FIFA World Cup 2018: England helped Croatia in semi-final by sitting deep
Pretty to pedestrian, classy to clumsy --- that was how the semi-finals were going; France had cruised past Belgium and England seemed to be lumbering to the final.
But in a FIFA World Cup full of wonderful surprises, it was appropriate that Croatia turned things around just when it seemed football had taken another step to going ‘home’.
Not in recent times have England got such an opportunity to be in a World Cup final. A superbly struck early goal was exactly what they need against a Croatia team that was weary in mind and body.
Another goal before half-time and I think Croatia would have been overrun. The early signs were all there: Croatia players were often on their haunches, there were mispasses and they were yielding the midfield easily.
England did have chances to put the game to bed but couldn’t even though no team parks the bus against them.
Like against Colombia, England then tried to defend a one-goal lead instead of trying to keep the ball. Maybe this happened because neither the coach nor the team has enough tournament experience.
Gareth Southgate has done wonders with this team, but with the wisdom of hindsight, he could have got Marcus Rashford earlier.
Things could also have got interesting if Southgate had played Rashford and Sterling together and taken out, say, Dele Alli, who was busier with defensive duties than helping the team go forward.
It would have been a gamble but would have been worth a try because Croatia were so much stronger in the second half and England had no answers.
As Croatia kept England’s wing-backs occupied, the absence of a playmaker became more evident than it was in the World Cup so far.
Harry Kane did try to play in a deeper role but after Croatia equalised, England were hoofing the ball and hoping for the best.
Ivan Perisic’s goal could have been flagged down for dangerous play but it wasn’t perhaps because he struck it cleanly and there was no contact with the England player.
Nothing lifts a tired team’s spirit more than a goal and then it was England who looked like they didn’t have the legs.
That said, this is a good, young team with players comfortable on the ball and a coach who has got them to believe. England should stick with Southgate and in a couple of years this team should use the experience of this World Cup to do well in the Euros.
Like France, who matured after a quarter-finals exit in 2014 World Cup. And they are the under-17 and under-20 world champions, so something right is happening at the English FA.
France have been my favourites before the World Cup started and one of the reasons for that is how well drilled they are as a defensive unit.
How Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud defend is as important as their contribution up the pitch.
France were also not intimidated by Belgium’s physical presence and choked the supply line to Romelu Lukaku. Teams that defend this comfortably usually win championships.