UEFA Nations League: How Croatia beat England in World Cup

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Croatia host England in the Nations League on Friday – but how did they beat Gareth Southgate’s men in the World Cup semi-finals? We take an in-depth look at that Russia clash and what lessons Southgate could learn for this week’s encounter…

Three months have passed since England suffered World Cup semi-final heartbreak with a 2-1 extra-time defeat to Croatia.

Now Gareth Southgate’s men have a chance to put that result behind them with a Nations League tie away to Croatia live on Sky Sports on Friday night.

Teams meet again live on Sky Sports on Friday

England reached the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 28 years after a 2-0 win over Sweden

What is the UEFA Nations League?

So what lessons did England learn from their crushing defeat in Moscow. What, if anything, will Southgate change when the two sides meet in Rijeka this week? We check the positional data and match stats from that July evening to find out…

Positional & passing combinations


Southgate stuck with his favoured 3-5-2 formation in Moscow for a sixth game running. While Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic deviated from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-4-1.

Kieran Tripper sent the nation into ecstasy after finding the top corner from a 25-yard free-kick – but England’s fortunes would begin to turn in the second half.

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Kieran Trippier sent the nation into a frenzy after netting a 25-yard free-kick with just five minutes on the clock

The graphic below shows how Southgate’s side enjoyed a fairly even share of passing possession in the first 45 minutes – but Croatia dominated the entire second half. With the exception of a three-minute period after Ivan Perisic’s equaliser. That is when England tried to respond.

In extra-time, England failed to capitalise on a dominant first 15 minutes. With John Stones seeing a header cleared off the line, before the Croats started the second interval strongly – culminating in Mario Mandzukic’s match-winning goal with just 10 minutes left to play.

Mario Mandzukic broke English hearts with an extra-time winner for Croatia

Indeed, Croatia’s ability to control huge swathes of the game stemmed from packing the midfield to outnumber Jordan Henderson. Who was partnered by attack-minded duo Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard.

The graphic below reveals how Croatia maintained an almost symmetrical system. With six players averaging along the halfway line – recording an equally balanced share of passing combinations among the players. It’s a clear illustration of their central midfield dominance.

Interestingly, almost half of Croatia’s attacks came down their left flank and only 17 per cent down the central third – suggesting Dalic looked to expose the space created behind England’s attacking wing-backs.

Central defenders Dejan Lovren (No 6) and Domagoj Vida (No 21) stayed back to limit threats from fast breaks. While Inter Milan midfielder Marcelo Brozovic (No 11) pulled the strings from deep midfield – attempting a match-high 84 passes.

Mandzukic and Ante Rebic ended up spearheading Croatia’s attack from barely inside England’s half. While Perisic averaged as their most advanced player – inside left-back Ivan Strinic and central midfielder Ivan Rakitic.

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In contrast, England’s average positions ended up being lopsided. Skewed by a preference to attack through Tripper down their right flank – with primary hotspots of their touches occurring in Jordan Pickford’s box.

While England’s back three maintained a safe line, half-way inside their own half. The Three Lions left space on their right-sided region of midfield – with Lingard joining Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane in more advanced positions.

In terms of passing combinations, the majority of England’s exchanges occurred down the right flank. Although few proved fruitful – with centre-backs Kyle Walker and John Stones combining most frequently. And a number of passes played long by Pickford.

The stats comparison


The graphic below provides finer details on how Croatia achieved attacking dominance – creating far more chances, with Brozovic and Perisic making three key passes each.

The Croats fired 18 shots at Pickford’s goal. Testing the Everton stopper with seven on target. That’s compared with England’s two on target from eight attempts – both from defenders, excluding Kane’s close-range effort which was ruled offside.

John Stones (left), and Kieran Trippier (not pictured) recorded England’s only shots on target against Croatia

In terms of general play, Croatia’s dominance in midfield produced superior numbers for passes, final-third passes and touches – with Rakitic distributing in advanced areas – attempting 39 passes in the final third.

England managed to win the aerial battle and hit far more long balls and launches – with the latter defined by Opta, rather undesirably, as ‘a long ball played forward without an obvious target’.

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Harry Kane won a match-topping 10 aerials against Croatia

Croatia were also better across a raft of defensive metrics – winning more tackles, interceptions and recoveries – while England made more clearances and won more duels.

Rebic produced an aggressive performance that rattled England. Winning a match-topping four tackles and 18 duels – but committing six fouls and picking up a yellow card before being substituted in the first half of extra time.

Ante Rebic hit a match-high 32km/h against England

Southgate’s solutions?


So what can Southgate and his England team do this time against Croatia?

The manager may look to provide additional defensive support in midfield. Where England were often out-numbered, over-run and out-passed in Moscow.

England will have to look after the ball better, too, with Croatia having shown they can stand up to the direct and set-piece-reliant approach Southgate’s side used in Russia.

Marcelo Brozovic (centre) has withdrawn from the Croatia squad through injury

They will also have to hold positions across the pitch more effectively. And be on guard against Croatia exploiting spaces behind their attacking wing-backs.

In addition, England will need to press and reduce the influence of Croatia’s play-making midfielders to limit their hosts’ attacking play.

Watch Croatia v England live on Sky Sports Main Event from 7pm.