The frenzy surrounding the English football team’s march to the FIFA World Cup semi-finals is understandable. The country has underachieved for decades, despite having cultivated and played host to, arguably, the biggest league on the planet. The Premier League is the league that South Asia follows most. The names on the England roster may be that of youngsters, but they are household names across the world.
England, who began in Russia with almost no burden of expectation, have surprised many with their romp to the final four and a tussle against Croatia on July 11. Now everyone expects, truly, that the Cup is ‘going home’.
Despite their solid performances so far, I personally haven’t been impressed by England that much. There is no merit to the ‘weaker side of the draw’ argument, and so I will refrain from it. Their lack of impression in my eyes has been mostly because they have lacked the attacking flexibility one expects from champion sides. At times, this English team has been too one dimensional, reliant on their captain Harry Kane to eke out a result.
Also Read | Hazard Awaits France in FIFA World Cup Semifinal Against Belgium
A majority of their goals through the course of the tournament have come through set-pieces. They have greatly benefitted from having a strong tall presence in the box, helped further by how VAR has been forcing defenders away from physical defending. Players like Harry Maguire, John Stones and Kane himself have been exceptional in these situations. Kieran Trippier’s main job on the right of their defence has been supplying accurate passes from the dead ball.
This one dimensional approach has meant they have created very few actual chances in open play. To be honest, I was disappointed with Sweden’s performance in the quarterfinal -- I had expected them to put up more of a fight. Despite comfortably winning the game, and never really looking like they were in trouble, England managed just two shots on target in the match. Both led to goals. Against Colombia, again, they had two shots on target, and one, a penalty, went in.
While this can at one level be interpreted as efficient, it also points to a lack of genuine creativity from the midfield. Despite playing a 3-5-2 formation, they are in essence playing a five-man defence, with their wing backs very defensive minded in their approach. This has held them in good stead, despite looking unflattering and unconvincing to viewers.
Also Read | FIFA World Cup Semi-Finals: Of Golden Generations and Unfulfilled Destinies
European teams, traditionally, are not about flair, and yet, even in their pragmatism there is a certain amount of creativity. Belgium have been the best example of this. Even though they played with a certain amount of practical thought against Brazil, in their moments they played with freedom and passed the ball around with attacking intent. England, so far, haven’t done so, despite having the personnel capable of producing such moments.
Despite that, England go into their semi-final with the knowledge that their skill and efficiency at set pieces is a real asset. Croatia have conceded three goals in the knockout round and of those two came from what were essentially set pieces. The first was from a long throw by Denmark, and the second, deep in extra time, from a set-piece by Russia. Despite that, in Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida they have two men who can definitely organise the defence to neutralise this English strength.
Croatia’s midfield will play a huge part in this game. Their duo of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric are the key to the team’s success, and while they may not have been shining brightly in the knockout rounds, they have done enough to get their team with a real shot at success. Everything Croatia do will come through Modric. If it is good it will be worked through Modric, and if it is bad, again it will come through Modric. He is the lynchpin of this side and yet England cannot focus simply on him, because Rakitic, after all, is as important a cog as any.
Also Read | FIFA World Cup: Croatia and the Demons From History
A lot has been made of the fact that England will go into this game fresher, because of having played half an hour (and the psychological damage of penalties) lesser than their opponents. I again, don’t believe in that too much. Sports science has come a long way now, and physiotherapy, massaging chambers and recovery will play their part in making sure the Croatian players are up and ready to fire.
These are players who play at the highest level of the sport, in the top leagues in the world. When you play at that level, you are expected to play twice or thrice a week, and having had a three day rest, they will be as fit to go as their opponents. Then there is the additional caveat, the carrot of a World Cup final -- the first in their country’s history. That is enough to drive out any lingering fatigue.
[The author represented India through 1998-2011. He is an AFC A-licenced coach and heads the Football Players’ Association of India]