Football is not coming home, after all. Despite Gareth Southgate’s exuberant, engaging side reaching the first semi-final by an English men’s side since 1990, the Croatia of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic denied them a first shot at the overall prize since 1966. Fifty-two years of hurt will, unfortunately, be extended.
Croatia lined up as a nominal 4-2-3-1, but with Luka Modric operating deeper than his designation in the ten role might have suggested. The introduction of Marcelo Brozovic meant that Zlatko Dalic seemed to have addressed the issue that plagued Croatia in some games: while Modric and Rakitic are both genuine examples of that well-worn phrase, a ‘world-class player’, neither is great when shackled with defensive duties. Their deployment as a double pivot in some games, with Andre Kramaric operating in the hole, had left Croatia looking a little open through the middle; Brozovic’s introduction sought to rectify that.
Instead, however, Croatia looked like they might be vulnerable to England’s 3-5-2 because, while they sought to press high and disrupt England’s defenders and Jordan Henderson, they left gaps between the forward and higher midfield line, and Brozovic and the defensive line. This was doubtless due to fears over Raheem Sterling’s pace (and the Manchester City man was again superb, carrying and holding the ball brilliantly), and the surging runs of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard.
For significant parts of the first half, England indeed looked on top, pushing direct vertical passes towards Kane and Sterling, but Croatia’s press told and England were unable either to link their play well from deep or push their defensive line forwards, or to exploit the gap left by Croatia in the midfield area. In addition, Mario Mandzukic targeted Kyle Walker, England’s least capable centre-back in the air, while Ante Rebic tried to move across as often as possible, allowing the excellent Sime Vrsaljko to push high. He was aided by Ashley Young often tucking in too much, as England’s back line struggled to adjust to Walker being buffeted around by Mandzukic, and Croatia’s press.
When England did get the ball, Croatia either stopped them playing it properly, or passes were wasted. Henderson was shut down very effectively, which meant that Kane and Sterling were either not found, or had to drop deeper than previously to try to forage for it. Because Croatia worked hard to get overloads in both wide spaces, especially on their left, Kieran Trippier was unable to get forward to provide the consistently excellent outlet he had otherwise delivered. England’s early flurry gave way to long passes that did not find their target, and the shutting down of Henderson denied Southgate’s side the player who can dictate the tempo of a game with his passing. In short, while Croatia held on to the ball well, England did not.
England also fell back too early which, in addition to failing to hold the ball, invited pressure. If a team does this, and then does not defend the danger areas, which against Croatia are the wide spaces, especially on the left where Ivan Perisic was again the main outlet, they will lose. Add to that Croatia’s undoubted ability, with Modric and Rakitic, to dictate the tempo in midfield if allowed, and England essentially caused some of their own problems. Southgate either did not respond, or did not get his response across adequately: England needed to hold on to the ball, stop hitting long passes, and adequately close down the wide areas.
If that sounds unduly negative, it is only because otherwise England have played so well this tournament. Kieran Trippier has excelled in the right wing-back role, and his goal against Croatia was just reward for being England’s player of the tournament. Raheem Sterling may not have convinced his doubters, because that is probably an impossible task, but he played magnificently, carrying the ball under pressure and providing England with a constant outlet. John Stones’ error for Mandzukic’s goal was probably his only of the tournament and, to be fair to him, the cross was allowed in all too easily; Jordan Pickford was excellent throughout as well, and put to bed questions about England’s goalkeeping options.
England fell just short, beaten on the night by a more canny team who adapted their game plan and found that England could not. Nonetheless, the side can be proud of their achievements, exceeding pre-tournament expectations and, more importantly, restoring the joy in English football. With a host of young talents waiting in the wings as well, it is a very exciting time to be an England fan.
The entire England squad and hundreds of other footballers are available to trade on Football INDEX: https://www.footballindex.co.uk/stockmarket/team