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5 Key Battles Which Will Decide England’s Clash with Croatia

5 Key Battles Which Will Decide England’s Clash with Croatia
Aaron Rogan
Aaron Rogan
July 9, 2018
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Before becoming a Sports Journalist for Free Super Tips, Aaron spent three years studying Sports Journalism at the University of Sunderland while taking in the Black Cats' 'glory years' under Martin O'Neill. Now back in Northern Ireland he turns niche stats into predictions for FST, while he's one of the few people on this island who is equally comfortable at Windsor Park and the Aviva.

Two sides who have already made history will be clashing in Moscow for a place in the World Cup final. For England, this is a first semi-final at a World Cup in 28 years, while Croatia face their second ever semi at a major tournament, and first since 1998.

Both sides have been inspired by heroes of the past, but both England in 1990 and Croatia in France 20 years ago crashed out before the final. One of them will go a step further this year, but who will it be? Ahead of their semi-final clash, we’re going through five key battles which will decide the second World Cup finalist.

Also see: England vs Croatia Predictions and Match Preview

The Set Piece Factor

Harry Maguire for England against Colombia at the World Cup

England simply wouldn’t be in the semi-final if it wasn’t for their set pieces. Dead ball situations have led to a remarkable 73% of their goals so far, a highly effective weapon for Gareth Southgate. They seem to have terrified their opponents, as seen by the shambolic fouls drawn against Panama and Colombia from corners. Will Croatia have a better way to handle England’s set piece threat?

On the evidence of Saturday night, this is going to be a real vulnerability for Croatia. They conceded seven chances to Russia in the quarter-final from set pieces. That included the equaliser which sent the game to penalties. As a result, half of the goals Croatia have conceded in Russia have come from set pieces, something which the Three Lions can make the most of when they step out in the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday night.

However, England’s strength in attacking set pieces doesn’t mean they are perfect at the back. Croatia may see set plays as a strength of their own, after Domagoj Vida’s strike in the last round. Croatia may have a small midfield, but they have a huge physical presence from their defence, and forward Mario Mandzukic. England have also conceded half of their goals from set pieces this tournament, so corners could be huge for both sides.

Read More: How Set Pieces Could Decide the Game

Croatia Vulnerable on the Wings?

It’s hard to see this become a very expansive game, and not just because of the prize on offer. England have sacrificed wingers in their current set up, preferring to get their width from their wing-backs. Croatia have even less of a presence out wide, with Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic both drifting in off the wings to play very centrally. They overload teams in the middle, but where does that leave them on the flanks?

With three possession focused central midfielders, Croatia’s only wide presence is their full-backs, who have a habit of leaving too much space behind them. That’s unlikely to test England’s wing-backs, who aren’t the greatest defensively. However, the Three Lions do have a chance to make the wide areas their own, and that could settle this game.

Croatia haven’t looked great down the left so far, and that will suit Kieran Trippier, who has been arguably England’s player of the tournament. If the Tottenham man can get in to advanced areas, then he’ll have a brilliant chance to supply Harry Kane with crosses. Those opportunities could undo Croatia, as Kane doesn’t need too many attempts to find the net given the form he’s in right now.

How Will the Midfielders Match up?

Croatia, Ivan Rakitic

Before everyone was certain that football was coming home, back when we were all concerned with the Premier League, midfield was England’s big worry. Some posed Jonjo Shelvey as the answer, although it’s hard to see why. Regardless, the Three Lions were calling out for a technically gifted passer in the middle, the kind of player Jack Wilshire wants to be when he grows up. Right now, Gareth Southgate couldn’t find that player, so he had to go with pace and power instead.

Croatia are about to show England what midfield guile looks like. Real Madrid’s Luca Modric, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic will be the central trio on Wednesday night. Dele Alli, Jordan Henderson and Jesse Lingard have strength and pace, but can they get close to those three?

England’s central midfielders have a habit of bursting forward. Lingard and Alli are basically playing as two number 10s, looking to get in support of Kane. If they leave spaces on Wednesday, Croatia will happily lap that up. They are likely to pass rings around the Three Lions, and losing the battle in midfield could leave England struggling to get a foothold in the game.

Also See: Croatia’s Midfield Examined

A Game Too Far for Croatia?

World Cup 2018: Croatia Russia

England are certainly about to test themselves against a quality side on Wednesday, with Croatia packed full of talented players. Many are quick to point out that England’s run to the last four has been favourable, and that may mean that they’re going to get found out in the last four. However, could it be Croatia who have gone a game too far in this tournament?

Obviously, they have the talent to sit among the semi-finalists, but Croatia have got here through the narrowest of margins. They have won on penalties in back to back rounds. That’s meant that they’ve played through 250 minutes of football since the last 16. Meanwhile, England had their last four place booked hours before Croatia kicked off their quarter final. The Three Lions cruised through, while Croatia looked shattered in the closing stages of extra-time.

Croatia aren’t exactly a side who can make their way through without being full strength. They’ve not really forced themselves to push forward so far, after spending just 25% of their five games in the opposition penalty area. They also tend to play their way in to chances, with 60% of their goals so far coming from open play. The only time England have conceded an open play goal was when their reserves faced Belgium in their final group game, so Croatia could struggle to find a way through after a tough battle to reach the last four.

See Our Reaction to Croatia’s Quarter-final Success

Should England Fear Penalties?

Sweden vs England Predictions, Betting Tips and Match Previews

Given that these sides are going to pack their midfield, and possibly rely on set pieces for goals, the game will surely be tight. That could mean penalties again, the thing England fans tend to dread. Their last 16 win over Colombia may go some way to removing that fear, but Croatia are coming off the back of two shoot-out wins.

While Jordan Pickford was praised for his part in the win over Colombia, Danijel Subasic has saved four penalties at this tournament. He’s helped Croatia through two shoot-outs after fantastic displays, and that could worry English fans.

However, there’s no need to be too fearful, as penalties may favour England this time. Croatia would need to do something historic to progress that way again, given that no side has ever won three World Cup shoot-outs. On top of that, 75% of the sides who have won on penalties since they were introduced to the World Cup have gone on to lose the following shoot-out. Maybe this is England’s year on penalties. Maybe it is coming home.

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