England faced Croatia in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Semi-Final, their first in 28 years. With no injuries to worry about, Gareth Southgate named an unchanged team to that which began the last 16 game against Colombia and the quarter final against Sweden. Injury concerns over Croatia’s full back Sime Vrsaljko came to nothing as the Atletico Madrid defender started with former Leicester forward Andrej Kramaric being dropped to the bench with holding midfielder Marcelo Brozovic being selected (see Figure 1). Gareth Southgate was under no illusion that Croatia would be England’s toughest test in the tournament so far:
"They'll be the best team we've played in terms of what they're capable of doing with the ball, and what their individuals are capable of, definitely. For us as a team, it's another chance to create a small piece of history. We've got to keep getting over those hurdles and I know we talked about the success of the younger teams but this is a much harder, much bigger level for the players and the belief is building as things are happening. The more of these tests we can come through, the better, not just for now, but moving forward."
- Positive Start
- Lost Control In The Second Half
- Undone Through Switching Off
- Immense Pride In Defeat
- England Are Still Record Breakers
The perfect start
England would have been forgiven for feeling nervous ahead of their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years but to the contrary, Gareth Southgate’s youthful side got off to the perfect start as Kieran Trippier curled a delightful 20 yard free-kick into the Croatian net with just five minutes gone. Trippier’s goal after 4 minutes and 44 seconds was the fastest goal scored in a World Cup semi-final since 1958 (Vava after two minutes for Brazil vs France). England were a constant threat, with Raheem Sterling stretching the Croatian defence and Domagoj Vida struggling to deal with his pace, this resorted to him putting the ball in the stand when under pressure, a tactic which got England up the pitch. England would control the first period against a lethargic Croatian side, who took 19 minutes to register their first attempt with Ivan Perisic dragging two shots wide having cut in from the left. England recovered, regaining control and composure and they should have doubled their lead on the half-hour mark but Danijel Subasic denied Harry Kane from a Jesse Lingard through ball, before the Tottenham striker stuck the post with his rebound. Croatia then sparked into life, with John Stones having to produce a last-gasp block to cut out an Ante Rebic cross before the full-back then fired a follow up shot straight down Jordan Pickford’s throat. England pushed for a second goal but this remained out of reach as Jesse Lingard fired a glorious chance wide after Dele Alli cleverly squared to him on 36 minutes. England’s inability to convert their first half dominance nearly came back to bite them when Dejan Lovren went down in the area under a Harry Maguire challenge, but a VAR review after the half-time whistle had sounded proved inconclusive, sending England into the break 1-0 up and dreaming of the final.
Second half nerves
Croatia improved after the interval in an attempt to get back into the game but they still needed some fine defending from Dejan Lovren to prevent a Jesse Lingard volley from finding the target and a Kieran Trippier cross from reaching Harry Kane on 58 minutes. However, England invited more and more pressure on themselves and Croatia finally made them pay on 68 minutes as Ivan Perisic, a minute after Kyle Walker brilliantly blocked his goal bound strike, stole a march on the Manchester City defender to poke Sime Vrsaljko whipped cross beyond the dive of Jordan Pickford. Things nearly went from bad to worse for England four minutes later as Ivan Perisic beat John Stones before rattling a low drive against the post beyond the agonising dive of Jordan Pickford. Nerves began to take their toll on Southgate’s men as errors crept into their game, with both Mandzukic and Perisic being presented with a sight of the England goal in the closing 10 minutes. Harry Kane had the chance to send England through in stoppage-time but he headed a presentable chance wide from a Kieran Trippier free-kick. Ultimately, both teams were unable to score the winner and the game was sent into extra-time at 1-1.
The dream was crushed
England thought they had retaken the lead when John Stones headed a goal bound effort towards the Croatia net but Sime Vrsaljko headed it superbly off the line nine minutes into extra-time. Jordan Pickford then produced a stunning point-blank save to deny Mario Mandzukic from putting Croatia ahead. However, Mandzukic would have the last laugh as he scored the goal that broke English hearts on 109 minutes when Stones and Walker let the ball bounce in their area, Mandzukic finally got the better of Pickford with a low drive into the bottom corner. (Incidentally, Mandzukic’s goal was the latest goal ever conceded by England in a World Cup match at 108:03 minutes). Gareth Southgate desperately tried to get his troops back into the contest with the introduction of Jamie Vardy but his tiring side were unable to find an elusive goal, resulting in Croatia surpassing their heroes of 1998 by securing their place in football’s greatest game for the very first time!
