Here we are, at the World Cup semi-final. Very few people predicted that happening. Many expected the same melodramatic soap opera of England going out early on, and it all being due to Sterling and Lingard being too cocky, or the lack of coaches. While England have only beaten inferior sides on paper, their run of games is an indirect result of how many larger international sides have struggled recently. Italy and Holland, among others, failed to qualify for the tournament; Argentina almost achieved that feat. If anything went differently, even a flinch of the players’ bodies, Spain and Portugal could’ve been knocked out by Iran in the group stage. Germany were knocked out to Sweden and Mexico then.
Croatia, meanwhile, have been impressive in an understated manner. Technically, unlike England, they’ve won all their matches. They finished five points ahead of Argentina in their group. Despite having a goalkeeper too injured to take goal kicks against Russia, and a plethora of players collapsing to the floor at the end of injury time, they still beat the hosts on penalties. With a host of talent that would walk into any national side, and an identity as an aggressive but organised outfit, it’s easy to see why Croatia have got into the knockouts for the first time since 1998.
How have their tournaments gone?
As both are in the World Cup semi-final, we can presume that both teams’ tournaments have gone quite well. Unlike France and possibly Belgium, neither of these teams were expected to reach the semi-final.
For England, everything that could’ve gone well has done so. Losing to Belgium in the final group stage game will probably be perceived as a key factor towards the team progressing to this stage, with few teams facing a more charitable run of games in the knockout stages. However, England are likely to have found this path much tougher had Spain and Switzerland not been eliminated in the Round of 16. This isn’t to England’s discredit, as most other national teams probably envy how comfortable England have made every game against an inferior opponent look, but it just emphasises what a wonderful opportunity they have.
There’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic that they’ll make of the opportunity. Despite playing a back three with wide midfielders ahead of them, England’s defence seems compact, with all the players knowing their roles effortlessly. This is commendable, with a back three of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire appearing so unconvincing on paper before the tournament. With Young further forward than Trippier, Maguire is almost a stopper, while Stones has a libero-type role in dropping the deepest out of the three and bringing the ball out of defence. Walker mostly holds his position. Trippier and Young have also been standouts this tournament; the former, in particular, has tried endlessly to support Sterling on the right wing and create overloads from deep. He’s also been England’s main deliverer of set pieces and crosses, which have proved so crucial. Henderson’s looked like an elite holding midfielder. When playing their first choice team, excluding the Belgium match and the last half hour of the Panama one, England have only conceded two goals and zero from open play; in addition, one of those was a questionable penalty. Gary Neville summed it up best when describing England’s displays as “controlled and composed”.
In addition, England have scored the most goals from set pieces out of anyone in the World Cup, with five so far. Eight including penalties. The last team to reach this feat was Portugal in 1966. Unlike in other tournaments, England seem to be learning from what other teams do, and finding the marginal gains needed for them to approach the situations better than their competitors. After all, 42% of goals in this World Cup have come from set pieces or penalties, “beating the previous record of 36 percent from the 1998 World Cup and smashing the portion of goals from these situations in 2014 (27 percent), 2010 (24 percent), 2002 (29 percent) and 1994 (33 percent)”. Their approach, especially from corners, seems Tony Pulis-esque; the same six players form the compact line near the penalty spot, with players peeling off their markers in a militant-like fashion. Kane storms towards the near post, Dele Alli heads towards the goal, while heavyweight Harry Maguire attacks the far post. Jesse Lingard stays just outside the box and attacks from deep. Sweden tried to bring more men back, and put men zonally marking both sides of the six yard box to accompany the man-markers, but ultimately no marker is able to stop these beasts from bludgeoning their way past them. It’s incredible.
As for Croatia, their main success was in the group stage. They won all three games, finishing five points ahead of Messi-led Argentina. Their blistering, counter-attacking football worked frighteningly well facing that team, with Croatia constantly attacking Argentina’s open spaces out wide and forcing errors. Only Belgium have scored more goals from open play, while only Belgium and Mexico have scored more from counter-attacks. At the other end, like England, Croatia have only conceded one goal from open play. They know how to win tight matches, being victorious in both penalty shootouts against Denmark and Russia.
Talisman Luka Modrić has been one of the players of the tournament, being an ever-present in Croatia’s lineup and dictating games on a consistent basis. Happy to drop back and build attacks from deep, drive forward with the ball, and play incisive passes from all over the pitch, Modrić will pose more of a varied and dynamic threat to England than anyone they’ve played so far. Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić, Ante Rebić, Domagoj Vida, and Šime Vrsaljko have also had excellent tournaments. In short, Croatia are a fundamentally solid team at every aspect of the game, with a host of star players and a strong spine.
