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Gareth Southgate: Late to make changes against Croatia
Gareth Southgate: Late to make changes against Croatia

Columnist Alex Keble reflects on the World Cup semi-finals as Gareth Southgate's tactical decisions come under scrutiny.

England are out of the World Cup in heroic, tragic, miserable circumstances. Kieran Trippier's fifth minute free-kick will stay with England fans forever, but only in the same way as Gazza's tears and Chris Waddle's penalty. Croatia should not have been so easily allowed back into the game; experience, both psychological and tactical, ultimately settled the second semi-final.

Twenty-four hours earlier, France and Belgium defied expectations in a pretty tedious last-four fixture, with Didier Deschamps' side edging it courtesy of a Samuel Umtiti header. The France manager's Mourinho-esque football is being tolerated, for now, but having failed to integrate so much young attacking talent he faces a serious backlash should they lose the final.

Manager of the semi-finals – Zlatko Dalic

England dominated the first 45 minutes of the semi-final via long balls down the right for Raheem Sterling to chase. The Croatia centre-backs struggled with his pace while England's supporting midfielders quickly took control of the spaces behind Luka Modric. It should have been all over by half-time.

However, Dalic deserves the plaudits for his side's tactical bravery after the break. Croatia's full-backs pushed higher and were consistently sought out with long diagonal passes. As this feature became more prominent England were pushed back from a 3-5-2 into a 5-3-2, which meant there were big pockets of space in front of the wing-backs.

Croatia's wingers cut inside into these half-gaps, receiving the ball (from the full-backs) in increasing amounts of space. They also peppered the box with crosses to take advantage of the room they had on the flanks, ultimately leading directly to the equaliser.

Prior to kick-off talk had been of Dalic's selection headache in central midfield, and yet playing Inter Milan's Marcelo Brozovic proved to be a masterstroke; he was the architect of many of those raking diagonals to the full-backs.

Player of the semi-finals – Blaise Matuidi

Much has been made of Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane's centre-back partnership, while the raw power of Kylian Mbappe and the intelligence of N'Golo Kante has drawn plaudits, but the unsung hero of France's run to the final is Blaise Matuidi. Entering the tournament as a back-up player, he has made himself indispensable across four matches – and peaked in the 1-0 victory over Belgium on Tuesday.

Deschamps' cautious football could still be France's undoing, as it was in the final of Euro 2016, but against free-flowing Belgium his backs-to-the-wall approach was wise. Matuidi made six tackles, three interceptions, two key passes, and was fouled four times – all statistical highs for the Juventus midfielder in Russia. He flitted expertly between the left wing and central midfield, playing a double role that has solidified the France midfield, allowing them to continue with a 4-2-3-1 without taking the wayward Paul Pogba out of it.

Against Belgium, Matuidi's positional play was particularly complex. France packed the middle of the pitch to deny space to Belgium's dangerous forwards while leaving Nacer Chadli completely free at right-back. The French set a trap for Roberto Martinez's side, ensuring they consistently handed the ball to the West Brom winger to force him to attempt an incisive forward pass. Matuidi's discipline was the key to a narrow France victory.

Blaise Matuidi: Key man for France
Blaise Matuidi: Key man for France

Worst of the semi-finals – Martinez's starting line-up

Not for the first time in his career Martinez's incessant tinkering cost him dearly on Tuesday. The complex tactics used against Brazil (Romelu Lukaku arcing in from the right; Kevin de Bruyne as a false nine; Chadli switching between left wing-back and central midfield) were bizarrely abandoned in favour of a more conventional 4-3-3. Consequently Belgium looked flat and predictable, failing to play with the tempo required to break through the French midfield.

Mousa Dembele was a shock selection and, perhaps unsurprisingly given his lack of game-time this summer, struggled with the pressure of the occasion. He rarely took risks with forward passes, blunting Belgium and ensuring that Lukaku was a spectator for long periods. The problem was compounded by Martinez's selection of Marouane Fellaini at the tip of a midfield three. Unless planning to play long balls onto Fellaini's chest, there is no justification for putting him in such an advanced position.

Belgium improved after Dries Mertens came on for Dembele, but the pattern of the game was set by then. This was exactly the sort of match in which an aggressive leader in midfield was needed to increase the urgency in Belgium's play; Radja Nainggolan was sorely missed.

Tactical error of the semi-finals – Southgate's hesitancy

The mood in England is one of immense pride, and rightly so, but in the cold light of day it is worth considering the tactical flaws of Gareth Southgate during the semi-final defeat to Croatia. It was a day in which Croatia's big-game experience won out, and while many have focused on the calm control of Luka Modric in midfield, the English naivety extends to the benches, too.

Southgate hesitated for far too long in the second half. Croatia's increasing dominance required decisive action from England's inexperienced manager, but instead he failed to make a single substitution until the 74th minute. England were tiring badly, the three central midfielders in particular struggling to cover the width of the pitch once Croatia began switching flanks with those long diagonal balls.

Had Southgate brought Eric Dier onto the pitch earlier then we would not have seen Dele Alli struggle to get across to Sime Vrsaljko before he crossed for Ivan Perisic's equaliser. But it wasn't just about fresh legs. As England were pegged back into a flat five, leaving two up front looked like a huge gamble. Southgate had no plan B to reassert England's authority.


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