Man of the match
Few would have had Kieran Trippier down as the first goal scorer in a semi-final of a World Cup as the Tottenham full-back had not scored since February 2016 and never before in an England shirt. But Trippier needed only five minutes to become only the third Englishman to score in a World Cup semi-final, following in the illustrious footsteps of Sir Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker. Trippier does not take free-kicks at Tottenham due to the qualities of Christian Eriksen and he is known as the ‘Bury Beckham’ because of his delivery from the right rather than his set-piece ability. However, after his Moscow masterpiece, Beckham may now have to be known as the ‘Walthamstow Trippier’! The comparison is especially poignant as Kieran Trippier became the first player to score a direct free-kick for England at the World Cup since David Beckham in 2006 against Ecuador.
Post-match comments and interviews
Gary Neville summed up his thoughts with his overriding feeling of this moment may not coming again for the current set of English players:
"This team have taken us to a place we never thought we’d ever imagine we’d get to. England had never overachieved, but this team have in reaching the semi-final. They’ve taken a nation with them. I never thought we’d see the scenes in the fan parks. We did say before the game that these lads will have to take the opportunity now as it may never happen again. All I hope as I look at them now is that they get another opportunity as huge as this again. It's the beginning of something, it's a special time but I've got Stuart Pearce's very wise words ringing in my ears from Euro 1996 when he said 'this will never happen again, enjoy it while you can'. I was 20-years-old at the time and I didn't believe him. That team had so much experience in, with Teddy Sheringham, Paul Gascoigne and Paul Ince, this one is far less experienced. I just hope they can build out of this tournament. A lot of those players haven't even experienced success with their clubs, so what they've done is brilliant. Gareth Southgate has managed it brilliantly, he deserves all the credit and I hope this is just the beginning for something. We can go from strength-to-strength and have a great Euro 2020."
Harry Kane spoke of how they can hold their heads high after their defeat in the semi-finals:
“It’s tough. We’re gutted. We’ve worked so hard, and the fans were amazing. It was a tough game, a 50-50 game, and I’m sure we’ll look back and there’ll be things we could’ve done better. We worked as hard as we could. It hurts, it hurts a lot. It’s going to hurt for a while, of course, but we can hold our heads up high. It’s been a fantastic journey, going further than anyone thought we would. We’ve just got to learn from it and take what we can. We created some good chances being 1-0 up, and maybe we dropped too deep at times. It’s a lot of ifs and buts. It’s hard in these big games, it’s small margins and it went their way today."
Gareth Southgate spoke of how England needed the second goal to kill off the game:
“I don’t know [if we deserved better]. In the first-half, we were really good and we maybe could’ve got another. At periods throughout the game we had chances, I think. There was a spell in the second-half, they got the goal and their tails were up and we had to really weather the storm. We lost our way a little bit. Possibly, at that moment, that experience of being ahead in a game like this, we were hanging on a little bit rather than trying to control the game. They deserve great credit in extra time, and showed some more composure. You see the supporters at the end and their reaction and that shows what the players have given not just tonight but over the tournament. Knockout football is fine margins, if you have spells against a side of real quality then you have to make them count. We probably needed that second goal earlier in the game.”
Luka Modric, Croatia’s magician, had some rather fruity words post-match:
"English journalists, pundits from television, they underestimated Croatia tonight and that was a huge mistake. All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying 'OK, today we will see who will be tired."
Croatia’s head coach Zlatko Dalic spoke post-match of how his side were better ‘in all segments of the game’:
"We did not underestimate them. We respected them because we analysed them. We knew what they were doing and where. We played a high press on their backline. We closed down (John) Stones and (Jordan) Henderson. We nullified them. We let the centre-halves play. (Luka) Modric and (Ivan) Rakitic pressed their backline and we had the ball possession. During half-time, I told the players 'calmly pass the ball, do not lose your heads'. We showed that we were the better team in all segments of the game.”
Where did it all go wrong?
England have now been eliminated in four of their five semi-finals at major tournaments, losing each of the last four in a row (Euro 1968 vs Yugoslavia, World Cup 1990 vs Germany, Euro 1996 vs Germany and World Cup 2018 vs Croatia). England have also lost three competitive games against Croatia since the turn of the Millennium, more than against any other nation.