Tactically, England aren’t quite as rudimentary as their statistics seem to suggest. While the vast majority of their goals have come from set pieces, this hasn’t been the result of an overly simplistic build-up or playing style. In their 3-1-4-2 formation, the attacking players constantly interchange and roam from their positions, depending on where the opposition is vacating spaces and the players’ physical conditions. For instance, when Kieran Trippier is back defending, Jesse Lingard often filters out to the right flank, becoming an inverted winger of sorts. Henderson often shuttles out to both sides of the pitch, in a defensive and attacking sense, to cover spaces. Sterling and Kane often take it in turns to make diagonal runs and drop deep. It depends on what the opposition defenders do; namely, if they follow one of the strikers around the pitch, that striker will stay deep and try to release the other in space. Southgate often speaks of picking a team who make the right runs, encapsulating an approach where the formation is only the starting point.
England’s defensive shape has been outlined already. With Dele Alli and Ashley Young carrying knocks throughout this tournament, and the latter often having to occupy the left flank in advanced areas with Kane dropping deep, stopping opponents carrying a significant threat down this channel has required a multi-faceted approach. As largely ineffective as Alli has been in possession, one suspects that his diligence and legwork in supporting Young, Henderson and Maguire has been the pivotal factor in him retaining his spot. Only Trippier has made more tackles per game; out of the central midfielders, only Henderson has made more interceptions. The caveat to that statistic is the fact that Henderson gets dribbled past more times per game than Alli. As the two centre forwards, tasked with finding space and disrupting the opposition defensive line in and out of possession, Kane and Sterling do not significantly contribute to England’s defensive shape. This lack of pressing can result in the opposition having more time on the ball than fans hoped, but the team is well prepared and adjusted to these situations, and are always ready to win the ball back when the opportunity arises. They have won the highest percentage of aerial duels out of anyone in the tournament, with an average of 58.9%.
As for Croatia, their tactics have been less consistent. Even their star player, Luka Modrić, has been deployed as a #10 in some games and a flat central midfielder in others. Unlike England, who’ve played in their 3-1-4-2 formation in every single game, Croatia have played a 4-1-4-1 in two of them, 4-2-3-1 in another two, and 4-3-2-1 in the other. They have kept a mostly consistent team sheet though, with ten players starting at least four of their five matches.
The constants have been Modrić and Rakitić dictating things from midfield, Lovren and Vida throwing themselves at the ball and holding a tight line at the back, along with Rebić and Ivan Perišić bolting down the right and left flanks respectively. Rakitić, in particular, is a fundamental part of Croatia’s build-up play, dropping into the defensive line as a half-back when the team want to play out of defence. This gives them solidity defensively when Modrić is caught upfield and helps them dominate possession. Their average of 54.9% is marginally better than England’s 54.2%, despite their attacking transitions in the final third being at a comparatively breakneck speed. Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinić have played as overlapping wing-backs for the majority of the tournament, especially against weaker sides. Mandžukić also offers a dual threat, sometimes being played as the central striker and sometimes on the left-wing; this is to support Perišić, whose trademark game is causing havoc in the opposition defensive line by cutting inside from the left. Despite not being a regular starter, Andrej Kramarić’s penchant for scoring with late runs in the box has led to him being played as a #10 by Zlatko Dalić against some weaker teams. While England are designed to be patient in attacking areas, and keep hold of the ball, before scoring from a set-piece or penalty after sustained pressure, Croatia are direct and are set up to hurt teams in many different ways. They average the fifth most shots per game out of anyone in the tournament; the most out of anyone remaining, with 15.4.
Defensively, Croatia are very aggressive. No other team in the tournament matches their 12 yellow cards obtained so far. Fortunately, no one has been sent off so far. In seriousness, Croatia have an extremely solid defensive shape, with a group of players who have formed a clear understanding and know their roles perfectly. However, they can be suspect to set-pieces, conceding two from those situations already, and frequently letting the opposition have more chances. Iceland were a non-stop threat to Croatia when hurling balls in the box, and were unlucky to lose. They have many short, nimble players, and don’t appear to mark particularly well in those situations. It also doesn’t help that their goalkeeper, Danijel Subašić, is not nearly as authoritative as Jordan Pickford for England, and appears reluctant to come off his line.
Croatia have a string of injury doubts, with Vrsaljko already being ruled out, and question marks over Subašić and Lovren.
If Croatia didn’t have those injury problems, they would probably be favourites. None of the teams England have beaten so far provide nearly as much of an attacking threat. Despite how solid the English back three look, the Croatian attackers would probably back themselves to each face an opponent one-on-one in counter-attacking situations and make the breakthrough. On paper, Croatia’s team is probably slightly better. However, because of these injuries and the uncertainty caused by them, I’ll predict a 2-1 England win. With his lack of pace and comfort in wide areas, Vida will be a huge target to exploit. Plus, England will inevitably threaten from set-pieces.
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- An insight into The World Cup 2026 – Part Two
- The Weird Cup: Strange and wonderful facts about the World Cup
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