introduction of the Nations League has brought a competitive edge to what might otherwise have been a pointless friendly, but while the noises coming from the two sides revealed an eagerness to avoid relegation from the top tier of UEFA’s fledgling competition, the empty stands appeared to hinder both sets of players.

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This was a vastly different experience to the contest played in front of 78,000 at the Luzhniki Stadium three months ago, and there were very few conclusions that could be drawn on a very bumpy pitch.

Henderson was again England’s most creative player here. His two set pieces led to Dier and Kane hitting the woodwork – with the Tottenham striker having now gone six internationals without a goal – and the striker’s offside finish also came from a Henderson pass.

That says a lot about England’s missing stardust, and Kane might well have wished to have seen Sancho introduced sooner given the raw, fearlessness he showed. Ben Chilwell, on his first England start, looks primed to grow into the role at left-back after a confident display.

England were the better side, but for once, their failure to beat another leading nation was somewhat overshadowed by the conditions.

They head to Seville next knowing this odd night will not live long in the memory, but also that they must be far more clinical in front of goal against Luis Enrique’s in-form Spain side in far more raucous surroundings.

Southgate reflected afterwards: “You want to perform in front of a crowd. It raises the level of the game, but I thought our players were really good. We defended well and pressed well.

“If we’d been a bit more ruthless with our chances, we would’ve won the game.”

 

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