England Under-21s signed off the European Championships just as they started with careless mistakes and a chaotic finale allowing victory to fall from their grasp. Three times Aidy Boothroyd’s side led Croatia. Three times they squandered the initiative. They have been consistent in Italy and San Marino but being winless and error-ridden was not what England set out to achieve.
Inexplicable lapses in concentration were features of defeats to both France and Romania. They resurfaced here as defending that left the head coach struggling for answers enabled Croatia to cancel out goals from Reiss Nelson, James Maddison and Jonjoe Kenny. This has been a steep learning curve for players with designs on full England honours in the near future. In 10 unbeaten qualifiers England conceded four goals. In the heat of three tournament group games they have conceded nine. Switching off has been a pattern of their play throughout.
“It’s the story of the tournament for us really – wonderful attacking play but basic, fundamental defensive errors with poor passes and decisions,” said Boothroyd. “At least we are getting one part of the game right but, with this team, conceding goals has undone us.
“There is obviously a concentration issue but it’s been different players who have been doing it, not just one guy over and over again. When we go through it all there will be plenty to learn. The main thing is that you stay in the game mentally, you score a goal and instead of relaxing you need to treble your efforts. That is all over the pitch. When you look at the calibre of players who are making the mistakes it doesn’t make sense. There will be reasons and we will get to the bottom of them with a new team next time around.”
Nelson, Tammy Abraham and Lloyd Kelly were handed first starts and each impressed initially. The Arsenal forward Nelson posed a constant threat from the right and his quick feet won an early penalty when he was clipped inside the area by Branimir Kalaica following a slick passing move involving Kieran Dowell and the recalled Phil Foden. Abraham was England’s designated penalty taker but Nelson took it, and scored confidently, without consulting Boothroyd. “They’d not told me,” he said. “I haven’t got to the bottom of it yet.”
Abraham struck a post with an impudent flick from Maddison’s pass but, just as England were in control, their defensive problems appeared. Josip Brekalo was afforded far too much space on the left and accepted the invitation to attack Kenny. The Wolfsburg midfielder feigned to go outside the new Schalke loan signing only to cut inside and drive a fine finish into the far, top corner of Dean Henderson’s goal.
Nelson was heavily involved again when England retook the lead. The 19-year-old breezed beyond Marijan Cabraja on the right before floating an inviting cross to the back post. Filip Uremovic should have cleared but, under no pressure, directed a tame header straight at Maddison’s feet. He had time to pick his spot and found the roof of the net from 12 yards out.
Once again, however, England gifted their opponents a way back. Kelly seemed to have cleared the danger after Foden had been dispossessed in central midfield, showing good pace to beat Lovro Majer to the through ball that followed. But Bournemouth’s recent recruit undid his good work with a careless pass back to Majer. He found Sandro Kulenovic, the powerful striker laid the ball off to Nikola Vlasic and the former Everton midfielder curled a delightful finish into the bottom corner. Cska Moscow’s new £14m signing was caught by Ezri Konsa and had to be carried off on a stretcher.
Kenny thought he had given England victory with a thunderous 25-yard drive when Maddison’s corner was headed into his path. But they blew it a third time when Henderson’s clearance was returned with interest by Croatia and, with the right-back caught upfield and Fikayo Tomori too deep, Luka Ivanusec released Brekalo to score his second of the game. A deflating end to a tournament to forget for England.