Towards the end of Gareth Southgate’s press conference, one of the visiting journalists asked him whether, as they prepare to face each other for the third time in four months, England v Croatia was emerging as one of European football’s premier rivalries.
Southgate offered qualified agreement. “We’ve proved ourselves to be two of the best teams across the world this year,” he said. “We’ve got huge respect for their players, their coach, their mentality. But also we’ve got belief that we’re improving.”
A good sporting rivalry needs context, spirit, quality, but perhaps the most important trait of all is narrative: learning and evolution, character development, ebb and flow. Serena Williams v Maria Sharapova was an all-star clash, but you couldn’t really call it a rivalry while Williams was biffing her 18 times in a row. Which is just one of the many reasons why England are desperate to crown their stellar 2018 by winning at Wembley on Sunday to qualify for the final four of the Nations League. After the heartbreak of defeat in the World Cup semi-final, and the crowd-free weirdness of their goalless draw in Rijeka last month, this would offer conclusive proof of their growth as a side.
Southgate goes on a lot about improvement, about learning as a group, about the collective journey this young team and its relatively inexperienced coach are taking together. But in order to talk about progress, you need to keep demonstrating it. And after the spectacular counter-attacking win against Spain, Sunday’s game against Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia offer England the next big test of maturity: whether they can control a game at home against elite opposition with an elite midfield and an elite press.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two sides during that World Cup semi-final was Croatia’s furious, highly-choreographed press, and England’s inability to pass their way through it. Croatia had done their homework on England, and noticed how the vast majority of their moves originated from John Stones and Jordan Henderson distributing the ball from deep. And so after a cagier first half, Croatia hassled both players with renewed intensity for the rest of the game.
“We knew Stones was their most important player coming out,” said Ivan Rakitic in an interview with The Guardian this week. “Their principal plan was for Stones to be the first to bring the ball out and give it to Henderson, and then move forward from there. We had to make them uncomfortable in that. We knew we had to press better, higher up in their half.”
England, essentially, were strangled. The pressure on Stones and Henderson forced them into errors, forced the wing-backs to drop deeper to help out, forced them into harmless sideways passes or the inevitable rushed clearance. Between the 45th and 120th minutes, England attempted 44 long balls, 28 of which ended up giving possession away.
Over the whole game, England played 17 per cent of their passes long, of which only 40 per cent found their target. Croatia played fewer long balls in total - just 11 per cent - but with Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic tirelessly running the channels and offering genuine width, succeeded with 63 per cent of the ones they did attempt. England’s four most common pass combinations were Kieran Trippier to Kyle Walker; Walker to Stones; Stones to Walker; and Walker to Jordan Pickford. In total, England played 26 back passes to Croatia’s 12.
First the bad news. After the inevitable post-Russia dip, Croatia’s press is back with a vengeance. Their 3-2 win over Spain on Thursday night was kick-started by a high press forcing Sergio Ramos into a rushed pass to Sergi Roberto, intercepting Roberto’s clearance and Andrej Kramaric running in to score. It’s a tactic they know and love, and Dalic confirmed on Saturday that it would again form a key part of their strategy. “We need to press them all over the pitch,” he said.
Now the good news. Having had just two days to prepare for the semi-final, Southgate has had four months to dream up a way through the Croatia press this time round. The 4-3-3 trialled successfully during the autumn is in part his response, giving the ball-carrier a wider range of options, including the opportunity to launch quick attacks up the flanks.
Meanwhile, the opportunity to subject Croatia to a deeper level of analysis has, Southgate believes, reaped dividends. There is, he says, “a bit more awareness of where that press is coming from, and the angles of approach. The level of detail you work at improves every time you work together. More and more layers of attacking possibilities open up. And the more you watch things, the more patterns start to emerge, and the more you’re able to see where that pressure comes from.”
Croatia will probably not let England play on the counter-attack as freely as Spain did. But with the front four pushed high, it does give England a chance to catch them on the hop if they can move the ball forward quickly and accurately enough. And once in the final third, as the 3-0 win against the USA on Thursday showed, England believe they have a greater understanding and a wider variety of attacking threats than they enjoyed in the summer, with Jadon Sancho offering an intriguing bench option behind the likely starting front three of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford.
That’s the theory, of course. Croatia, for their part, believe they have the measure of England, as evidenced by the bullish comments of Tin Jedvaj, their two-goal hero on Thursday. “In Russia, we proved that we could beat them without any problems,” he scoffed. “They aren’t better than us. We might even be favourites.”
Ah, the final ingredient for a great rivalry: a little bit of needle. Of course, you can hardly blame Croatia for arriving at Wembley with their tails firmly up. They have the triumph of the summer in the bank, an injury-time win against Spain to savour, and - even if Rakitic will be missing through injury - the best midfielder in the world in Luka Modric. What a time it would be, therefore, for England to spring off the ropes and show them a new trick or two.