England – Croatia: Proactive England Secure First Win (1-0)

England came into the game with a positive attitude and proactive tactical plan, which saw them dominate the game in the opening period, featuring some good left sided combinations and attacks into depth, as well as strong pressing. Croatia’s midfield were able to bring calm to the game temporarily, however, Raheem Sterling’s goal early in the second half was enough to secure a win for England. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

England kicked off their EURO 2020 campaign against the side that knocked them out of the World Cup three years ago. Gareth Southgate threw up somewhat of a surprise in the team selection, picking Kieran Trippier at left back ahead of Ben Chilwell or Luke Shaw, perhaps for his set-piece taking abilities. 

Trippier was joined in the back four by Kyle Walker, John Stones and Tyrone Mings who covers for the absence of Harry Maguire. In midfield there was a trio of Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips and Mason Mount, while Phil Foden, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling made up the front line in England’s 4-3-3 system. 

For Croatia, there was also a 4-3-3 shape, with a back four of Šime Vrsaljko, Domagoj Vida, Duje Ćaleta-Car and Joško Gvardiol. In midfield there was no longer the presence of Ivan Rakitić, so Mateo Kovačić joined Marcelo Brozović and Luka Modrić in the center. Finally, there was a front three of Andrej Kramarić, Ante Rebić and Ivan Perišić. 

Commanding start for England

England started the game with a high tempo which Croatia struggled to deal with in the first twenty minutes or so. During this period, England looked tactically quite cohesive, with intensity against the ball, and some good group tactical plays in possession. 

England’s lineup led to some speculation of a 4-2-3-1 shape being used, as it was during the two warmup friendlies. However, the shape was in fact a 4-3-3 formation, with Rice as the deepest midfielder, and Phillips playing as a number eight alongside Mount. 

Phillips’ positioning was often surprisingly high, making bursts forward to join Kane in the frontline and offer presence in and around the box. This was also facilitated by the positioning of Walker, who generally stayed a bit deeper and narrower, although still making the occasional overlapping When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping.run, as well as Foden, who started wide and looked to stretch the pitch for England. Phillips’ forward runs could also serve to clear space for Foden by pushing Croatia midfielders back when Foden received the ball and look to cut inside. 

The left side was where more of England’s attack was focused though, especially between Mount and Sterling, also joined by Trippier’s forward runs. Here, there were some decent rotations between Mount and Sterling, with Mount often making diagonal movements out to the wing, and Sterling often looking to cut inside or make runs in behind the defense. Some of England’s better moments in the first half came from the group combinations on this side of the pitch, and Sterling threatened with his movement throughout. 

Croatia’s pressing was often not that intense, especially early on, where England had plenty of time to play the ball along the backline. Rice would sometimes drop out of the number six area and out to the left, outside of Mings, or between the center-backs. This could help to give England an overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. in the first line when Croatia transitioned into a 4-4-2 pressing shape with Modrić stepping out of midfield alongside Rebić. 

However, in these scenes, England’s number six space could end up being left empty because of Rice vacating it and the other midfielders being pushed up. The lack of presence in this central space could sometimes force England into a slower tempo, having to play around the outside of Croatia’s pressing shape rather than being able to connect quickly into the center.

Example of England’s rotations on the left from the 14th minute, with Sterling dropping deep while Tripper moves ahead, with Mount remaining in the left halfspace. Also visible: Rice dropping out of the six space, which means England lack a connection to play quickly into the center.

One of the more promising routes for England was actually just the direct pass over the top of the defense. Foden and Sterling made darting runs in behind the Croatia defense when they tried to push up the pitch, and England were quick to seek the long passes in behind, which gained them good territory in the first period. 

Croatia find composure

After the menacing first twenty minutes or so from England however, the tempo slowed somewhat, perhaps partly due to being unable to sustain such energy levels in the weather conditions present. The subsequent period also saw a more composed performance from Croatia on the ball, which further slowed the tempo down. 

Key to this was the midfield presence of Modrić, as well as Brozović and Kovačić. England pressed in a 4-3-3 shape, and were keen for the wingers to be able to step in onto Croatia’s center-backs in order to force long balls. 

This was somewhat successful to start with, however Croatia eventually started shorter passes into midfield, and subsequently the passes out from midfield to the fullbacks who were free as a result of the narrow wingers of England. 

Furthermore, Modrić began dropping into the second line and helping to dissolve pressure with his intelligent play. Kovačić also supplied a couple of good dribbles and general press resistance from the left halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. which further helped Croatia find a foothold in the game.

England go ahead

The teams went in level at half time, with Foden having come the closest in the first half with a shot which hit the post. Just over ten minutes into the second half, England took the lead through Sterling’s finish, with Phillips’ advanced positioning in the right halfspace again being crucial in the buildup. 

The first changes for Croatia to try and get back into the game arrived ten minutes later, with Nikola Vlašić and Josip Brekalo replacing Brozović and Kramarić. The introduction of Vlašić meant that Kovačić moved deeper in midfield and Modrić also started from deep more often, with Vlašić occupying the more advanced midfield position. 

The duo of Modrić and Kovačić were the ones responsible for driving the Croatia attack forward against England who now defended deeper in a 4-1-4-1 shape. Croatia’s occupation of the central spaces between the lines was not always the strongest, so attacks often finished towards the wings, with Vrsaljko and Gvardiol joining the attacks to put crosses in. 

England continued to hold strong though, and Croatia struggled to find good routes into dangerous areas. Croatia found it difficult to draw out England midfielders to allow Modrić and Kovačić to outplay them and find gaps behind. Instead, England’s midfield were fairly passive and comfortable shifting side to side. 

Further substitutes from both sides saw changes up front as Marcus Rashford came in for Foden, and Bruno Petković replacing Rebić for Croatia. Jude Bellingham also helped shore up the England midfield, as he came on for Kane. This meant that Rashford moved into a central position, and Mount out to the right. England were able to see the rest of the game out in their deep 4-1-4-1 shape, securing the win in their first game of the tournament. 


England started the game in outstanding fashion, with good tempo and aggressive pressing. The left sided combinations were strong, as expected in this 4-3-3 shape where wing rotations are one of the strongest features. They also looked relatively solid in their defensive shape towards the end of the game, although perhaps were not tested to their limits by Croatia’s attack. 

Croatia looked somewhat overwhelmed at the start but showed their capabilities to control the tempo of the game through their midfield in the middle portion of the game. They struggled for answers against a deeper England defense, as they were not particularly strong in their occupation of central spaces and somewhat dependent on early crosses and wide attacks.

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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