EURO 2020: What Southgate’s England were lacking in their victory against Croatia – tactical analysis
England started their Euro 2020 campaign with a squad full of talent and the highest expectations towards them. Grabbing the three points in their opener against Croatia was very important for their ambitions to top Group D. They got the victory against a limited Croatian side but apparently their 1-0 win wasn’t convincing enough for a team that are among the favourites to win the tournament.
While they were the more threatening team throughout the game, they had some vulnerabilities too. The positives of Kalvin Phillips’ performance in midfield overshadowed their defensive actions and the lack of chances created for Harry Kane. While they were considerably solid defensively, it was clear that they have weak points which could be exposed should their next opponents be more threatening than Croatia whose attacking line struggled in this game.
Although England started with an important win, Gareth Southgate needs to consider his starting XI prior to their next game and find a solution to their defensive vulnerabilities and to Kane’s isolation as well.
Croatia, despite having some strong individuals, have won just two of their last ten games and often fail to achieve a balance between the lines. Apparently, having such an experienced midfield could not compensate for the absence of players like Mario Mandžukić who are clinical in front of the goal and can convert the chances into goals.
In this tactical analysis, we will examine England’s performance and use analysis to suggest improvement of their tactics against their next opponents Scotland and the Czech Republic, who are currently leading the group based on better goal difference.
Southgate opted for a 4-2-3-1 in their Euro 2020 opener. Jordan Pickford covered the goal with a centre-back duo of Tyrone Mings (left) and John Stones (right). The left-back was Atletico Madrid‘s Kieran Trippier, while Kyle Walker covered the right side. The back four was England’s most discussed area, due to Harry Maguire’s injury which forced the manager into making some tough decisions on the centre-back partnership. The full-backs’ choice was also questionable as it turned out that Trippier might not be the best choice instead of Ben Chilwell, especially in that defensive set-up, although Southgate did have a particular plan for his involvement in ball progression and attack.
The centre midfield was covered by Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips with Mason Mount in a more advanced. Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden were employed at the wings while Harry Kane covered the centre-forward position. Mount did successfully move out to the left side in efforts to combine with Sterling, although this often left Kane isolated in the central areas.
Zlatko Dalić relied on the goalkeeper Dominik Livaković and a backline of Joško Gvardiol, Duje Ćaleta-Car, Domagoj Vida and Šime Vrsaljko with both full-backs being involved in the attacking actions. Marcelo Brozović covered the defensive midfield and helped with ball progression while Mateo Kovačić and Luka Modrić supported the attacking actions. They were flanged by Ivan Perišić and Andrej Kramarić who provided additional threat in the attack led by Ante Rebić.
The positives out of the game
One of the biggest positives in England’s display against Croatia was Kalvin Phillips’ performance. In just his ninth international game, the 25-year-old showed his potential in a more attack-minded role and proved that he could be an important figure in their set-up.
Phillips showed a different face, slightly moving away from his holding midfielder role and providing more versatility in attack by occasionally roaming behind the opposition’s midfield which led him to assist for England’s only goal in the game. Instead, Rice was the one who moved into a holding position.
He was owning the midfield dropping back to England’s half but also moving forward to the edge of the penalty area and even inside it. The Leeds United player helped in breaking Croatia’s attacking attempts by constantly covering their midfield players. The midfield battle was the most important one due to Croatia’s excellent players out there, but Phillips, despite being outplayed by Modric on a few occasions, sustained to the pressure and helped the team successfully both in defensive and attacking transitions.
His biggest contribution though was his ball progression support. Finishing the game with 96.8% passing accuracy, where only three out of his 31 passes have been back passes, underlines his drive to help the team in retaining possession in the opposition half and deliver the ball to the advanced areas.
His involvement in the ball progression transformed into support to the attacking actions and he was one of the main creativity sources for the team’s attacking actions. He wouldn’t only move to provide passing options to the defenders in efforts to advance the ball but would also immediately look to break the opposition line either with a lateral pass or by directly sending the ball forward into a free area. The full-back Kyle Walker had more defensive responsibilities and wasn’t able to dive deeper into the opposition half as per usual. Apart from the lower number of crosses coming from the right, this wasn’t as big of an issue thanks to Phillips’ movement which provided coverage on the right.
He also frequently moved to the left side, helping the team in overloading these areas and in creating pass combinations with Mount and Sterling. Their partnership and link-up-play ability is another thing that proved successful in the game. The combination of smart off the ball movement and passing was efficient in dragging players out of position and breaking Croatia’s defensive structure. Switching positions in the wide areas and the half-spaces worked for the most part, with Kane often dragging Vida out. While the centre-forward didn’t have many chances on the ball, he was a crucial distraction for Croatia’s defenders and allowed more space for his teammates with his movement.
