England’s emphatic 5-1 victory over Croatia at Wembley last night was the perfect example of two similar tactical systems executed in two starkly discrepant ways. Both Fabio Capello and Slaven Bilic opted to deploy the 4-4-2 formation, but the flaws in Croatia’s approach to the system were superbly exploited by a confident England team playing an astute and expansive brand of football under their Italian manager.
What England Got Right
The key to England’s success last night was their ability to control the game in the middle of the field. Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard both had excellent games, containing the Croatian midfield whilst simultaneously allowing the attacking talents ahead of them to flourish.
Indeed, despite Lampard grabbing the headlines with two goals, it was Manchester City’s Barry who really facilitated the operation of Capello’s chosen tactical plan. Throughout the game Barry was the focal point of much of England’s passing and was central to the possession football his team adopted during the second period.
In defence Barry was also a pivotal figure, sitting deeper than his central midfield partner and breaking up any Croatian attacking momentum that developed. The relative anonymity of Niko Kranjcar, arguably Croatia’s most creative player in the absence of Luka Modric, was largely down to Barry’s ability to chase the ball down in the midfield and shut down the supply of through balls directed to Eduardo, Olic and, latterly, Petric. An often underrated influence in the England side, Barry’s controlling presence in the team should not be underestimated; he has grown in confidence on the international stage in the last year and will be an important figure in South Africa next summer.
The selection of Aaron Lennon was another Capello masterstroke. After beating Croatia 1-4 in Zagreb last November, England had clearly discovered the secret to unravelling their opponents, that of course being the use of exceptionally quick wingers to expose what is a Croatian defensive unit lacking in speed and dynamism. In Zagreb it had been Theo Walcott who had wreaked havoc with a superb hat-trick; this time around it was the brilliant Lennon who caused Bilic’s side the most significant problems at the back.
After just seven minutes Lennon burst into the box and was well past Josip Simunic by the time the defender chopped him down to concede the penalty which Frank Lampard duly converted to set England on their way to a comfortable victory. The Tottenham winger’s influence on the game continued to grow as the first-half wore on, running dangerously from wide areas and from deep before capping a sparkling performance by providing the cross for Steven Gerrard to score England’s second.
It was a superb performance from Lennon who, despite facing stiff competition for his place from David Beckham, Theo Walcott and Shaun Wright-Phillips, will have done his claim for a berth in the World Cup squad no end of good with last night’s display.
What Croatia Got Wrong
As much as Capello got his game plan spot on, there can be no doubt that Slaven Bilic made a handful of tactical errors which ultimately cost his side the game. Bilic has proved himself to be a very tactically aware manager in the past, so there’s no need to be overly critical of the Croatian coach, but some of the decisions he made failed to maximise his team’s chances in what was always going to be a difficult game for the Vatreni.
Perhaps Bilic’s most blatant error of judgement was his decision to start with Nikola Pokrivac, usually deployed as a midfield player, at left-back with Danijel Pranjic, Bayern Munich’s regular left-back, out on the left wing. The ploy unbalanced his side and exposed Pokrivac, a player inexperienced in defensive roles, to the raw pace of Aaron Lennon and the overlapping runs of Glen Johnson. After twenty minutes both Pranjic and Pokrivac had reverted to their more familiar positions, but England were two goals ahead and the damage had already been done.
The other major problem with Croatia’s approach was a lack of incisive passing and a reliance on the long ball when the game started to get away from them. Bilic’s primary plan was clearly to utilise the skills of Kranjcar and Vukojevic to provide the front two with the ball into feet, but when Barry and Lampard stifled the midfield it was clear that Croatia lacked the proverbial “Plan B”. With England pressing superbly in their own half, Bilic’s side elected to hit somewhat hopeful long-balls up to their strikers who cut rather forlorn figures for much of the game.
Although Ivan Rakitic made a positive impact after his introduction at the break, it was again too little too late for Bilic who will be looking to quickly put this performance behind him and concentrate on securing second place in the group and reaching the World Cup via the play-offs.
As for England, well, they can reflect on a job well done safe in the knowledge that they will be competing in the World Cup finals next summer.