World Cup Semi Final, July 11 2018
Croatia ended England's hopes of reaching a first World Cup final since 1966 by coming from behind with a winning goal in extra-time. Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic capitalised on a lack of concentration from the Three Lions' defence to settle the tie with a half volley in the 109th minute and set up a meeting with France in the final. Kieran Trippier, who has earned many an admirer this summer, got England off to the perfect start with a sublime free-kick in the fifth minute, but teammates Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard will look back with regret on the glorious chances they missed to extend their lead during an excellent opening period. Croatia eventually settled, with Luka Modric delivering a world-class performance, before Ivan Perisic's second-half finish sent the match to extra-time. There were few signs of fatigue from a team who had to win two penalty shoot-outs to reach this stage. Gareth Southgate's players were in tears at the full-time whistle, with only a few days to recover before facing Belgium in the third place playoff in Saint Petersburg.
22 / 8
SHOTS / ON TARGET
12 / 2
Passes / Accurate
23 / 2 / 0
Fouls / Yellow / Red
13 / 1 / 0
Croatia again alternated their starting line-up, with Marcelo Brozovic coming in to defensively bolster the midfield in place of Andrej Kramaric. Their structure therefore resembled a 4-3-3, enabling the dangerous and talented duo of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to move forward from midfield.
England’s central attacking box – which was constant and successful in the first half – initially caused issues. Only five minutes in, Croatia went behind through a fine Kieran Tripper free-kick following a foul by Modric on Dele Alli. From here, Zlatko Dalic's side uncharacteristically failed to settle in possession. Despite having fine passers in Modric and Rakitic, they lacked rhythm and character with the ball.
With England hoping to build from the back, they regularly pushed high. Mario Mandzukic was effective in forcing goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to go long – which his side’s back line dealt with comfortably. The pace of Raheem Sterling did present problems, particularly as they expanded in possession to search for a way back into the game, but it seemed as though they had forgotten they had well over an hour to hit back.
It was the advancement of their full-backs that was crucial in helping them to grab a foothold in the tie. England’s shape afforded spaces in both channels, with their wing-backs dropping deep to occupy Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic. But neither of their two wingers had a real impact from the channels, and Perisic eventually moved into the inside channel – a decision that would later bring success.
Rakitic began to drop deeper, and this was effective in reducing England’s access into their central box. Modric now fluidly took control of the midfield – and thus Croatia’s build-up. Their opponents alternated between aggressively marking Croatia’s advancing full-backs – which then left Modric relatively untouched – or vice versa. Either way, Croatia now had a foothold on possession, actively probing England’s back line. As Pickford continued to go long, Croatia’s possession soon became dominant in a vicious cycle of attacking play, quick regains, and attacking play once more.
England’s set-up with two central strikers allowed Croatia’s midfield to take full control, with Modric providing a world-class example of how to manage a football match. The tempo of their second-half play was set by the Real Madrid man. Comfortable under pressure, his movements, mainly along the right inside channel, enabled Croatia to utilise the forward progress of right-back Sime Vrsaljko.
Their first goal came from Perisic, whose movements off the ball in supporting Mandzukic in the central lane against England’s three centre-backs had become increasingly aggressive. Rakitic demonstrated another excellent switch out to Vrsaljko, who then crossed into England’s penalty area. Kyle Walker was completely unaware of Perisic’s movements, as the 29-year-old’s hooked effort hit the back of the net.
Croatia’s pressure mounted, but they couldn't find a second breakthrough within the 90 minutes. This became their third consecutive tie to go to extra-time – the equivalent of playing an additional entire game. But, despite some suggestions that fatigue could affect their performance, they went on to take a deserved lead in the 109th minute. The concentration and organisation of England’s central defence failed, as John Stones lost track of the ball – and Mandzukic. The Juventus forward spun before sending the ball home on the half volley to break England hearts and set up a World Cup final with France.
Gareth Southgate named an unchanged side from England’s quarter-final victory over Sweden. The Three Lions continued in their 3-5-2 formation, as they looked to make an early impact with incisive forward passing. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard’s double number 10 positioning initially provided central access behind Croatia’s midfield block, and, as with the majority of their games in the tournament, they started on the front foot, looking to split lines and pin back their opponents.
With Alli and Lingard positioned high between their opponents’ units – along with Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling – England had a central box around Croatia’s lone defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic. Only five minutes in, Luka Modric was forced to commit a foul on Alli, which led to full-back Kieran Trippier curling a wonderful free-kick into the net from outside the box to give England the lead.
Alli and Lingard continued to combine well, but the failure of their back line to build short while under pressure reduced the frequency of their attacks. Jordan Pickford frequently went long as a result, but Croatia’s defensive block were far superior in the air, often winning the first and second balls. England did have three glorious chances to extend their lead in the first half though, with Kane squandering two great opportunities and Lingard curling an effort wide from the edge of the penalty area.
With Croatia needing a more proactive approach, they opened up at the back. The speed of Sterling was the ideal target for direct balls in behind, but while his pace threatened, it wasn’t exploited. Croatia utilised their experience to regain control, and their combinations towards right-back Sime Vrsaljko soon became an issue.
England’s central midfield trio became laboured in their pressing. As their opponents switched the play, the demand to press and slide the entire width of the pitch drained their energy. With England's formation and central midfield largely remaining the same throughout the tournament, there were clear signs that an extra body was needed in the middle of the pitch.
Alli, Lingard and Henderson’s duties out of possession could have been slightly reduced by dropping Sterling into the midfield block, creating a 4-5-1 structure. This might have reduced their ability to effectively counter-attack, but they would have had a much more solid foundation to build from. The midfield unit would also not have been overworked during the defensive block. With the game going to extra-time, this tweak could have made the difference.
While England’s tactics did require Kane to drop deep, sometimes even around the halfway line during the build, they lacked a presence inside the penalty area. Croatia’s central defenders were barely tested in the second half, as Kane progressively moved further and further away from their vicinity. An inadequate defensive structure and the forcing of their most effective player, Kane, to drop was a key factor in a poor second half.
With Croatian pressure building, England eventually conceded – Ivan Perisic stabbing home an equaliser in the 68th minute. A failure to change their structure coupled with momentum shifting in Croatia’s favour saw their opponents’ dominance continue into extra-time. It did look as though it would be a third consecutive penalty shoot-out for Croatia, until Mario Mandzukic reacted first to Perisic’s header inside the area and swivelled to score the eventual winner.
Southgate introduced Eric Dier, Danny Rose and Jamie Vardy in extra-time, but the latter in particular struggled to influence proceedings, as Croatia reduced their defensive block and limited the space for the Leicester City striker to provide his direct movements in behind. An alternative approach could have been to bring on Danny Welbeck, who does have a habit of grabbing late goals.
Trippier’s injury reduced England to 10 men for the final proceedings, and despite regaining some control, they created little and never really looked capable of fighting back. The full-time whistle knocked the Three Lions out of their first World Cup semi final since 1990, but they will return home having brought more joy to a nation than was ever anticipated.
Author: Tony Hodson