On Wednesday, for the first time since the 90’s, both England and Croatia will be playing in a World Cup semi-final. For England, their first semi-final in 28 years feels like a real chance for them to bring football’s greatest prize home. For Croatia, a nation that did not formally exist 28 years ago, it’s about spoiling the homecoming party.
Croatia v England
How We Got Here
Immediately after Russia’s gigantic upset of Spain in the Round of 16, all signs pointed to this semi-final matchup. These were the two best teams left on their side of the bracket, a horrid bracket indeed. But they still managed to play three extra-time games out of four between them. All of them went to penalties, with Croatia being the ones to go twice.
240 minutes of World Cup knock-out stage football is absolutely grueling. Many of the players on the field played most of both games; they will surely be feeling the effects of that. England have a little more luxury in that they played 30 minutes less through this stage. It’s an advantage, but not an excuse.
This Croatia side is the better side. Their midfield is outstanding. Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric have been stellar this tournament, controlling the games and pinging balls all over the field. It was Rakitic who scored each of the crucial penalties to send them through and Modric who provided the in-game play-making to get them there.
England don’t really have an answer for them in midfield. If they play the same eleven, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli take up the responsibility of marking them. Maybe Gareth Southgate will need to make an adjustment, replacing one of those two with Eric Dier for instance.
Southgate may not make that decision, though. He is a man who has shown confidence in his guys above all else. It’s why they have gotten as far as they did, with a country expecting them to fail on their back. They have risen above that mess, farther than any England team in recent memory, because of the confidence Southgate instilled in them. It would be foolish for him to turn his back on that now.
How Things Should Go
With guys like Sterling, Alli, Lingard and Kane up front, it would make the most sense for them to play on the counter. Let Croatia have the ball, sit in a block with their five, strong defenders behind Henderson, and hit Croatia on the counter. That would be a perfect strategy.
That is, unless Modric or Rakitic breaks that block. Those two have a level of individual quality England haven’t seen all tournament; since nobody played in the Belgium game. England have to keep the pressure on them, force them to play the ball when they don’t want to or back to one of their defenders.
If England can keep those two quiet, keep them from playing those long balls in between their centre-back and wing-back, then they have a real shot. They’re ready to take their nation to a World Cup Final, and spoil a fairytale homecoming. Croatia to the final with a 2-1 victory with goals from Mandzukic, Rebic and Kane for those that need a pick.