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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Where England went wrong in loss to Croatia

England came so close to their first World Cup final in over 50 years, but fell short Wednesday night in Moscow after a 2-1 defeat to Croatia.

The loss was particularly hard to take, as a Kieran Trippier free kick had put them 1-0 up inside the first five minutes. They could have scored at least one more goal in a first half where they were clearly the better team, but didn’t, and ultimately Croatia got it together in time to pull out the victory.

There were several reasons Croatia were able to turn it around, and England were at least partially responsible for letting them back into the game after having them on the mat. England were wasteful at times, and spent the entire second half playing far too conservatively before waiting too long to change it.

The seeds were being sown even after England went 1-0 up. Harry Kane had the most glorious chance to make it 2-0 on the half hour mark, but ultimately hit the post. Had Kane scored at that point, it would have changed the entire game, forcing a rattled Croatia to come back from 2-0 down and perhaps lifting some of the pressure off the young England team who at times seemed a bit tight in a game bigger than many of the players had ever played in before. There were other opportunities in the first half, demonstrating England’s dominance.

Still, England led at the half, and with Croatia looking ragged after playing consecutive extra-time games, they had every reason to feel confident. Something changed in the second half, though. Croatia looked refreshed, and by the hour mark, their talented midfield pairing of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic had begun to exert their control on the game. England seemed content to defend deep and try to spring something on the counter, but missed several passes in doing so. It felt like a goal was coming.

It was at this point that England manager Gareth Southgate became too passive. It was becoming quite clear that England needed more help in the midfield, but he made no move to make a substitution, and sure enough, winger Ivan Perisic pulled Croatia level on 68 minutes, then hit the post moments later.

This inspired Southgate’s most puzzling decision of the match. In the 74th minute, he finally made his first substitution, but instead of bringing on a midfielder, he took off Raheem Sterling, one of England’s most dangerous attackers, and replaced him with winger Marcus Rashford.

It was a move that more or less killed England’s attack. Rashford is a speedy, talented player, but he isn’t as good at making attacking runs and linking midfield and attack as Sterling is. Sterling had tormented Croatia all day with dangerous runs, and he was their main outlet on counters. Rashford simply can’t do what he does. It’s no coincidence that England’s attack has lost some of its threat every time Sterling has been taken off.

From that point on, Croatia carried all the threat. It wasn’t until the 97th minute that Southgate finally addressed the midfield, and 12 minutes later, a toothless England were behind with no real route back into the game. They simply settled into a one-goal lead too soon and played far too conservative for much of the second half and were punished for it.

Southgate deserves credit for what he’s done with England in this World Cup, and the team also deserves credit for reaching the semi-finals. Unfortunately, a few seemingly minor tactical decisions may have had a major impact on the ultimate outcome.

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