England’s system doomed them in the semis – football’s not coming home. The mood before the game hinted towards an inevitable win against Croatia to seal a berth to the final. Little did they know that it was going to be a disaster for the Three Lions.
Croatia played their third straight game into extra time. And that’s how much time it took for them to dispatch England. Everything was perfectly set for England starting from a second place finish in Group G. Fielding bench players against Belgium gave England a favorable path to the final. They avoided Brazil and France who they would likely face in the quarters and semis respectively. Instead, they faced a weakened Colombia side in the Round of 16 that they eliminated in penalties. They only teams that stood in their way of playing in Moscow were Sweden and potentially Spain – with the latter being eliminated by Russian home-field advantage. With Croatia edging past Russia, and England making light work of Sweden; only team stood in their way of reaching a first major final in 52 years. The heroics of the 1966 side were lost upon this generation and despite getting to an early lead, none of the players were able to replicate the bravado of their predecessor’s. The final whistle ended with the English in tears.
Within the opening minutes of the game, it felt like football was coming home. Trippier’s technique was exquisite as he guided the ball over a Croatian wall. A hobbling Subasic could do nothing but watch as a hamstring injury prevented him from diving to his full extent – not that any goalkeeper in the world could have saved the shot. This would be England’s best chance in the game until extra time; where they only attempted one shot in the extra half an hour of play. The Three Lions continued to looking threatening as Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard both missed chances that would have put the game to bed. With 25 minutes of the game behind them, Croatia were able to walk off the pains of their previous matches and finally were able to get their legs under them. They were able to break down England by stretching them out and exposing their wingbacks. Croatia played to their strengths with their first goal coming off their first completed cross of the night, and their second coming from a scrappy possession that they made the most out of. England’s inability to finish off the Croats was only one side of the coin, and part of why they failed that night.
We’ve seen great teams like Germany, Spain, and Brazil fall as their system was transformed from their strengths to their weakness. The same can be said for England. An overwhelming majority of their chances in Russia came from set pieces. Harry Kane, their top scorer and currently the leader in the race for the Golden Boot, has only scored one of his six goals from open play. Likewise, three of England’s twelve goals came via their natural progression of the game. Kane’s sole goal from open play appeared to be a complete accident. Southgate has been criticized by for study of the NBA to find stratagems that he implemented for this England side. Watching the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans gave him the necessary tools for his side to be lethal on set pieces. Given that international managers have very little say over their squads and short periods of time to prepare the same, it’s next to impossible to implement a style of play in a matter of days. Southgate’s decision to exploit an overlooked element of the game was a reflection of his acumen and intellect. That being said, relying on set pieces is futile when the opposition dries you up of your strengths. Croatia appeared to defend in a haphazard manner with every second challenge with a two-footed tackle. They fouled England 21 times though only 5 were in striking range for England to take the most out of. The Three Lions not only failed to adjust but lacked a player to anchor the midfield and break down Croatia. The Vatreni had two such players, in Modric and Rakitic, both of whom are the best in the business. The marshalled their team after England’s initial onslaught and took control of the middle third. They found Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic with ample amounts of space on the wings who were able to supply Mario Mandzukic against a startled England backline.
Croatia now stand 90 minutes away from winning their first World Cup. They became the first team in Word Cup history to win three straight games that went into extra time. And in each of their knockout games they fell behind to come back and win. Their legs are spent and their afterburners are out of juice. Football won’t be coming home this summer. England will had an easy route to the last four though this will long be forgotten as they are only the third English side to make it this far. Even their players as likeable to an extent. Aside from Kane, every English player is a role-player in their club side. The tensions that once dominated this team when these club legends were forced to play together no longer exists with this generation of players. Southgate and his 21 men will be immortalized. That being said, football could be hours away of finding a new home.