England vs Croatia - the definitive guide: Tactical breakdown, set-piece secrets and our World Cup match verdict

JJ Bull
The Telegraph
Croatia vs England tactics
Croatia vs England tactics

Can you even believe it? England are in a World Cup semi-final against a team they could quite realistically beat inside 90 minutes and the overwhelming feeling is one of excitement, not pressure or expectation.

Croatia have been the surprise package of the tournament - wait - both Croatia and England have been the surprise packages of the tournament thus far with Luka Modric the standout individual player and Harry Kane the top goalscorer but only one team can make it through to the final.

It's going to be a bumpy, nervous, enthralling ride. So, what will the scout reports look like for both teams?

How Croatia lineup

Croatia can play in a few different shapes but are mostly either a 4-2-3-1 (4-2-4 in possession) as they were against Nigeria in the opening game (and against Russia): 

Croatia lineup
Croatia lineup

Or a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1, as we saw against Argentina and Denmark. The difference is Andre Kramaric makes way for holding midfielder Marcelo Brosovic, freeing up Modric and Ivan Rakitic to make forward runs.

Croatia vs England likely
Croatia vs England likely

For a good spell of the game against Iceland they also tried a 4-3-2-1, resting players and filling the midfield with some of those who deserved some lovely game time. 

The team largely picks itself. Danijel Subasic is one of the best goalkeepers in Europe, Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida have looked a decent partnership at centre-back, with Slaven Bilic effusive in his praise for them: "They are together with the Colombian centre-backs - (Yerry) Mina and (Davinson) Sanchez - and the Uruguayan centre-backs - (Jose) Gimenez and (Diego) Godin - the best in the tournament."

Ivan Strinic is the first choice left-back and has a difficult job since Ivan Perisic, the same winger linked heavily with Manchester United last summer, plays further ahead of him and doesn't like to defend. On the right, Sime Vrsaljko is a fantastic right-back prone to picking up a yellow card or two. In fact, he received seven in only 19 La Liga games last season and is doubtful for this game with a knee injury. Vedran Corluka will replace him if he doesn't make it, which means either he or Vida will move to right-back.

Marcelo Brosovic is a box-to-box midfielder used as a holding player, who managed nine Serie A assists for Inter Milan last season. You'll probably know a bit about Modric and Rakitic already, Ante Rebic is a striker who plays on the right wing and Mario Mandzukic leads the line. He's a left-sided forward for Juventus but a real threat in the air, especially from set-pieces, and works tirelessly off the ball to close down opponents and win the ball.

There's not a huge amount of talent on the bench to be particularly worried about but this group of players is committed, determined, organised and will run until their legs fall off. Modric and Rakitic are two of the best midfielders in the world.

The Modric-Rakitic partnership

It's not certain what shape Croatia will choose for the semi-final and there are a few reasons for this, entirely dependent on how Dalic wants to approach the game. Modric and Rakitic are key.

In the 4-2-3-1, Modric and Rakitic sit really deep, often dropping between the centre-backs to collect the ball. Here's Rakitic doing it against Nigeria.

croatia
croatia

This ensures that Croatia can build-up from the back and also means that Modric and Rakitic, who are both play-makers in this side, can be in control of the ball with a bit of space and time in a deeper position to pick a pass or start an attacking move. This is Modric doing similar against Nigeria, with Rakitic popping up wide right to help the move.

Modric vs Nigeria
Modric vs Nigeria

Modric is the star of the team. He can operate as a six (defensive midfielder), eight (all round midfielder) or a 10 (attacking midfielder behind the striker), with the latter being the position from which he can cause most damage.

He has an electric turn of pace and his vision for finding teammates means he can create chances from nowhere. It makes sense to have him high up the pitch then, but if he is positioned as a 10, it's far easier to stick a man on him and limit his involvement. That's what Argentina did:

<span>Modric touchmap vs Argentina</span> <span>Credit: OPTA </span>
Modric touchmap vs Argentina Credit: OPTA

Croatia still won 3-0 with one of those goals a superb 25 yard hit from Modric.

Argentina 0 - 2 Croatia (Luka Modric, 80 min)

However, against Russia, Modric was hugely influential for more of the game:

<span>Modric touchmap vs Russia</span> <span>Credit: OPTA </span>
Modric touchmap vs Russia Credit: OPTA

Rakitic isn't as nimble as Modric but takes up excellent attacking positions, making his runs from slightly deeper starting positions. His long passing is brilliant, and when he drops deep it means Croatia can push the forwards higher up the pitch so he can launch balls towards them. If Mandzukic wins the header, Croatia can attack.

