Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
This was to be Gareth Southgate’s greatest test yet. After a facile route to the semi-final, throughout which England’s 3-3-2-2 was never seriously tested, the question was this: could Southgate adjust when the going got tough? The answer, after an enthralling clash with Croatia, is an emphatic no.
And, yet, there was only one team in this game for an hour; and it wasn’t the one managed by Zlatko Dalic. The Croatian boss may have seen sense before kick-off, by dumping the 4-2-4 that toiled for two-thirds of the victory over Russia. But reversion to 4-3-3, a shape tailor-made to trouble England on paper, did not bring immediate joy.
Re-inserting Marcelo Brozovic at the base of Croatia’s midfield, allowing both Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric to push higher, seemed certain to overload Jordan Henderson. But, in fact, the opposite was true in the first-half, as Croatia’s stunningly broken press continually exposed Brozovic instead.
Pressing England high did force Jordan Pickford into kicking the vast majority of his passes long. And Harry Kane, invariably the target, won just over half of his headed duels, too. But that wasn’t the problem for Croatia: the second ball, on the other hand, very much was.
Pressing, of course, requires a high defensive line to deny the opposition space if they happen to play through. But the Croatian defence, understandably scared of Raheem Sterling’s channel running, failed to push up. England, by way of contrast, looked far more compact from back-to-front. Midfielders Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, therefore, were always favourites to collect the plethora of loose balls nodded their way.
This, in fact, is how Kieran Trippier’s opening goal — a direct free-kick — was earned. England lumped one of 103 long balls they attempted in this game at left-back Ivan Strinic, who headed it away. Lingard duly nipped in to the gulf behind Rakitic to recover the ball, before finding Alli running in behind Modric. Modric then fouled Alli in a doomed attempt to recover the situation, teeing up England’s best attacking outlet to score the goal his performances have richly deserved.
Failing to heed that lesson, Dalic’s side remained far too loose until they finally entered the contest on the hour-mark. Lingard exploited the gaping hole behind Rakitic three more times before then, twice shooting wide from the edge of the area, and teeing up a Kane sitter that was wrongly ruled offside.
Dysfunctional in defence, Croatia still, however, saw plenty of the football in the English half. In a game where both sides pressed, and looked to play on the front-foot, Croatia had their moments. But they were largely wasted by unforced passing errors, most notably from Rakitic, whose switch-of-play radar was decidedly out of tune before the break. Modric, too, looked notably out-of-sync with those around him.
As such, the Croatian full-backs, perennially left free by England’s wingerless system, failed to impact the game before half-time. Croatia, instead, were forced to look left to Perisic, to whom the Balkan nation have funneled 44% of their attacks at this tournament. Only Spain have fetishised the left-flank more than Dalic’s side.
Perisic crafted a couple of excellent crosses in the first-half. But Ashley Young, who struggled to contain the dribbling of a much younger Ante Rebic, dealt with both brilliantly at the back-post.
From left to right
Rebic, whose appalling first-half performance against Argentina belied his eye-catching goal in that game, appears a player who lacks intelligence; and that’s putting it nicely. Committing six silly fouls, the winger topped all of his similarly pugilistic teammates; who managed a final collective tally of 23.
Quite why Dalic watched his side fruitlessly funnel their attacks towards Rebic, from minutes 46 to 65, then is anyone’s guess. Switched with the much cannier Perisic at half-time, Rebic continually caused Croatia’s left-sided attacks to break down; even with the clever overlaps of Ivan Strinic at his disposal.
Largely ignoring the right-flank, where Modric likes to wander, and Sime Vrsaljko has shone, appeared a huge error from the Croatian coach. No surprise, then, that his side almost immediately equalised upon turning their switch-of-play attentions toward Vrsaljko.
Always free to advance, with Alli worried about Modric and neither England striker minded to follow, the Atletico Madrid right-back eventually made a difference for his side. Just minutes after releasing Modric at the byline to instigate Croatia’s first real chance — Perisic blocked by Walker — Vrsaljko whipped in a beautiful cross from which the Inter Milan winger could not be denied. Perisic and Rebic had switched back only moments earlier.
Southgate’s inaction was criminal. With both Croatia full-backs finally running rampant in the space afforded to them, it was time for England’s manager to stick or twist. His side badly needed at least one winger to help stem the wide Croatian tide. But the England manager stuck, and Croatia continued to twist the knife. And two England strikers, both doing nothing in the defensive phase, continued to wait for long balls kicked in their vague direction.
Perisic and Rebic wasted a chance apiece to kill the game before extra-time. And Croatia could even withstand the injury-enforced loss of Strinic in their merciless drive to beat England down the flanks. Strinic’s departure, on 95 minutes, heralded Dalic’s first substitution; so much for fatigue putting paid to Croatia’s chances.
The left-back’s replacement, Josip Pivaric, is a far more defensive option than the Sampdoria man. But it was Pivaric’s overlap that scared Trippier into backing off Perisic, whose cross Pickford bravely nicked off Mandzukic’s toe. England meanwhile, as has been customary at this tournament, threatened only from dead-balls.
Croatia’s dodgy set-piece defending afforded Kane a free-header at the end of normal time. And Vrsaljko cleared a Stones header, from a corner, off the line in extra-time, too. In open play, however, England again offered nothing, managing precisely zero shots on target from that avenue. The Golden Boot-bound Kane, tightly marked at all times by the colossal Dejan Lovren, proved particularly disappointing in general play.
But, at the other end, the crosses continued to rain in: 41 in total to be exact. England blocked 23 of them, but that meant 18 got through. And penalty-box defending is not the forte of either Walker or the ever-error-prone Stones.
It was shades of England’s opening game against Tunisia, when Walker allowed Perisic to nip in for Croatia’s equaliser. And it was Walker who botched a clearance in advance of Croatia’s extra-time winner, too. Pivaric, the substitute full-back Southgate’s shape failed to address, instigated with yet another left-wing cross. Perisic headed on Walker’s sliced punt, and Mandzukic drifted off a somnolent Stones to put England’s World Cup chances to bed.
The English media has engaged in much eulogising about this young England team, and its young manager, over the past month. But this, in truth, was their first test: and Southgate flunked it comprehensively. After Croatia assumed control of the contest, their free full-backs were always bound to decide the game in Dalic’s favour. Southgate’s refusal to adjust, instead remaining wedded to his beloved 3-3-2-2, is the reason England are coming home.
Football, alas, is not.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112