World Cup 2018: How Croatia exploited England's nerves and space out wide to reach the final

 
Felix Keith
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Ivan Perisic was outstanding for Croatia, scoring once and creating the other goal (Source: Getty)

Coming into England’s biggest game in 28 years all the focus on Croatia was directed at two men: Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.

The Real Madrid and Barcelona central midfielders offered the most obvious threat to Gareth Southgate’s side. Their ability to dictate play, pierce the defence and shoot from distance was rightly highlighted.

However, in the event the damage came from elsewhere.

Read more: Trevor Steven: Inside England's last World Cup semi-final

Croatia are a multi-faceted team packed full of experience – they are far from all about Modric and Rakitic. And in the end it was English nerves, Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and exploitation of space out wide which settled the tie over 120 tense minutes in Moscow.

England had much the better of the first half and went ahead from Kieran Trippier’s free-kick, but following the break the mistakes started to creep in and Croatia – who came through extra-time and penalties against Denmark and Russia – began to assert their dominance.

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Sime Vrsaljko was a constant threat for Croatia down the right-hand side (Source: Getty)

As England’s wing-backs Ashley Young and Trippier tired and dropped deeper, space was created for Croatia’s conventional full-backs Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic to move into.

Southgate’s successful 3-5-2 formation gradually slipped into a flat 5-3-2, and although outside midfielders Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli tried their best to cover, the problem grew and grew.

Modric and Rakitic intelligently kept the ball moving in the middle, while switches of play developed countless overlaps. In the end the pressure told, with right-back Vrsaljko using time and space to swing in a cross, catch Trippier and Kyle Walker cold and allow Perisic to volley in for 1-1.

Minutes later Perisic was smacking the post and opposite winger Ante Rebic was scuffing a presentable rebound into Jordan Pickford’s gloves.

Croatia’s heatmap showed they rarely attempted to reach the byline – but with space to cross from deep they didn’t need to. With England panicking, they kept them on the ropes, bombarding the penalty area with crosses – 41 of them in total.

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Jesse Lingard did his best, but Croatia kept finding time and space in wide areas (Source: Getty)

The three full-backs – Vrsaljko, Strinic and his replacement Josip Pivaric – managed 17 between them, more than the whole Three Lions’ side put together.

While the crosses kept coming, Perisic kept improving. The wideman was exceptional and had seven of Croatia’s 22 shots, with no other player managing more than three.

Having scored and hit the post it was he who headed on for Mario Mandzukic to strike the final hammer blow to England’s chances in extra-time.

From there Croatia didn’t drop deep. Fresh legs came from the bench and Zlatko Dalic’s side pressed and pressed until the final whistle came.

After three consecutive bouts of extra-time, the question will now be if they can keep up such a frenetic energy against France on Sunday.

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