'Yorkshire Pirlo' star of the show as England exorcise World Cup demons
It turns out Gareth knows what he is doing.
57 minutes have passed on a baking hot afternoon at Wembley. Kyle Walker has the ball on the half-way line. Kalvin Phillips, playing in a slightly box-to-box role for his country, spots a chunk of space ripe for exploitation and sets off on a run. Walker clips an inch perfect through ball into his path. With two touches and a shimmy, Phillips leaves two midfielders in his wake. Sterling, meanwhile, has been creeping further and further infield since he sent the ball from left to right at the start of the move. As Phillips cuts inside, Sterling turns on the pace, sneaking inside a gap in Croatia's central defence.
Phillips' pass is perfect, executed with a caressed touch on his weak foot. Time appears to stop as the ball rolls towards Sterling. The defender closes in, scrambling to block the shot. Sterling somehow manages to unleash the shot with a split second to spare. Two ricochets later, it's in the back of the net. Wembley erupts.
Yeah the Sterling goal was great, but the real highlight was watching the two blokes fall over each other as they climb across the seat cover pic.twitter.com/QaD5BOYYQV
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) June 13, 2021
Sterling's inclusion was subject to much scrutiny before the game, after underperforming for Manchester City in the latter half of the season. Jack Grealish's consequent exclusion was also a lightning rod for frustration with Gareth Southgate, as fans clamoured for all three of him, Phil Foden and Mason Mount to play behind Harry Kane. But if this game taught us anything, it is the importance of balance.
Having someone like Sterling to make those runs in behind the opposition defence is essential for breaking down defences in these games. As is having midfielders like Phillips, who was surely the best player on the pitch. Whether he was putting in tackles, recovering loose balls, or making runs through midfield to set up a goal, the Leeds man barely put a foot wrong.
Other selections that received criticism - admittedly from myself - included Tyrone Mings and Kieran Trippier. Mings failed to convince in the warm-up friendlies and Trippier playing on his weaker side didn't inspire confidence. But both players rose to the occasion and fulfilled their duties to a tee.
The performance wasn't always scintillating. Harry Kane didn't leave much of a mark on the game, and Kyle Walker wasn't at his best when going forward. But there was a clear plan, a healthy balance to the team, and solid performances all round.
The most difficult group game, on paper at least, is now out of the way. The task now is to take this momentum into Friday's game against Scotland, which will pose new challenges to Southgate and the Three Lions.