England – Croatia: England get deserved, late turnaround against Croatia (2-1)
Gareth Southgate’s side displayed fluid rotations and movements that enabled England to pull apart the Croatian midfield throughout the first half. After they failed to convert those chances, once again, set pieces saw them home and dry in the second half.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
Compared to their last UEFA Nations League encounter, against Spain, not much had changed personnel-wise for England. The only changes came in the form of Fabian Delph, John Stones and Kyle Walker, who replaced Harry Winks, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier respectively. Gareth Southgate recently replaced his successful 5-3-2 World Cup system with the 4-3-3 setup he began with as an England manager, the attacking trio being Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
In spite of his expressed worries about his players’ levels of fatigue, Zlatko Dalić made just one change from the side that played in their enthralling 3-2 win over Spain on Thursday night. Nikola Vlašić replaced Ivan Rakitić, with Luka Modrić now featuring as part of the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. rather than in the number ten position.
Croatia’s 4-2-3-1 formation against England’s 4-3-3 setup without the ball.
England control early phases of the match
England most often switched to a 3-4-3 shape in possession, as one of Eric Dier and Kyle Walker would be the ones to make up the extra man at the back. If it was the former, Ross Barkley would drop alongside Fabian Delph in midfield; if it was the latter, Raheem Sterling would drop deeper and act as a right-wing-back of sorts, leaving Barkley to fill Sterling’s inside forward position.
In theory, Croatia’s wide midfielders on either side should have been able to press the center-backs without any repercussions. They were reluctant to do so because of England’s wing-backs. So, instead of leaving a five-versus-four overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. on the last line in their opponent’s favor, they instead dropped the wide midfielder on the ball-side back and gave more time to the wide center-back with the ball. Unfortunately for them, this did little in the way of stopping England from creating any dangerous openings.
Against a relatively high positioned Croatian defensive block A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block. , there was plenty of space in behind. Naturally, England, with the pace of Walker, Sterling and Marcus Rashford tried to exploit this on multiple occasions, and to good success.
In the tenth minute, when Joe Gomez was afforded time, he managed to feed the ball into Harry Kane, who had just made a movement towards the center of midfield to receive. With a sharp turn and Sterling quicker on his feet than Domagoj Vida, Sterling ran through on goal. His hesitancy cost him, though, and the chance was squandered.
With Croatia’s defensive strategy most commonly being to have the wide midfielders work back to track the runs of England’s wing-backs, this created space to play in just wide of the Croatian double pivot. As England had a fine double wide presences on either side – with Ben Chilwell and Rashford on the left, and Sterling and Walker on the right – not only England’s central defenders were given a lot of time on the ball to pick out passes. Barkley and Delph were given this luxury too.
England’s possession shape with Delph and Barkley coming wide to hold the ball.
Delph in general was the heartbeat of the team. His press-resistance, accuracy with the ball and movement to get on the ball were crucial to a lot of England’s best plays.
In the fifteenth minute, Delph, having weaved past two opponents, managed to loft a delightful, weak-footed pass over the top for Sterling’s run as he yet again found himself with time on the ball. The attacker lost the duel against the outrushing goalkeeper, and Kane subsequently failed to convert two difficult rebounds. Another chance for England, which marked their dominance in the opening stage of the game.
Croatia adjust to overcome midfield issues
To begin with, Dalić’s side had set out in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Vlašić marking Dier. The main issue that arose was how exposed Modrić and Marcelo Brozović were thanks to the fluid movements of the England midfield and attack. Not only were Barkley, Dier and Delph all interchanging in different positions, but Sterling and Rashford were always lurking off the back of the midfield, slightly away from their markers.
Croatia adjusted by letting Vlašić drop into a deeper position to create a flat midfield five. Now they were better guarding the gaps into the forwards, as well as the movements of the England midfield.
In the second half, Dalić took it a step further. Still 0-0 at the break, the manager thought it best to let Croatia’s defense play closer to its own goal, to soak up pressure and hit the hosts on the break. Andrej Kramarić, the wide right midfielder, was now playing as a right wing-back out of possession, probably to stop the threat of easy switches into Rashford and Chilwell and to close the gaps between each defender.
The adjustments worked to a charm, since England could only recycle the ball short between themselves. The central midfield trio that was covering ground in the center did not have to move anywhere near as much as in the first half. So the home side continued to struggle without the same threat they posed in the first half.
Croatia hit England on the break
In the 57th minute, England lost the ball on Croatia’s half and had to recover. After three forwards passes that could not be prevented, Kramarić got on the ball and after a series of cuts and flicks, he managed to get a shot in on England’s goal. After a fortunate deflection, Jordan Pickford was unable to make a save and the ball went in England’s net.
It is most certainly fair to say that Croatia offered very little in the way of a threat with the ball. Their rudimentary possession spells featured Modrić moving where he liked to pick up the ball, and the wide midfielders dropping into their respective halfspaces to receive. A very fruitless approach. There were no signs of progress through England’s midfield or even down the flanks. Apart from some vicious counterattacks, they did not create scoring opportunities.
Why did it then not feel like much of a surprise that they took the lead from a deflected effort on the counter in the fifty-eighth minute? Because that’s just how football is sometimes – and there was a glooming feeling of familiarity making its way around the Wembley stadium.
Set pieces save the day
Callbacks to the World Cup were endless in this game. In a now all-or-nothing situation for England – as they faced relegation or qualification and nothing in-between – they began to pile on the pressure and subsequently managed to earn more set pieces. It has become one of their renowned strengths, and it paid off again big time.
First, following a corner, Gomez launched a throw-in into the mixer. Stones was first to it as his knockdown fell to Kane at the back post. Substitute Jesse Lingard was then there to ensure it went over the line as the hosts equalized. With seventy-eight minutes on the clock, the game was set to go out with a bang and the fans at Wembley certainly were in for a feisty end.
Six minutes later, who other than Kane was in the right place at the right time to finish the job. Chilwell, who had hardly played a single ball of quality all game, pulled one out of the bag when England needed it most. His delivery across the face of goal met the out-stretched leg of Kane as it crept in at the far post to put England ahead and in pole position in Group 4, with as little as five minutes to play.
In a major showdown that could have resulted in any of Spain, England or Croatia topping the group, the Three Lions came out on top. Southgate’s growing side continues to move forwards as the future continues to look bright for them.
On the day, England’s quality performance-wise was far superior to Croatia’s. Even when Dalić’s side managed to frustrate Southgate’s men, they looked far from a side with real venom in attack.
The reliance on set pieces might well be brought up as a limitation of Southgate’s England but the sheer number of chances they managed to create in both this game and the reverse tie should not be forgotten in a hurry.