England’s World Cup journey came to an end at the semi-final stage against a spirited Croatia side.
Battle of the aggressive #8s
England, as they did throughout the tournament, stuck to their trusted 3-5-2 with very advanced positioning from Lingard and Alli as the #8s when in possession. The positioning of the #8s in particular, was key to how England tried to beat Croatia’s pressing in this game.
Croatia lined up nominally in a 4-3-3. When England had the ball with their centre-backs, Modric and Rakitic, two #8s for Croatia, would push out of central midfield in order to pressure England’s side-backs, Walker and Maguire. In the defensive phase then, 4-3-2-1 or 4-3-1-2 structures could emerge for Croatia, with the wingers in deeper positions than the centre-midfielders in order to try and track England’s wingbacks. In the latter 4-3-1-2 scenario, one of Modric or Rakitic would press the side-back on or nearest the ball, and the other would come into the centre to mark Henderson.
More often, however, Henderson wasn’t marked directly. England and Henderson were unable to take massive advantage of this fact though. This was partly down to Henderson’s own characteristics as a player – he isn’t the strongest #6 when it comes to being able to turn when receiving with his back to goal, and will often not take advantage of opportunities to turn when they do arise, instead just passing backwards, or putting the ball into depth straight away in the hope of one of his own players getting on the end of it, or creating a counterpressing situation for his team. If you combine this with the (intentionally) late arrival of Brozovic to pressure Henderson when he received, you can see why England couldn’t take advantage of Henderson’s availability.
The role of Modric and Rakitic in Croatia’s pressing meant that there were large spaces left behind them within the formation, particularly in the halfspaces either side of Brozovic, Croatia’s #6. Due to the pressure that Croatia were often able to generate on England’s back three however, these spaces couldn’t reliably be accessed cleanly by England through line-breaking passes, even though these spaces were usually well occupied by Lingard and Alli.
Instead England played over or around, rather than through, Croatia’s central pressure. Long passes from Pickford with the intention of winning the 2nd ball in the open areas around Brozovic were used for example, as was the case when England won the free-kick which led to their only goal, where Lingard was able to bring the ball down and find Alli, who was then fouled from behind by the retreating Luka Modric. Alternatively, England were able to get into dangerous positions on the edge of Croatia’s box on a couple of occasions through flat horizontal passes from the wing, again into the spaces around Brozovic, as Modric and Rakitic would often still be ahead of the ball in these situations when the ball was out wide.
Croatia in possession
As the game progressed past it’s opening stages however, Croatia increased their share of the possession and began to establish some control. They could be forced into potential ball losses in their possession phase if England cut off passing lanes into the midfielders, in which case the defenders resorted to long balls into the front three rather than trying to maintain the ball under pressure. However, especially having gone 1-0 up early on, England were fairly passive for much of the game, and Croatia became more and more dominant throughout the 90 minutes.
Much of Croatia’s possession was focused around deep circulation with their talented midfielders, and crosses into the box for their front three, all of whom can compete well in physical duels. Rakitic was one of the most influential players on the pitch, and very important to Croatia’s possession game. From his starting position in the left halfspace, he found space to build attacks using his impressive passing range. Brozovic made wide-ranging movements as the #6 in order to support Croatia’s possession game, while Modric drifted between a central position in front of England’s midfield three, or the right halfspace position where he is often found at Real Madrid.
As mentioned, Croatia’s penetration in the final third usually came through the wings. They showed very little presence in central areas within England’s defensive shape, save for occasional forays from Modric. The front three were very much focused on the last line, with Perisic and Rebic often occupying England’s wing-backs, especially on the ball-near side.
Difficulties in 5-3-2 for England
One of the key considerations when defending in a 5-3-2 as England did is how to defend opposition attacks in wide areas, especially when it comes to dealing with switches to the opposite wing or halfspace. One way of defending wide areas is with a pendulating back four – i.e. the ball-near wing-back comes out to pressure the ball on the wing, and the rest of the defence shifts to cover the space. Alternatively, you might have a 5-chain, with the #8s being responsible for pressuring the ball in wide areas.
This challenge was where England struggled against Croatia, especially as they began to drop deeper when defending. The Croatian midfielders and full-backs circulated the ball from side to side, and England’s midfield three struggled to control the spaces either side of them. The intense shifting needed to defend wide areas as a three is very difficult to maintain when the opponent has so much possession. The solution, then, would surely be to have the wing-backs come out to pressure Croatia’s full-backs. But it wasn’t that simple, because England’s wing-backs were often pinned back by Perisic and Rebic. So England were slow to generate pressure on the ball in wide areas, and Croatia’s full-backs had time on the ball to choose their option. In the end, both of the goals England conceded were results, directly and indirectly, from this issue.
There were seemingly some differences in Croatia’s pressing in the 2nd half compared to the 1st, particularly on the left side, where Rakitic and Perisic made the left halfspace a bit more secure with Perisic coming further inside when Rakitic pressed, or Rakitic staying deeper against Pickford’s long kicks and Perisic pushing up onto Walker. Regardless, they took the ball away from England for much of the game, and England resorted to long balls to Harry Kane, which did threaten to produce some promising situations at times, but also reduced their chance of having longer possession phases.
Reflecting on England’s World Cup campaign more widely, reaching the semi-finals is, at first glance, a very good achievement, especially considering pre-tournament expectations. However, it becomes less impressive when looking at the favourable draw, in which they avoided the favourites for the tournament. Even more concerning when it comes to evaluating England’s performance in this tournament was the lack of chances and goals from open play. England scored 3 goals from open play in the tournament. They had 6 (six!) shots on target from open play in 10 hours of football. The lack of penetration in the final third was something that I briefly expressed concern about in my article on England’s March friendlies, and unfortunately was an issue in this World Cup.
Given that many key players are still relatively young, and the success that England have enjoyed at youth level recently, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of the national team. When it comes to World Cup 2018, England could perhaps be summarised as follows – lots of promise, but deceptively good result, and plenty of room to improve.