<span>Croatia possible attacking 4-2-3-1 shape in possession. Modric and Rakitic stay deep near the centre-backs, who split wide</span>
Croatia possible attacking 4-2-3-1 shape in possession. Modric and Rakitic stay deep near the centre-backs, who split wide

''They are two of the most complete midfielders I see, two modern footballers, they have it all," says Xavi, the World Cup winning ex-Spain midfielder. "Rakitic is one of the best signings that [Barcelona] has made in their history, every day he improves and adapts. They are two authentic 'monsters' of the ball''

Croatia are simply far stronger in midfield than England and should win the battle there. For that reason, a 4-2-3-1 with Rakitic partnered by Brosovic and Modric moving between an eight and 10 position makes most sense.

<span>Croatia's likely starting 4-2-3-1 formation vs England, with Luka Modric as a 10</span>
Croatia's likely starting 4-2-3-1 formation vs England, with Luka Modric as a 10

Modric can sit behind Mandzukic when it suits him or drop deep to fill the midfield, they have defensive players to cover the attacking runs of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard and the wide forwards can test space in behind England's wing-backs.

Mandzukic threat at set-pieces

Mandzukic has only scored once so far, a close range finish following a melee in the box against Denmark, but he is a constant nuisance at set pieces. For Juventus he's something of a defensive forward, there more to disrupt and distract than actually create and score (five leagues goals in 32 games last season). 

A very physical player and a natural poacher, he often sneaks up behind the defender at set-pieces and during normal passages of play. Against Argentina he went close to opening the scoring by moving out to a wide left position (allowing others to take the nine role) and running in behind the defence.

Modric is able to get involved by way of his advanced role but Mandzukic's run is a better attacking option.

croatia vs england
croatia vs england

The ball is crossed over the defence and Mandzukic meets it at the back post, heading narrowly wide.

mandzukic back post
mandzukic back post

Croatia will likely focus attacks down the right wing to target Ashley Young, particularly because Kyle Walker will be defending the back post in scenarios like this. He is not naturally a centre-back and Mandzukic's sneaky running and aerial power could be a source of goals for Croatia. They might only need one and he has a habit of pulling rabbits out of hats:

Croatia create more in open play

With two wingers and two brilliant creative midfielders, it makes sense that Croatia create far more chances from open play than they do set-pieces.

Chances created from open play

They enjoy an average of 55.84 per cent possession, while England have had 55.11 per cent. Intriguingly in this World Cup, there's a trend where the team with less possession has tended to win their games, suggesting the days of tiki-taka have been replaced, or simply evolved into more pragmatic use of the ball.

Why possession football is having less impact at the 2018 World Cup

England have pace everywhere and that will really trouble Croatia. Russia made 424 passes to Croatia's 777 but managed 13 attempts on goal compared to Croatia's 18. England don't need to worry about keeping the ball for great lengths of time to create but must be wary that their opponents are better at forging chances with the ball in their control.

Croatia's weaknesses

Space in behind the full-backs

Croatia's left side is their weakest. Ivan Perisic is an attacking winger who likes to either run to the line and cross or cuts inside to attack central positions. If England can win the ball with him high up the pitch, there will be space to move into and that is why Strinic tends not to advance too far from his centre-backs.

This is the left-back's touchmap vs Russia:

<span>Ivan Strinic touchmap vs Russia</span>
Ivan Strinic touchmap vs Russia

On the other flank, Vrsaljko is more of an attacking wing-back and likes to get forward, overlap and provide width in advanced positions:

<span>Sime Vrsaljko's touchmap vs Russia</span>
Sime Vrsaljko's touchmap vs Russia

However, injury may deprive him of the chance of playing and instead it will be Vida or Corluka, who are both centre-backs. Whoever starts at right-back will be expected to make these kinds of forward runs to add width to Croatia's attack and create two vs ones against Young.

If Vida/Corluka does play like Vrsaljko it will leave huge amounts of space in behind for England to counter-attack. If Vida/Corluka doesn't Croatia won't be able to double on Young and England can focus their own attacks on a player who might struggle to cope with their pace.

Defending set-pieces

Russia's last gasp extra-time equaliser will really concern the Croatia manager. Were they tired? Disorganised? Not taking responsibility? 

In the last five minutes of extra-time you'd hope your defenders are suitably switched on to defend a routine free-kick wide right. Mario Fernandes, circled, will score here.

Russia free-kick wide right
Russia free-kick wide right

Croatia are defending zonally. Just before the kick is taken, Aleksandr Erokhin makes a run round the other side of Fernandes to attack the near post, which shouldn't be a problem if the six-yard-box near-post protector does his job.