Much of the pre-match discussion had focused on how soon Croatia would tire having played extra-time in each of their previous two knockout games against Denmark and Russia but in the end it was England who suffered the most from fatigue. This was most obvious from wide areas as Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young charged forward energetically in the first half which pushed Croatia back into their own half but they dropped deeper as the tired, inviting their opponents onto them. Gary Neville summed this up in the ITV studio: "The thing that shocked me most was in those wide areas, how they got stronger and we didn't. We really struggled in those areas. For much of the tournament we were a 3-5-2, but we became a 5-3-2. We really started to narrow. When you're a three in midfield and you've got to cover the width of the pitch.” It was the right-back Sime Vrsaljko who crossed for Ivan Perisic’s equaliser and on the opposite flank, Ivan Strinic enjoyed the same kind of space and time. Between them, they sent in 14 crosses over the course of the game (8 by Vrsaljko and 6 by Strinic), which is nearly twice as many as Young and Trippier (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Croatia crosses (source: wyscout.com)
Furthermore, England seemed to lack composure in the second half as they went from looking impressively assured in the first half to failing to make simple passes go to their target. It was the first time in the tournament that England’s pass completion rate had fallen below 80% and it proved costly. While Croatia had Luka Modric to pull their strings, England lacked a player with the experience and guile to do a similar job. The Real Madrid midfielder went from having just 22 touches in the first half to 44 in the second, as he began to control the game from a more advanced position. Similarly, England lacked the creativity to create sufficient chances from open play where they have only managed to score three goals across the tournament. England only mustered two shots on target in 120 minutes, both of which came from dead ball situations. Harry Kane became increasingly withdrawn, dropping deeper into midfield to try to make things happen but he was unable to improve the situation. He only completed 55% of his passes over the course of the game, with his withdrawn positioning ultimately reducing England’s penalty box threat. A comparison of both the England and Croatia passing maps and average positions can be seen in Figures 3 and 4.
Figure 3. England passing map and average positions (source: wyscout.com)
Figure 4. Croatia passing map and average positions (source: wyscout.com)
Many questions will be asked of Gareth Southgate and his staff as to whether England could have done anymore to overcome the Croatian’s who seemed to grow into the contest with England unfortunately doing the reverse. We have identified the following key questions and points to be discussed:
- Should there have been more rotation throughout the tournament to potentially overcome the fatigue England experienced in the second half and within extra time against Croatia?
- Should Eric Dier or Fabian Delph have come in alongside Jordan Henderson from the start to solidify the midfield to potentially prevent Modric and Rakitic from dictating the play?
- Could England have found a way to take more of the chances they created and been in a position to put games to bed when they were dominating?
- Was a lack of tournament experience England’s downfall as the Croatian’s seemed to have more guile and composure within the critical moments to take full advantage?
Overall, hindsight is a wonderful thing after the event but ultimately England came up short against a Croatian side which were just better on the day. Their victory was fully deserved as they qualified for their first World Cup final within their fifth appearance at the tournament. On a positive note for England moving forwards, the players and staff who are part of this squad have experienced immense highs and crushing lows which will provide them with the opportunity to learn from the experience to then push onto Euro 2020 and beyond. It would be fascinating to see England in the same position again at a major tournament to then see how they would deal with the situation with more experience!
Disappointment but England are record breakers
Naturally after coming so close to reaching a World Cup Final, there is understandable disappointment but this shouldn’t take away from the outstanding efforts by Gareth Southgate’s staff and players as they have broken various personal bests at World Cups:
- The most goals scored in a tournament with 12 which is more than when England won the tournament as hosts in 1966 (11 goals)
- The first time England have won an opening game in the World Cup since 2006
- The biggest ever margin of victory in the World Cup (5 goal margin)
- The most goals scored in a single match (6-1 win vs Panama)
- The most goals scored by an English player in a single tournament (Harry Kane equals Gary Lineker’s record of six World Cup goals from 1986)
- They have won their first ever penalty shootout in the World Cup
- The most penalties scored in a World Cup tournament (Harry Kane has scored three, two vs Panama and one vs Colombia)
- The most penalties scored in a single game (Harry Kane two penalties vs Panama equalled Gary Lineker’s record in 1990 vs Cameroon)
- They reached their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years (losing 2-1 AET to Croatia)
Gareth Southgate’s side have scored six goals from corners and free-kicks alongside also scoring three penalties which are both a tournament high. The total of nine is more than any team has scored from set pieces at any World Cup since 1966. Set pieces seem to be even more important than they have ever been as 62 of the 64 matches have now been played, with 70 out of the 160 goals within the 2018 FIFA World Cup coming from dead-ball situations (44%) and a goal coming on average from every 29 corners that are taken.