MOSCOW: Croatia ruthlessly exposed England’s limitations in the second half of the World Cup semifinal on Wednesday as Zlatko Dalić’s side fought back to secure a famous 2-1 extra-time victory.
While it is players who win matches, there can be little doubt that a tactical switch from the canny Dalić transformed the game.
Pushing wide players Ante Rebić and Ivan Perišić into more advanced roles was not the most complex move, but it was one that turned the match on its head.
Gareth Southgate’s England had made it to the last four by playing a brand of progressive passing football and there was enough of that in the opening 45 minutes, after Kieran Trippier’s fifth-minute goal, to keep them comfortably on top.
Croatia struggled from the outset. They gifted England a huge amount of space in midfield and allowed wing-backs Ashley Young and Trippier to push forward and provide options.
More worryingly for Dalić, the basic qualities of his side simply were not there. The passing was too often inaccurate, the defense struggled to cope with the pace of Raheem Sterling and there was precious little support for Mario Mandzukić in attack.
For a team who have been consistently well-organised and effective throughout this tournament, it was a strange state of affairs, but crucially, they were able to turn it around, and England had no answer.
Rebić and Perišić were pushed higher and with Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić clearly under instructions to feed them quickly, Trippier and Young suddenly had their hands full.
The early success of the wide-men in pushing back England’s wing-backs, also gave the opportunity to Croatia’s full-backs Šime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinić to get forward more.
With Trippier and Young facing a double threat, England’s midfield began to be stretched with Jordan Henderson taking on an unmanageable workload, and Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli more preoccupied with helping out the defenders than asking questions of Croatia’s backline.
The momentum of the game had changed, and when Perišić equalised for Croatia in the 68th minute it was no real surprise.
England had no answer — neither on the field, as their passing game was replaced by hasty clearances and long balls forward, nor on the bench as Southgate was unable to make the switches that might have changed the game.
“The general all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield but when we pressed them it turned out that they haven’t,” Croatia full back Vrsaljko said.
When things clicked for Croatia they had the quality of Modrić and Rakitić, who finally began to dictate the tempo and flow of the game as many had expected they would.
Southgate’s only response was to take off Sterling for Marcus Rashford, keeping the same formation and failing to tackle the areas in which Croatia were dominating.
England’s lack of a genuine creative midfielder is not a new problem, and Southgate has done well to devise a system that can compensate for that weakness.
But his inexperienced team were unable to recapture the passing and movement, and it was simply their fight that took them into extra time.
Croatia were looking like the team who beat Argentina 3-0, and Mandzukić’s opportunist finish secured a victory few could deny was deserved.
They now they have the chance to use their tactical intelligence and mental strength against a formidable France team on Sunday.