The tctician gaffer made a telling switch to the team’s shape that brought them back into the game after a first-half setback.

‘It’s coming home’ was the chant that dominated England‘s campaign in the World Cup. What started as a joke became an actual possibility as the tournament wore on and as Gareth Southgate’s men passed one mental barrier after another to reach the semi-finals.

Here, they met a Croatia side that had been on the back of two knockout round games which went to penalties. Despite taking an early first half lead through Kieran Trippier’s well taken free-kick, England found themselves denied again as Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic‘s goals propelled Zlatko Dalic’s side to their first ever World Cup final. But, what stood out from this riveting game in Moscow? Let’s take a closer look.

England’s wing-backs have been the highlight of Southgate’s system

One would always associate an English side with the 4-4-2 formation, where you would have the traditional burly forward, who would be duly supplied by two fleet-footed wingers. It was the formation that held England’s “Golden Generation” back from competing in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. Gareth Southgate’s radical move to a 3-5-2 system ever since he took over has been nothing short of a revelation. 

Add to that, he has the personnel that have seamlessly bought into this approach. The likes of Trippier, Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker have slotted into their new roles easily and it has seen a new England take to the pitch. One of the highlights has been the amount of width England have with Trippier and Ashley Young bombing forward on either flank. Trippier especially has the advantage of youth on his side, as he was able to cover his flank extremely effectively and it was no wonder that many an England attack originated from his side of the pitch. 

On the other hand, Young, a naturally right-footed player turned left-back was a key factor in keeping the marauding Sime Vrsaljko from causing damage in the final third, as his movements were restricted to the middle third of the pitch primarily. The system has paid dividends for Southgate and it may see the start of English sides being more tactically adaptable as compared to their much-vaunted predecessors. 

Watch: Croatia 2-1 England highlights

Dalic’s switch to a 3-4-3 brings Croatia into the game

Zlatko Dalic’s decision to go with a 4-1-4-1, with Marcelo Brozovic protecting the defence and thereby allowing Croatia’s engine room of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric to thrive was justified. The Croatians struggled to get into the game in the quarterfinal against Russia, as both Rakitic and Modric had to stay deeper to retain the team’s defensive shape. 

England’s attacking midfield duo of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard did an admirable job of cutting off the passing lanes to Modric from the Croatian defence and thus removed him from attacking moves. It was one of the key reasons why the Croatians carried such a tepid attacking threat in the first half. 

Dalic’s instructions at halftime seemed to have worked as Croatia came out in the second period a different side. He had asked his full-backs Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic to push forward more, asking Brozovic to stay close to his defence. With Ante Rebic and Perisic playing further forward, it allowed Modric to slip into a midfield position in between Young and Maguire. This allowed him to influence play from the right side of midfield and his partnership with Vrsaljko was instrumental in Croatia getting on level terms through Perisic’s goal. 

So much was the threat that Southgate brought on Danny Rose to keep a check on the Real Madrid man. Dalic’s switch had countered England’s first half dominance and brought the Croatians back into a game where the smallest of errors made the biggest difference. 


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England and Croatia owe their impressive performances to their young managers

National teams always keep an eye out on where their next generation of superstars would come from to replace their current crop. What is often missed out on is that federations also have to keep an eye out for bringing in the next generation of locally-bred managers, something that England especially have struggled with. 

But, in Southgate and Dalic, England and Croatia have found managers who are not only young, but have been the epicenter of their team’s performance at this World Cup. For England, it was a case of the fans having zero expectations from an extremely young team devoid of any A-list Premier League players, like the past England teams. Southgate’s calm and measured approach towards games and his insistence to develop a style of play which was a hybrid of the continental passing game and the English strength at set-pieces, saw this England team achieve  their best ever finish at a World Cup since Italia 90.

For Dalic, he was thrust into the role after Ante Cacic’s ill-fated spell in-charge of the team. Handling a group of players who was deemed the country’s “Golden Generation,” Dalic galvanised the team and moved them in unison towards the common goal of going one better than their illustrious trailblazing team of France 1998.

What transpired was a dream run for the team, where they have dismantled Argentina and come through three games that went into extra-time, to reach the final of the World Cup. Dalic has not only shown an ability to inspire, but has also been adept tactically as seen in the games against Argentina and in the semi-finals against England. At the end, it has been a tale of two extremely talented teams led by two bright young managers, both of whom have given fans a ray of hope for a brighter future for their national teams.