Is Gareth Southgate too predictable to halt Croatia?
Gareth Southgate has done more than inspire his players. He has started a revolution. I have no idea how long it will last, however. For the first time in this tournament, Southgate and England will face a real test when they take the pitch opposite Croatia tomorrow.
Get the ‘It's coming home’ chants and memes out of your system, now. The tournament is now in serious mode.
Like the other three nations remaining, the Three Lions are two wins away from the Promised Land. But one needs to confront their struggles, particularly against higher-ranked teams. Southgate has instilled his ideas and worked on his system well enough. So far, he's delivered the desired results. That said, one significant shortcoming in Southgate’s plan is scoring goals from open play. Four from their 11 goals came from open play. Three were against Panama, the other Sweden. The remaining seven came from penalties or set pieces.
Expect Southgate to continue with the 3-5-2 against the Blazers. Croatia’s pivotal strength lies in the midfield. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic run the show. They are the axel around which Croatia spins. Southgate deploys Jordan Henderson in the holding role. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard play ahead of him. It will be their job to thwart Modric and Rakitic.
Southgate also has the option to play Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who has been fabulous during his outings. Zlatko Dalic has used different combinations in midfield, mostly because Modric offers versatility in playing a number ten, number eight or the deep playmaking position.
In their last game, against Russia, Dalic started Modric and Rakitic in deeper positions in a traditional 4-4-2. Striker Andrej Kramaric often dropped deep. Wide men Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic played very direct. When Croatia had the ball, they shifted into a 4-2-4, with Mario Mandzukic supported by Kramaric.
The 3-0 group stage win over Argentina and 1-1 last 16 draw against Denmark, Dalic opted for a three-man midfield. Modric assumed the no.10 role. Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic played in a double pivot. Dalic is expected to do the same against England. One extra man in the holding position for defensive support will allow Rakitic to advance and combine with Modric. Dalic has two more options. Mateo Kovacic is the more attack-minded while Milan Badlej is happy to destroy.
Croatia do have flaws. The first-choice centre-backs, Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren, lack pace and mobility. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard love to make runs beyond Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. The latter takes stick for not finishing his chances. Regardless, his movement and pace should be as constant a nuisance for Croatia’s defence as it was for Sweden's.
The Blazers' intention to dominate the midfield could backfire. England will find space in front of the defence. If the Three Lions can separate the two units, Lovren and Vida will suffer.
While open play goals were the Achilles heel in Southgate’s approach, set pieces were its strength. England have two exceptional distributors on the wings. Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier will bombard the box. Keeper Danilej Subasic must take charge in the box. Between the Harries Kane and Maguire and John Stones, England will rule the skies.
In the end, Gareth Southgate's one strategy can take care of Croatia if it is executed appropriately. That is if Zlatko Dalic doesn't make the type of radical change Roberto Martinez used to stun Tite and Brazil.