Croatia must quell set-piece threat of Maguire, Stones and Kane to reach World Cup final
Southgate's side have proven difficult to handle from dead ball situations and Dalic's team are aware they need to find a solution to prevail in Moscow
The second blow of the referee’s whistle may well sound the first alarm in the contest to find the second finalist at the 2018 World Cup.
A foul will mean a dead-ball opportunity, and, from one of those, we have come to expect a threat at goal.
A higher ratio of goals per match have been scored in Russia than at any other World Cup. And from set-pieces, no team has been more effective that England.
Including their three penalties - and excluding the four spot-kick goals of their shoot-out against Colombia in the last 16 - England have scored eight of their 11 goals from dead-ball scenarios, principally crosses into the penalty area, via a corner or a free-kick.
This might be taken as evidence that the England team lean heavily on the supposed traditional fortes of English football: high crosses, big target-men and a certainly muscularity.
Partly, that is true, although there is nothing crude about England's heading excellence. The strategies behind their set-piece effectiveness are sophisticated, and have caused Croatia, the concerned opponents in Wednesday's semi-final, to devote a substantial proportion of their preparation to formulas for combatting England’s dead-ball expertise, to second-guessing what England might do with their corners and free-kicks.
“England are dangerous at set-pieces,” acknowledges Dejan Lovren, the Croatia and Liverpool central defender. “Just look at the players! The smallest is about 1,9m tall! So it will be a challenge.”
Lovren exaggerates a little with his attention to height, although Harry Maguire, at 1.94m, is something of a skyscraper. He scored his first England goal at the weekend to propel them towards the semi-final.
It was a header from a corner. England’s second in the 2-0 win over Sweden was another header, though the cross this time was with a moving ball, the provider Jesse Lingard, the target the 1.88m Dele Alli.
Maguire had been inadequately marked by Sweden, who have several tall and usually well marshalled defenders. Croatia have Lovren and Domagoj Vida as principal sentries in the centre of defence and, as was notable in their quarter-final against Russia, they use some novel manouevres to mark set-pieces.
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They often positioned players in two almost parallel lines. The three or four men in the row further forward are there partly to block attacking players plotting sprints towards the flight of a cross; the deeper players are expected to do more conventional, ‘touch-tight’ marking.
England have tried to be innovative, too, their manager Gareth Southgate applying some techniques he says were inspired by watching basketball and NFL football in the United States, and consulting with coaches from those sports about how to eke out space in densely populated areas of the pitch.
Sometimes England’s taller men have lined up as if queueing to go through a turnstile, up to four of them packed together in line, before they split off in what looks haphazard directions as the ball is in the air from a free-kick or corner.
It is a device to confuse the opposition, and if one of the attacking players breaking from the queue finds space and the three others block, even for a split-second, a defender trying to reach the spare man, it has worked.
The amount of practice and theorising about how to organise set-pieces at this World Cup has been unusually high partly because of the arrival of VAR.
Players are aware that any grappling and premeditated obstructions in the penalty box when crosses are aimed there will be more closely scrutinised.
There is also a greater confidence that offside decisions will be accurate, so forming straight lines of defensive to catch opponents offside is not so risky, provided the defensive players move in time with one another.
Lovren, who has had some difficult afternoons marking England’s Harry Kane in club contests between Liverpool and Kane’s Tottenham Hotspur, says: “For some points it’s good to have VAR. When players make these ‘blocks’ maybe the referee couldn’t see it before. Now he sees everything.”
Croatia suffered a little against Iceland’s corners and long throw-ins in their third of three group phase victories, and against Russia they conceded a late goal in extra time when Mario Fernandes slipped past his markers to head in Alan Dzagoev’s free-kick.
"That was the kind of goal we shouldn’t allow,” said Croatia captain Luka Modric, who missed a penalty during extra-time in the last-16 match against Denmark but has converted from the spot in both Croatia’s two successful shoot-outs.
“England are very dangerous on set-pieces and we have to pay attention to that. They have players like Maguire, Harry Kane, John Stones and others, who are very strong at the set-pieces they are working so hard on.”
But as Lovren points out, dead-ball devilry is not an English monopoly.
“We scored from one against Russia,” the defender reminded, with a nod to his colleague Vida’s extra-time header from a Modric corner in the quarter-final. “We also have qualities at set-pieces.”
Updated: July 10, 2018 04:38 PM