As mentioned, Maguire’s and Chilwell’s absence of the backline affected the team and they had to make quite a few adjustments in order to execute their strategy well. Apart from the four defenders, Rice had an important role in their ball progression and in bypassing Croatia’s pressing efforts. His movement was key as he had to attract pressure in aim to free Mings up and allow him to pass to the left or forward.
Employing Trippier as a left-back had its positives and negatives. He helped in overloading the left flank and had a big role in breaking through Croatia’s first line of defence. His movement combined with Sterling’s and Mount’s engaged Kramarić and Vrsaljko most of the time which would always find one of them free to receive the ball. These rotations allowed England to progress the ball through the left flank. They would also try to drag Brozović out of position and use the half-spaces to create their attacking movement. This allowed Sterling to move centrally and create chances on a few occasions. Modrić had to support the actions on the left, which allowed Phillips a more free-roaming role.
Potential issues and what could be improved?
Despite their successful overload on the left side, they lacked the needed explosiveness in attack. Southgate intentionally focused the team’s actions on Croatia’s weaker side but that often absolutely dismissed Foden’s presence on the right. The insufficient use of both Kane and Foden affected the team’s performance in front of the goal and while they successfully created chances through overloading the left side, they could’ve troubled the opposition even more, had they tried to involve the other two attackers.
The team relied on their movement to engage Croatia’s defenders but rarely used their positioning for creating opportunities. This was also a result of remaining defensively compact and not involving the full-backs in the attacking actions as frequently. This left Foden without a partner to combine with on the right and also Kane being isolated due to the lack of crossing efforts from the team with Walker staying deeper and Trippier being involved in the actions on the left.
Having Phillips in this more advanced role could have been used better to provide passing options on the right too and be that connection between Foden and Kane, increasing the team’s chances in front of the goal. With his through ball and key pass ability, the 25-year-old could bring balance in the half-spaces with Mount occupying the left half-space and Phillips moving into the right.
Another option for involving Kane more could be introducing Jack Grealish. Even though Sterling’s movement on the left and centrally is very beneficial but he often throws quality efforts to waste. Using him in the particular strategy might have worked out against Croatia but could not be sustainable further in the competition where they’ll need someone with Kane’s abilities to convert their chances into goals. And Grealish could be the right player to create those chances. His movement, ability to hold on to the ball and his spatial awareness might help the team in delivering the ball to quality areas where Kane could take advantage of them. While replacing the talented and creative Mount with him might not sound like the best option, Grealish’s experience and work under pressure could prove crucial for supporting Kane’s movement. He could also add to the team’s set-piece threat as he is often being fouled and manages to win free-kicks, providing an additional threat in front of the goal.
Moving to their potential defensive issues, we cannot neglect Maguire’s absence importance. Croatia didn’t manage to threaten the goal immensely and the Thee Lions’ defence wasn’t really tested under pressure. While Mings did well in their first game of the tournament they face a potential problem against their more attack-minded opponents. It will be difficult to live up to the expectations not only defensively but also in ball progression, as the Manchester United player’s distinguished anticipation skills and passing abilities are difficult to be replaced.
Another potential struggle lies in Stones’ need of a leading figure next to him, as proved in Manchester City, who can provide stability and allow him more freedom in possession. As a ball-playing defender, he needs that additional support that has his back and allows him to focus on spreading the ball out, which he may not find in Mings due to his defensive fragilities. That’s why Southgate needs to consider introducing Luke Shaw. He could potentially support the team better in possession and also provide solidity defensively.
As mentioned, relying on Trippier as a left-back has negatives too. Not particularly because of his abilities but because of his right-footedness. While it could be useful in certain occasions it does limit England in attack. They are unable to use him to his strengths which are being involved in the attacking actions and crossing the ball due to him being employed on the left while being right-footed. This is also part of the reason why Kane was so isolated centrally – Trippier wasn’t comfortable in going forward and crossing the ball, while on the other hand, the lack of a natural left-back to support Sterling’s movement was noticeable at times. Him being uncomfortable in that position could also result in inviting pressure on the left which is already their weaker side.
Shaw and Chilwell are players that could help in retaining possession and building up from the back which will eventually result in England having more of the ball and taking control of the games. Their creativity would also provide more options when trying to bypass the opposition’s press.
While it all worked out against a passive Croatian team, Southgate needs to carefully consider his starting XI against his next opponents as the individualities might turn out more crucial than the actual tactics. While he clearly had a plan against Dalić’s side and stuck to it, the team weren’t very convincing. The solution to their vulnerabilities and to being more confident in their actions could be as simple as sticking to players’ strengths and their natural positions and not overthinking the tactics.