Croatia – England: England control Croatia to take point in quiet stalemate (0-0).
Playing behind closed doors – if you exclude the couple of dozen England fans that camped out on the hill behind the small arena – added to the slow and lifeless pace of Croatia’s possession. England made the extra man they created in the back count as they gradually dominated the match and used their width to create the biggest opportunities. That they could not convert was the only reason this game ended in a goalless draw.
After reaching the World Cup final in Russia, three players announced their retirement from Croatia’s national team, attacker Mario Mandžukić being the most notable one. Croatia’s true star power is untouched though, as against England, manager Zlatko Dalić could still field a midfield trio of Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Mateo Kovačić, with Ante Rebić looking to fill the boots left by Mandžukić up front. Compared to their last match – a devastating 6-0 loss against Spain – five personnel changes were made.
England, looked like a very different outfit as well. Rather than sticking by the 3-5-2 formation that got his team in the semifinal of the World Cup, Gareth Southgate decided to revert to a 4-3-3. Be it experimental or not, it did still feature a lot of the expected starters.
With both nations fast falling to the wayside due to Spain’s dominance in this UEFA Nations League group thus far, a win here would’ve been just the kind of result that either side would’ve needed to help keep them within touching distance of their group rivals.
Croatia’s positioning and general movements in possession.
England formed a 4-3-3 against this, with the wingers quite high and ready to press the build-up.
Croatia slow the game down to their own pace
For much of the first half, the ball was in Croatia’s own third. If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the own third is the area that is closest to goal for a team. It is where the build-up begins. A team that tries to play out from the back often tries to progress the ball from their own third to the middle third of the pitch. They were persistent on playing out from as deep as was necessary, sometimes forgetting to speed up the tempo.
In this area of the field, the ball was circulated between the two center-halves, Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, and the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders in this formation are called a ‘double pivot’. , which consisted of Mateo Kovačić and Ivan Rakitić. The double pivot would split vertically with Rakitić forming a back-three and Kovačić becoming the central holding midfielder just ahead.
In response – and maybe this was specifically down to Croatia’s predictable setup – England pressed in their laid out 4-3-3 shape. Using the wide attackers, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, England would hold off and then press when certain situations occurred. For instance, if either of Croatia’s center-backs held the ball but were hesitant to dribble into space and had no clear passing options in midfield, the England forward on that side would press inwards, closing play towards the far side.
Another pressing trigger A pressing trigger is a specific pass or movement by the opponent that draws out a coordinated team press. by England involved Kovačić. When he received the ball, one of the more advanced central midfielders – Jordan Henderson or Ross Barkley – would quickly put pressure on the ball to prevent Kovačić from passing it forward. This was especially necessary as the full-back on the right, where a lot of Croatia’s play revolved around, would be open when Rashford might have already pressed inside at that point.
When Croatia did manage to play out of England’s way of pressing, it was often on the right-hand side of the field. Right winger Kramarić glued himself to England left-back, Ben Chilwell. In doing so, he was able to free space in the middle for Croatia’s right back Tin Jedvaj. Because Luka Modrić – who played his old role as a number ten – drifted to the inside right, Croatia had a man to spare on that flank, which they could often find.
England find the channel into Chilwell
England’s approach in possession varied. Most often, they positioned themselves in a 4-3-3 formation, which would sometimes appear as a 3-4-3, as holding midfielder Eric Dier would drop deep to create the back-three. In attack, Sterling was given a lot of freedom to move away from his nominal right-wing position, but not a lot of attacks came down that side. In fact, most of the runs coming from the right came through Henderson.
England’s best form of attack was to play into their left-back, Chilwell. In contrast to the role of his partnering wide attacker, Rashford was handed a more restricted role. He held his position on the left, right up against Jedvaj. As a result, Chilwell found more success running off the back of a slightly more advanced Kramarić.
Harry Maguire, among others, was the player to pick out the full-back the most. On one of the occasions where Chilwell ran in behind unmarked, he managed to drill a cross into the center which was narrowly snatched away from the feet of the late-arriving Sterling. That, however, was as close as England came through this form of attack.
All tactical tinkering, Croatia’s pressing triggers and England’s build-up patterns aside – not very much happened in terms of scoring opportunities. The closest either side came to scoring a goal was from a corner where Dier’s glancing header bounced back off the far post and passed the three England players that had sprung free of their markers at the back post. A so-nearly moment that could have put the away side ahead just before the break.
England’s second half switch up sees them take further control
Though Southgate held off any personnel changes until the 78th minute, he did not hold back on tactical changes. What appeared to be an identical set-up to the first half changed roughly ten minutes into the second half.
The interchanging between the 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 shapes was still very much the same, but the players in each position were not. This time, when England moved to a 3-4-3 shape, Kyle Walker played on the right side of a back-three whilst Barkley partnered Dier in the midfield. This left Henderson to play the inside right position, where he never lacked the energy to supply support into Sterling, who had taken control of the right flank. This approach reaped a lot of rewards for England as their attempts to play diagonally were paying off to a much greater extent now.
England’s new way of reverting to a 3-4-3 in possession.
Not only did the change result in Sterling getting on the end of a lot more long diagonal passes, but it also added to the attacking threat Walker posed. Having been the sole outlet on the right side in the first half, he could now be the supporting act – a role he clearly excels in a lot more. Much like in the 3-5-2 formation Manchester City have showcased under Pep Guardiola this season, Walker’s overlapping and underlapping runs from deep prove very difficult for opposition players to contain.
For the first big chance of the match, it was Walker’s late, underlapping run that allowed him to receive unpressured. He then curled a delightful ball early across to Rashford on the far side, but the attacker scuffed his effort.
As for Sterling, his runs were massively helped by the lack of support Croatia’s left winger Perišić offered positionally. Even worse than Kramarić was on the opposite side in the first half, Perišić seemed to play as part of Croatia’s midfield line. This meant Sterling did not even need great support to get the better of their left-back, Josip Pavarić – although he was still never short of it from the industrious Henderson.
In the build-up to the second big chance of the match, Henderson had made the run inside that dragged Pavarić inwards. Off the back of that, Rashford cut deep with the ball and spread it wide to Sterling. He was then supported by another underlapping run from Walker before pulling it back to Henderson. The midfielder’s cross was cleared but England won it back on the edge of the box as Sterling slid in Rashford. Rashford’s effort to finish the chance – again – was relatively poor.
By this point, England well and truly controlled the match, but could not convert this into too many scoring chances. Apart from the two big chances that came inside the hour though and a header by Harry Kane that hit the bar – unsurprisingly from a set piece. Jadon Sancho being substituted on to become England’s youngest ever debutant was the only other events of note, as both teams collected their first point after this goalless draw.
Possibly still suffering from their World Cup hangover, Croatia are yet to really get going – at least not in the UEFA Nations League. The lacking atmosphere will not have helped them tonight, but the performance will have left Dalić wanting more, there is no doubt about that.
In stark contrast, Southgate will be pleased with the way his side handled themselves in a system they have not played in for well over a year. The in-game changes from Southgate were what allowed England to take control in the end as they should have been the ones to steal the three points and move closer to Spain in the group.
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