Erokhin attacks the near post
Erokhin attacks the near post

Erokhin makes his run. It's a zonal system so no need to follow - it's someone else's problem now.

Erokhin ahead of the marker
Erokhin ahead of the marker

Erokhin is now ahead of the near-post defender - which is bad - but for some reason, none of the three central defenders shift over. Not a single one seems to identify Fernandes as a threat, they stand watching the delivery and Fernandes doesn't even have to move, other than jumping, for a free header.

Croatia and Russia
Croatia and Russia

Three central defenders doing absolutely nothing. It's the absolute basic of defending set-pieces and they have failed.

England's set piece routines will cause great concern. “We watched the game today, we saw how good they are from dead-ball situations," said Luka Modric. "We have to improve that element of our game."

Dejan Lovren's love for missing interceptions

Vida and Lovren have been impressive as a duo so far and defending is done as a team, not individuals. However, we know that Lovren is especially vulnerable to misreading high balls. 

Here he is doing that against Harry Kane of Tottenham and Engerland. 

Lovren misses header
Lovren misses header

Kane runs to the box and sets up Heung-min Son for a goal. And below is Lovren completely misreading the situation, getting the offside trap wrong and allowing Edin Dzeko to score against Liverpool in the Champions League.

Radja Nainggolan has the ball (in a similar position to where Jordan Henderson will play for England) and spots Dzeko running in behind Lovren (in a style reminiscent of Kane, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli or Jesse Lingard).

Dzeko goal
Dzeko goal

It's one chipped pass over the top and again, Lovren gets the flight of the ball completely wrong.

Lovren caught out
Lovren caught out

Dzeko controls and scores. England like to make this kind of pass a lot.

What England are good at

Set-pieces

Gareth Southgate's pre-tournament focus on preparing set-pieces has really paid off and England now put the fear into any teams who concede a free-kick in the final third. Even corners, which are almost universally useless and never results in goals, are a big threat.

Chances created from set pieces world cup

It's all to do with how Southgate has defined certain players as blockers, decoys and attackers. Smaller players like Sterling, Young and Lingard are there solely to disrupt defending players.

John Stones' goal against Panama was scored in exactly this way. 

stones and young
stones and young

Stones is trying to get away from his marker at the edge of the box. Young stands behind that marker and as Stones breaks away, the marker has to chase him. 

stones vs young
stones vs young

Young stands in the way of that particular gentleman and makes him run around, winning a crucial yard of space for Stones.

stones goal
stones goal

Stones has a free header to score. Harry Maguire's powerful header against Sweden owed much to Sterling's blocking.

Sweden set pieces
Sweden set pieces

Maguire runs round the outside of Sterling, who simply sidesteps a bit to keep his man occupied. Kane runs to the back post, with Stones slightly further behind.

maguire goal vs sweden
maguire goal vs sweden

The space created by Kane and Stones, combined with the yard Sterling wins simply by moving slightly away from his starting position give Maguire a free header - and what a header! England controlled the game from then on.

Movement off the ball

England's greatest strength, other than set-pieces, is their pace and movement off the ball. These exact kinds of attacking plays will cause Croatia problems, especially if the full-backs are caught too high up the pitch.

Against Tunisia, Kieran Trippier spots Lingard and Kane making runs from deep.

england vs tunisia
england vs tunisia

Kane draws the defender wide, Lingard is played in and is unlucky not to score.

jesse lingard in the box
jesse lingard in the box

The only reason England are able to do this is that the front four players are interchangeable and switch positions regularly. It's impossible to predict where they'll end up and therefore difficult to pick them up. 

Key to the system working is players protecting the shape and structure of Southgate's 3-5-2, ensuring there are always passing options available. Kane should be the furthest forward, in theory, but here against Tunisia he spots that Henderson won't have an easy forward pass once he receives the ball.

Kane dropping to space
Kane dropping to space

Kane drops into this space.

Against Sweden, Alli makes a forward run to anticipate a ball over the top. It doesn't come, Sterling spots that there aren't any safe forward passes for the man on the ball and that the team has lost its shape.

<span>Where a midfielder needs to be</span>
Where a midfielder needs to be

Sterling leaves his position.

england team shape
england team shape

The team keeps its shape. 

Jordan Henderson is really good

Henderson is fundamental in making this system work. He maintains a position at the base of the midfield, acting as a pivot around which the team can play.

henderson vs sweden
henderson vs sweden

He protects the defence, is the anchor during build-up play and his long-range passing opens up the pitch. He was superb against Tunisia in particular:

<span>Jordan Henderson's pass map against Tunisia: green successful, red unsuccessful</span>
Jordan Henderson's pass map against Tunisia: green successful, red unsuccessful

His absence is notable too. Eric Dier played in this six role against Belgium but just doesn't have the same passing ability, making England more vulnerable when building from the back and far less able to hit balls over the top of the defence to chase and stretch the pitch.

