This is the first time I’ve been asked to assess the involvement of United players in an England team at this World Cup, which is a real shame because their performances against Croatia did not really tell the story of their tournament, for two of the three who played at least.
Collectively the national team will look on the defeat in Moscow as a missed opportunity, having squandered a number of first half chances to take a surely insurmountable two goal lead into half time.
After the break Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic changed his team’s shape and with Gareth Southgate failing to respond, something which is becoming a slightly concerning flaw in his management, the game turned. Once the equaliser had been scored by Ivan Perisic, a winner for the Balkan side looked and was inevitable. England leave the tournament with their heads held high and have united a nation with their youth, energy and likeable nature, at a time when divisions at home are as pronounced as they have been in decades. Their World Cup has largely been a qualified success.
Of United’s representatives in this England team, Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young have every reason to be proud of their contributions. They have played their part in a team that was truly just that, a team, rather than the collection of individuals the national side have so often fielded in the past.
In the first half on Wednesday Lingard epitomised the energy, intelligence and endeavour of the side, pressing with vigour, finding pockets of space and worrying the Croats in an around their own box. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with his game, his finishing was not quite up to scratch. It was he who missed one of England’s best first half chances, receiving the ball in space on the edge of the area and producing a tame side-foot effort that bounced well wide when it would have been more prudent to go for power.
Like his teammates, Lingard faded in the second half as Croatia took tactical control of the game and the consequences of that high-intensity pressing started to take its toll. In that second period there was a blocked shot, a strike across the face of goal when in space on the right hand side of the box and a miss-control as he attempted to turn on the ball in space on the penalty spot.
His dwindling effectiveness was typical of many of his teammates, who proved in this tournament that they are talented, technically proficient players at club and international level but short of the talent required to consistently challenge the very best. For Lingard at United it has been a similar story, even though he has become synonymous with big-game goals.
2017/18 was a breakout season, for club and country, and he should remain a valued and valuable squad member, but if the aim for 2018/19 is to overhaul Manchester City Mourinho perhaps needs better starting every week. This is particularly the case if the arrival of Fred points to 4-3-3 being the default formation next year, a setup in which Lingard struggles to find an effective role.
The same could be said of Ashley Young, who has enjoyed a decent World Cup in Russia, but fell short against the Croats. For United he can have some effective games at full back before experiencing a nightmare performance every three or four weeks, where he looks every bit the 33-year-old winger playing in defence.
This week, unfortunately, was his nightmare, lacking sharpness from the off, experiencing a chronic poor first touch and repeatedly getting caught on the ball by taking too long to release it. His one vital and positive contribution was to fling himself in front of a first-half Perisic shot, getting his toe to the ball and deflecting it wide for a corner. At full time, with the score 1-1, Young was replaced by Danny Rose. It was a sign only of Southgate’s game management intransigence that he lasted so long. Like Lingard, Young can be proud of his contribution in Russia, but this just wasn’t his night.
In the 74th minute, the Croats having equalised, the England manager finally made a change. Unfortunately it proved to be the wrong one. Instead of dropping Raheem Sterling to the wing to counter the overload in the left back area, Southgate replaced him with Marcus Rashford and continued to play two up front. With fresh legs Rashford should have troubled his opponents, but he was completely unable to get into the game, a real disappointment against defenders who had struggled to deal with Sterling’s pace in the first half.
It rather summed up the 20-year-old’s World Cup, offering promise without execution. Like his United form, it feels as if Rashford has lost the directness and simplicity from his game, seemingly now favouring trickery and dribbling over decisive actions in and around the box. When he exploded into Louis Van Gaal’s first team he was a penalty box finisher, deadly and exciting.
Now it is slightly harder to pinpoint his role, and it is perhaps the case that he needs clarity from his manager and the United coaching staff as to what type of player they want him to develop into. Against Belgium and in his other World Cup cameos that youthful confidence and exuberance has been missing and it will ultimately be Jose Mourinho’s job next season to mould a prodigious talent into a consistent and decisive performer.
Remarkably United had five players who played some part in the World Cup semi-finals this week. Only Paul Pogba will feature in the final, but England’s Red contingent should take heart from their Russian journey.
Against Croatia, they and many of their teammates fell short, ultimately outclassed technically and tactically by the best side they have faced in the last month. They will have the chance to take out their frustrations on Belgium in the 3rd/4th placed playoff at the weekend before returning to United, where Jose Mourinho will have noted their contributions, hard work and endeavour.
Regardless of whether we consider them good enough to be first choice picks for their club and their contribution against Croatia, the performances of Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard in particular over the course of the tournament should leave both players feeling very proud indeed. For Marcus Rashford it will hopefully be part of a learning curve that can end with the creation of a top class footballer. What sort of top class footballer is yet to be determined.