ENGLAND’S 2018 World Cup campaign was an unexpected feelgood story and an undoubted overall triumph, offering hope of better to things to come.
Gareth Southgate performed an exceptional job in engineering an inexperienced and limited team so that it was better than the some of its parts.
The selections of unsung players such as Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier and Jordan Pickford turned out to be masterstrokes, with England a fluent, intelligent and likeable team both on and off the pitch.
And yet they also blew the lead in a winnable semi-final against Croatia and could not capitalise on a historically good opportunity to reach a first World Cup Final on foreign soil.
So here are six reasons why England ultimately failed to go the full distance and reach Sunday’s final at the Luzhniki Stadium – some of which will be easier to solve than others:
1. Lack of creativity in central midfield
THIS one has been glaringly apparent to Southgate since the start of his England reign.
And after qualification, he remodelled his system primarily to counteract this weakness, rather than continuing to employ jobbing pros such as Jake Livermore.
Yet England were second-worst in the tournament for shots on target from open play – only Iran created less than their 0.9 per 90 minutes.
Jordan Henderson had a decent tournament as the sole deep-lying midfielder and was especially good in the quarter-final against Sweden – but against Croatia he gave the ball away far too often.
It was widely predicted that England’s midfield would struggle against Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, as well as the under-rated Marcelo Brozovic.
The obvious temptation might have been to employ Eric Dier alongside Henderson but the Tottenham man has looked unwieldy out here and, in any case, he is not the type of player who truly makes a midfield tick.
Fabian Delph might have been an option to start the semi-final – but despite having a brilliant attitude and engine, he is not in the same class as Croatia’s midfielders.
This problem is unlikely to go away any time soon. There are hopes that Tottenham’s Harry Winks and Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook or the great teenage prodigy, Phil Foden of Manchester City, can step up. But it can take years to develop into a world-class midfield schemer.
2. No back-up for a knackered Harry Kane
KANE is likely to be one of the weirdest Golden Boot winners of all time – six goals, three penalties, two from corners and one fluke.
This is not to say that Kane isn’t world-class, simply that he wasn’t at his physically sharpest here and after putting in a Herculean shift against Colombia, England were aware he was burnt-out by the Sweden match.
Contrary to speculation there was no specific injury to Kane, it was simply fatigue – which has also hampered him at previous tournaments.
Yet there was no genuine option to replace him – Jamie Vardy is an entirely different sort of striker, while Marcus Rashford or Danny Welbeck are both better playing in a wider role.
A fully-fit Daniel Sturridge would have been a fine solution – but nobody can really remember a fully-fit Sturridge.
Kane was often too isolated as well. His instinctive understanding with Dele Alli was not allowed to flourish with Alli in a slightly deeper role than he plays for Spurs.
3. Southgate lost confidence in his subs
ENGLAND did not lose momentum when they rested nine first-choice players in the final group game against Belgium, as many of us had feared – but Southgate did lose some confidence in many of his key back-up players, chiefly as a result of a flat performance in Kaliningrad.
Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek had been earmarked as England’s game-changing substitutes and despite both having a good impact as late replacements against Tunisia, they were both poor after that.
Loftus-Cheek started against Panama and Belgium and failed to make a compelling case in either.
Rashford often looked out of his depth here, especially when he came on against Croatia, and the sight of him giving away a stupid free-kick deep in his own half in the first period of extra-time will have had Southgate seething.
Danny Rose went into the Belgium game as the most likely player to force his way into Southgate’s starting line-up but despite a lively display going forward, he allowed Adnan Januzaj past him to score the only goal.
Rose’s dynamism and left-footedness would have given England something extra on the left but he could not quite convince Southgate he was at the top of his game and worthy of replacing Ashley Young.
Others who had chances of forcing their way in included Vardy and Dier but neither impressed against Belgium’s second string.
4. First half good, second half not so good
ENGLAND were better in the first half than the second half in all five of their meaningful matches – just as Sven Goran Eriksson frequently and famously observed during his own reign.
The Three Lions burned brightly against Tunisia early on, then faded – and they were 5-0 up against Panama by the break.
They had better control against Colombia in the first 45 minutes than the second, and only started allowing Sweden to create chances after the interval when Jordan Pickford made all three of his excellent saves.
Against Croatia this trend was particularly striking. England were outstanding in the first half but naive and disjointed in the second.
This had something to do with Southgate’s lack of confidence in his subs – who were either not used early enough or were not good enough to give England extra impetus.
But it also had much to do with a lack of nous and game-management, especially against their strongest opponents, Colombia and Croatia.
This tendency was more mental than physical and is a problem which will be eased through experience.
5. Kyle Walker isn’t a centre-back
WALKER has not been happy or comfortable operating in a back three – and the Manchester City man’s lack of experience in his unfamiliar role cost England against Tunisia and Croatia.
Walker gave away a penalty from a cross in their tournament opener and he allowed Ivan Perisic to net the equaliser in the semi-final, while he also wasn’t faultless in the build-up to Mario Mandzukic’s winner.
His electric pace was a major boon to England at times but such an energetic and attack-minded player was frustrated not to be playing as right wing-back.
Trippier had such an outstanding World Cup that Walker will not force his way back in there. While Liverpool’s Joe Gomez may be seen as a more natural fit in the back three.
This could leave Walker in the unusual position of being a regular starter for Pep Guardiola’s City but not for an England team which boasts far less quality than the Premier League champions.
6. Panic in the box
ENGLAND were simply not cool-headed enough in the opposition penalty area.
Raheem Sterling was a chief culprit here. With his darting runs and quick feet he was a potent attacking force but as soon as he reached the 18-yard box he tended to fall apart – with glaring misses against Tunisia and Sweden.
Kane then caught the bug against Croatia, with a double chance that he would normally snaffle, which would have put England into a 2-0 lead – though he’d have needed the help of VAR after being incorrectly flagged for offside.
These sort of big-match nerves might dissipate next time around, though, when England will be more experienced tournament campaigners.