How England got their tactics right against Tunisia, thanks to Jordan Henderson

And there's a particular reason Henderson is such an important attacking player despite sitting so deep.

The routine

Here's a classic move.

It starts when Jordan Henderson can move into space inside the centre-circle. The strikers must be poised high up the pitch and Henderson must have a few yards around him to move into.

Against Sweden, Sterling has a look around him and is preparing to burst through that gap from a slightly withdrawn position between the centre-backs.

Henderson Sterling
Henderson Sterling

Henderson will launch it first time. Sterling going.

sterling takes off
sterling takes off

And Henderson launches it.

henderson long ball
henderson long ball

Sterling is clean through.

first touch
first touch

Sterling's first touch is top class, the goalkeeper shows Sterling to his left...

goalkeeper
goalkeeper

And so Sterling instinctively tries to round him.

goalie saves
goalie saves

Robin Olsen saves brilliantly, Sterling turns and his indecision/over-thinking does him in.

The same routine against Tunisia.

Sterling and Henderson
Sterling and Henderson

Sterling spots Henderson (in the centre-circle, Walker is circled with the ball) is about to receive a pass in the centre-circle and is stood between the defence and midfield. It's not entirely clear whether he'll drop or go. Henderson launches it first-time. Alli is the furthest forward.

henderson passes
henderson passes

Alli is sent through on goal, Sterling accelerates from a deeper starting position.

Sterling runs through
Sterling runs through

Tunisia are panicking. If Alli plays this pass precisely at this moment, Sterling has a tap-in.

Dele Alli
Dele Alli

He waits just a moment too long...

defender intercepts
defender intercepts

Sterling's chance has gone and the defender intercepts just before he can hit it. 

England weaknesses

Playing from the back

One of England's greatest strengths could also be their biggest weakness. The commitment to playing from the back means two of England's centre-backs are in the top five passers of the tournamnet.

Passes made per 90 minutes

But nobody has yet mounted a seriously challenging high press to disrupt them. Sweden tried it, pushing high up the pitch at goal kicks. Walker and Maguire split, Stones is central, Henderson drops to offer another option and so England have numerical advantage. 

sweden high press
sweden high press

The defenders still have to think quickly and must have available passing channels to avoid being closed down. Sweden forced a few long passes, which resulted in turnovers in possession.

Tunisia pushed high too. 

henderson
henderson

Henderson's passing range meant he was able to whip passes out to the wings so England could bypass this press but if Croatia stick a man-marker on him - and they almost certainly will - someone else will need to drop to offer a passing option. If too many players are deep, England won't be able to pass their way out of danger and Croatia can win possession back.

The especially worrying thing for Southgate will be how nervous his players were in the opening 10 minutes of their quarter-final against Sweden, making far too many misplaced passes.

<span>England missed passes in opening 10 minutes vs Sweden</span>
England missed passes in opening 10 minutes vs Sweden

If Croatia press high from the start and England haven't settled their nerves, a turnover high up the pitch or misplaced pass across the halfway line could result in real danger and big scoring chances.

The left side of defence

Croatia will target England's left. Other teams have done it before, like Tunisia, who benefited from Young using his right foot to defend a cross:

Ashley Young
Ashley Young

And from Walker's poor positioning. He's in the right place but has his back to the forward, something Rio Ferdinand described as "criminal".

Walker
Walker

The benefit for England is that if Vrsaljko's injury rules him out, it limits Croatia's attacking options down the right and Rebic must act more of a winger than a central striker.

The verdict

Both sets of players will be nervous. Croatia will likely control possession but that plays into England's hands. If England avoid making another horribly uncomfortable opening 20 minutes and find their touch early in the game, the running of the forwards, their threat from set-plays and Henderson's passing could unlock a Croatian defence which has been breached four times.

England have also conceded four goals. The two teams are evenly matched and have strengths and weaknesses in different areas.

The problem is, when it comes down to it and the first whistle is blown, a lot of the pre-match chat and tactical analysis will go out the window.

The better footballers should come out on top. Both are spirited groups of determined, talented players who can see a golden chance to reach a World Cup final. It's not a case of 'wanting it more' but this game could be won with the mind as opposed to feet (and, additionally, literally Maguire's giant head). 

England and Croatia must stick to the plan, attempt to play with freedom and attack with enthusiasm. But really, how are you supposed to forget you're playing in a World Cup semi-final? And do you cope with that?

England World Cup 2018 | Latest news

 

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