Croatia’s fullbacks reign supreme while England continue their search for plan B
After 120 minutes against Russia and Denmark, and different formations leading to the England game, it was quite intriguing to see how Croatia would set up. As for England, the expected formation was known but it would be seen if there would be any tactical tweaks from Gareth Southgate.
Zlatko Dalic decided to start the match with a similar setup to the Argentina game, with Modric and Rakitic pressing higher than the wings to try and break down England’s build up, the duo along with Mandzukic pressed the two center backs nearer to the ball while covering any passes towards Henderson. The problem this time for Croatia was that England’s midfield movements were better than that of Argentina, and Alli and Lingard managed to find spaces behind Modric and Rakitic, and throughout the first half England played towards these spaces either through long balls or passes from the defence, one of these balls eventually resulted in a free kick through which Trippier managed to open the score for England.
After the goal Croatia managed to maintain possession but in their rush to equalize, they were poor in decision making, and ironically too slow in terms of passing the ball with a lack of horizontal passes in the build up which made it easier for England’s midfield to contain Rakitic-Modric, eventually resorting to crossing from unfavorable positions which the England defence handled brilliantly. With Croatia pushing forward spaces started to emerge in their back line which was in theory the perfect situation for England, however their decision making in offensive transitions along with their execution failed them.
In the second half Dalic made slight but effective changes, Full backs pushed forward while Modric-Rakitic dropped a bit to orchestrate the wing play, the main difference was how the midfield trio of Modric, Rakitic and Brozovic were keen to shift play as fast as possible to the other full back, as Alli, Lingard and Henderson were more concerned with the full back near the ball, Modric and Rakitic, it was the full back on the other side that was totally free. Add to that, England’s decision to go with long balls towards Kane throughout the half, putting themselves in an Edge of Tomorrow scenario of defend, restart, defend with no control of the game and being under constant pressure. Finally, one of these perfect cross field balls reached Vrsaljko who had time to cross the ball, only for Perisic to equalize. Croatia could have taken the lead after numerous errors from the England defence, but England saw it out.
England maintained possession again in the first 15 minutes of extra time, threatening through the left side as Rose was introduced instead of Young, however the only danger came from a corner as Vrsaljko cleared Stones’ header off the line, Mandzukic came close to take the lead but a heroic save from Pickford denied it. Kramaric was introduced to offer more options centrally and in the box, hoping for another Vrsaljko cross but it was through Pivaric this time that Croatia got their winner as Mandzukic was the most alert player in the box after a hopeful Perisic header. Southgate tried changing things up by introducing Vardy and switching to a back four with Trippier maintaining the width on the right hand side with Rashford on the other, but an injury to Trippier after England made their 4 substitutions saw them lopsided with no signs of any threat.
England’s failure to negate Croatia’s fullbacks in addition to their lack of an alternative plan saw them drop out even after an impressive first half where they could have doubled their lead. Croatia meanwhile will try to overcome their Lilian Thuram nightmare, however this time with a much prestigious reward, the World Cup.