England’s bold choices pay off: Richard Buxton
Southgate's willingness to trust his instincts helps Three Lions win their Euros opener for the first time
England manager Gareth Southgate may have just altered the course of the Three Lions' Euro 2020 history.
No team have played in as many European Championship games as England - who are making their 10th Finals appearance - without ever reaching the final.
|(Raheem Sterling 57)|
Until last night's 1-0 win over Croatia in their Group D opener, the Class of 2021 appeared destined to become the latest chapter of a seemingly never-ending hard luck story of self-defeatism.
But with a mix of bold choices and selection gambles, Southgate might have changed that.
Raheem Sterling's 57th-minute strike, pouncing onto a through-ball from influential Leeds United midfielder Kalvin Phillips, breathed new life into a flagging Three Lions team who had resolutely attempted to take the game to their ageing visitors in the first half.
The Manchester City forward's inclusion in the starting line-up itself had already sparked consternation, with Southgate lambasted before the game for choosing a player who had grown up in the shadow of Wembley, ahead of Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho.
Yet, the England manager's gamble paid off handsomely as he ended an unflattering sequence of nine winless opening group salvos in the continent's flagship tournament.
He refused to bow to public pressure and persevered with a player whose track record of scoring for his country had produced a flawless return of 10 previous victories.
Southgate can also claim vindication for favouring protectionism over panache with Kieran Trippier's rare deployment at left-back raising eyebrows and questions alike.
Prior to staring down Zlatko Dalic's charges, he had played in the role on just four previous occasions, with the previous weekend's friendly win over Austria the most recent.
Having the inside knowledge to nullify Atletico Madrid teammate Sime Vrsaljko, operating on the right side of defence, saw Trippier chosen over the in-form duo of Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell.
Hindsight suggests that Southgate's boldness reaped a deserved reward as Trippier rarely appeared troubled by Croatia's three-pronged attack while right-back Kyle Walker recovered from a shaky first-half to shackle Ivan Perisic and Josko Gvardiol.
For a time, this maiden Group D encounter was in danger of following a similar pattern for England.
As the clock ticked down towards the interval, Phil Foden's early effort that crashed against the base of Dominik Livakovic's right-hand post increasingly faded from memory with Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic taking turns to wrest back control from their hosts.
Once temperatures soared at England's national stadium, however, the black-shirted Croatians wilted. They struggled to contain the omnipotent threat posed by Sterling, Phillips as well as second-half substitutes Marcus Rashford and Jude Bellingham.
Southgate's willingness to trust his instincts has further shifted the perception of the Englishman, who has made the job his own these past 4½ years.
Before last night, no England manager had the presence of mind to field a starting line-up devoid of Liverpool or Manchester United players at a major tournament, since the Euro 1992 clash against against France.
Refusing to pander solely to representatives of the English Premier League's traditional Big Six is an indication of Southgate's willingness to place his hopes in the new brightest and best.
That should mean more minutes for the likes of Phillips, Aston Villa's Tyrone Mings - the first Villan to start for England at the Euros since Southgate himself played against Germany in 1996 - and West Ham United midfielder Declan Rice.
Full-throated renditions of "Football's Coming Home" at the final whistle may still be somewhat premature but England have never been in a stronger position to deliver.