Croatia have some very good players – namely Luka Modric. However, they are a side, in contrast to England, that have wilted since the World Cup three years ago. Thus, the merits of England’s 1-0 win will only become truly apparent at the end of the group stage. Zlatko Dalic’s side asked few questions of the Three Lions and have now won just two of their last 10 games – against Cyprus (1-0) and Malta (3-0) – and England will be given far greater examinations of their credentials.
To this observer’s eye, Croatia will do well to make the knockout stages. Yes, they maintain a midfield that has the potential to coax matches in their favour. However, elsewhere they are failing. The loss of Mario Mandzukic can’t be overstated. Their midfield strength is somewhat rendered redundant by a blunt attack; against England, Ante Rebic, scorer of three international goals in 39 games, was often tasked with leading the line, with Andrej Kramarić (14 in 55) wide of him. Ante Budimir (one in seven) has played recently. None are of the class of Mandzukic, and can’t occupy defenders as the AC Milan forward can. This was a limited Croatia side – they might have better days at Euro 2020, and they will need them.
Defence is England’s biggest weakness, particularly since the injury to Harry Maguire. Yet against Croatia they were not tested in this area. Against better teams – and Scotland potentially represent a more difficult opponent, if not better on paper - England will be offered a sterner test of their credentials. More pressure will be applied to a defence that has looked ill-equipped to deal with applied pressure in the absence of Maguire. The Manchester United defender’s stock rises with every passing game.
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John Stones and Tyrone Mings looked assured against Croatia but the Aston Villa defender has looked varying degrees of suspect in the warm-up games against Austria and Romania. And John Stones needs stability beside him. Therefore, a comfortable outing against Croatia does not render this weakness solved. England need to shore up / protect the left side of their defence. Maguire will unlikely be match fit at any point in this tournament. Therefore, Southgate must find other solutions.
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Raheem Sterling, Kieran Trippier
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And ball domination coupled with ball progression represent the solution. The ball domination is getting there. England finished the match against Croatia with a pass completion rate of 85% - the same as Croatia – and had 52% of the ball. For comparison, in 2018, Croatia had 56% of the ball.
Now, despite the above about Mings’ defensive frailties – or potential of those - there was logic in selecting him to deputy for Maguire. The thought process surely being that his left-footedness allowed England to build from both flanks of the pitch, with a left-footed centre-half more likely to open his body and build on that side. However, the selection of Kieran Trippier at left-back negated that ability. This was crystalised in second half when the Atleti defender nabbed the ball from club colleague Sime Vrsaljko. He strode forward but was unable to whip the ball down the line or in centrally to Harry Kane or Mason Mount because, simply, he is not left-footed. He came back on himself and the impetus was lost. This lack of impetus invites pressure on that side. Teams will focus their attack in areas where they are least likely to be countered from.
Trippier is an excellent player – creative going forward and diligent in defence but he is not left footed. Thus, England’s play often felt laboured on the left, and an inability to break at pace had a knock on effect on Sterling. Sterling performed in fits and starts but was hamstrung by the lack of early ball that would have been provided by a natural left-back. The result was England rarely looked threatening on the left, and, thus, invited pressure down this side. This was not hugely problematic against what on Sunday was a one-paced Croatia but will become an issue against more dynamic teams.
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Thus if England want to dominate games – and they need to – Luke Shaw or Ben Chilwell must play. Shaw and Chilwell will offer England more thrust down that channel, and open up passing lanes and angles that were absent against Croatia.
If Southgate and England want to win this tournament then they must play to their strengths rather than overthink their weaknesses. A front-foot approach will be required when England invariably meet teams of the calibre of France, Portugal or Germany and they could do so as early as the last 16. Trippier offers much to England but playing him out of position invites pressure rather than creating it.
England have a deep pool of talent to choose from and, realistically, given that, there is little sense to selecting players out of position. Playing Trippier out of position knocks the whole balance of the team out of kilter and serves only to funnel opponents’ attacks towards England’s weak point – the left side of its defence.
Southgate will have his reasons but other teams – better equipped than Croatia – will apply pressure and reap the rewards from targeting England’s left. Yet it feels a weakness that England can address with a change of personnel. Bringing in Shaw or Chilwell would be the proactive move and one that sets the tone for an England on the front foot. Will Southgate do it?
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