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Sunday, July 25, 2021

England evolve from set piece-reliant to irresistible creative force

Croatia knocked England out of the 2018 World Cup in what was a tactical coup, but England have traced an upward trajectory since then.

Written by Sandip G | New Delhi |
Updated: June 13, 2021 8:05:23 am
Soccer Football - World Cup - Semi Final - Croatia v England - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 11, 2018 England's Kieran Trippier (not pictured) scores their first goal from a free kick REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

At Wembley on Sunday afternoon, memories of Moscow will flare up. It’s been three years since Croatia knocked England out of the World Cup in what was a tactical coup.

Since then, England have traced an upward trajectory, morphed from a set-piece reliant bunch to an irresistibly creative force, exacted revenge on Croatia in the Nations League, and look every millimetre title contenders, or better still, a championship guzzling machine. They would be an indistinguishably superior group to what Croatia, an ageing and transitioning side, had out-muscled in Moscow.

But England being England, there lurks a spiel of nervousness. A gush of pessimism invariably accompanies a rush of stars. Perhaps, history has wired them with strands of fear. So many golden generations have but flattered to twinkle in front of their eyes that they are less frazzled when following an English team of fewer stars, as they were in the World Cup in Russia. The British have so keen a sense of history that it sometimes turns into a historical burden.

So more stars often read more mess and less balance. Hence, when their manager Gareth Southgate specified that the code to unlocking England’s title-winning potential lies in finding the “right balance”, he was not churning out a platitude but hitting the truth on its head. From Sven-Goran Eriksson to Fabio Capello to Roy Hodgson, his predecessors of this century would accept their own elusive pursuit of balance.

The problem, eternally, rests in deciding the front five than the back six. A front-three is a default Southgate structure — Harry Kane as the centre forward, flanked by two modern inside forwards than wingers. The question is who among the seven of Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish would accomplice him.

In the past Southgate, has deployed Sterling and Rashford interchangeably, which implies that both are vying for the same role, but both had middling seasons with the club, though Sterling has been influential for the country. But Foden and Sancho could ratchet up the pace on the flanks and catch defences unawares, whereas Jack Grealish and Mason Mount bring considerable technical and play-making qualities. Mount could shuttle between central midfield duties and the No 10 role.

It’s a peculiar English dilemma. While France and Italy too have depth, their players are more like for like. One slots in perfectly for the other. But England’s forwards, though categorised forwards, are unsubtly different. Sterling is a wide forward, but Rashford is more of an inside forward; Grealish is a classical playmaker while Mount is at his best as a withdrawn playmaker.

All have their flaws too. Both Sterling and Rashford are wasteful in front of the goal, Grealish is a slow starter and when not getting enough ball, could drift away. Foden and Sancho are exuberant tricksters prone to overcomplicating the passing patterns. Southgate has often preferred a more direct approach with forwards manipulating congested spaces rather than harnessing the width. Moreover, in recent games against big teams, he has tended to begin cautiously, which is a progressive than a digressive sign as championships are often won with defensive organisation than attacking ballast. Spain and Germany were exceptions and beneficiaries of Barcelona/Bayern bloom. That’s not the case with England, and they were furnished rude reminders by the Netherlands in the Nations League semifinals, wherein the Dutch pumped in three, before the Czech Republic and Kosovo belted five goals between them in Euro qualifiers.

Thereafter, Southgate has preferred a back three against heavyweights, abandoning 4-3-3 and reverting to a 3-4-2-1. In the absence of Harry Maguire in the group stages, it’s all the more probable that Southgate would assemble a back-three axis of Luke Shaw-John Stones-Kyle Walker with fullbacks Ben Chilwell and Reece James functioning as wing-backs. Such a formation invariably results in the deploying of double pivots Declan Rice and Johan Henderson (if he’s fully fit) or Mason Mount. It means England would enjoy a lot of sterile possession.

Another reason that could mitigate the double-pivot duet is the midfield riches of Croatia, marshalled by the exceptional Luka Modric, supplemented by Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Perisic and Nikola Vlasic, who have not made Croatia feel the void of the retired Danijel Subasic, Ivan Strinic and Ivan Rakitic. It’s where the goalkeeper Dominik Livacovic feels Croatia has an edge over England. “I’m not saying their [England’s] midfielders are not as good individually, they are very good midfielders – but considering Luka [Modric], Mateo [Kovacic], [Marcelo] Brozovic, [Ivan] Perisic and [Nikola] Vlasic are all in excellent form at the moment I think that is where we have a big opportunity,” he had said.

But their ageing backline is creaky, a context that could tempt Southgate to unleash Sancho and Foden. The strain of conservatism, the emphasis on balance and the ghosts of Moscow hanging over them would mean, he would resort to orthodoxy, which means Sterling and Mount would ally Kane upfront and a double-pivot looking to enforce superiority at the heart of midfield. Thus, England would look to trudge than tear their way to European glory.

England vs Croatia, 6:30 pm

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