In a middling, slow-paced group stage match, England comfortably defeated Croatia 1-0.
Much of the pre-match discussion centred around England’s full-backs. On the right hand side, there had been much consternation about the number of quality right-backs available in the squad (even without the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold), with Kyle Walker eventually given the starting position.
Curiously, though, Gareth Southgate elected to start another one of the available right-backs at left-back. Kevin Trippier featured ahead of natural left-footers Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell, with the latter left out of the matchday squad entirely.
Southgate’s justification for this is not entirely clear. However, a mildly interesting feature of the game was how deep both full-backs stayed in England’s build up. When centre-backs Tyrone Mings and John Stones had the ball, both full-backs nearly always stayed quite deep, positioned in front of Croatia’s wide players. This can be seen in the video below.
This was intriguing because commonly, when building up from the back, coaches want their full-backs to be positioned either level or beyond their direct opponent. This stretches the opposition pressing lines and creates free players behind lines of defence that centre-backs/goalkeepers can pass forward into.
With England’s full-backs deeper, here, though, large parts of this game were characterised by the back four moving the ball slowly across the width of the field, and rarely breaking lines in the build up. Instead, England’s main chances came from simple, straight, forward passes ‘down the line’ – like in the video above, and that which can also been seen in the clip below, which results in a free-kick in a dangerous position.
It was interesting to consider why Southgate would want his full-backs positioned deep and in front of Croatia’s lines of defence. Here, Zlatko Dalić’s side defended in something of a 4-4-2, with Modric moving forward to join striker Ante Rebic in the first pressing line.
Therefore, it is possible to suggest that Southgate wanted his full-backs deeper, so that they could receive the ball with time and space. This would then naturally draw out the wide player in Croatia’s 4-4-2 to close the ball, creating gaps to play into behind the midfield line. This is how England scored their only goal.
As Walker receives the ball, you can see Croatia’s left-sided winger, Ivan Perisic, moving forward to close the ball. The space between him and the left-sided central midfielder, Mateo Kovacic, is particularly obvious because the latter has just been drawn out to press Stones – opening space for Kalvin Phillips to run forward into. Phillips receives the ball and finds Sterling running in behind towards goal, who scores.
This – getting a midfielder running beyond the Croatian defence – was a common theme of the game. Phil Foden played wide on the right hand side, which pulled out Croatia’s left-back, Josko Gvardiol. You can actually see in the clip above Gvardiol making a desperate attempt to recover back on the inside with a sliding challenge to stop Walker’s forward pass. Foden’s positioning in this moment – wide on the right – is clear, showing England’s clear game-plan to get midfield players running into that channel between full-back and centre-back.
This in itself could justify Southgate’s deep full-back strategy. However, it is worth noting that the pass in the lead up to the goal was probably Walker’s first meaningful contribution to the game. In fact, he was prominent in the first half for the number of times he gave the ball away.
Furthermore, the deeper positioning of the full-backs was not particularly successful on the left side, either. Trippier’s desire to cut back onto his preferred right foot was obvious. This, coupled with Mings’ awkwardness in playing short passes – the long punt down the field seen in the second video is characteristic of his game – along with Declan Rice sometimes also dropping into that left-sided position, meant England lacked fluency on that side.
This is not necessarily a problem if Southgate is not concerned about fluent build up play. The focus may might rightly be on having solid, reliable defenders in wide areas.
The other consideration, also, is that deeper full-backs in build up means that if the ball is turned over, there is already naturally four players (including the centre-backs) behind the ball if it is turned over. Therefore, the deeper positioning may be a deliberate defensive ploy, as it reduces the space for the full-backs to cover in transition moments, and ensures they are positioned where they can quickly stop counter-attacks down the flanks.
Given the plethora of options available to Southgate in this position, it will be interesting to see how, and who, England use their full-backs in the remaining group stage matches.