Of England's 11 goals at the World Cup, only three so far have come from open play
England look to pragmatism of Jordan Henderson to surpass Croatia and Luka Modric
One of the great playmakers of his generation was talking about a type of creativity.
“We saw how good they are from dead-ball situations,” said Luka Modric. “We will have to improve our set-piece defending.”
The Croatia captain is a specialist at setting the tempo of games, at manipulating the ball through the smallest of gaps to fashion chances. He eviscerated Argentina with elegant distribution.
But he faces a different challenge in Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final against England, one where men with other attributes will be required. Modric is 22cm shorter than Harry Maguire, the colossus who headed England into a quarter-final lead against Sweden.
England have no Modric. Nor do they have an Ivan Rakitic, or even a Mateo Kovacic or a Marcelo Brozovic, the four playmakers who all finished Croatia’s quarter-final with Russia.
When Gareth Southgate omitted Jack Wilshere from his squad, he signalled England’s intention to play another way.
The irony is that way has come from a method more associated with Southgate’s predecessor. Sam Allardyce is indelibly associated with set-pieces. Yet even his most efficient sides rarely score eight goals from four games from dead-ball situations, as Southgate’s first-choice side have.
One centre-back, John Stones, has as many goals as Germany in this World Cup. Another, Maguire, has drawn level with Lionel Messi.
The reality is that England have rendered this their best World Cup in most of their players’ lifetimes while scoring a mere three goals in open play.
Two of those – Jesse Lingard’s curler against Panama and Dele Alli’s header on Saturday – were fine, but the third, when Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s shot against the hapless Panamanians deflected in off the unwitting Harry Kane’s heel, was a fluke.
If England’s routines, with their influences ranging from Lincoln City to the NBA, have shown imagination and they have benefited from the clampdown on penalty-box grappling in the age of VAR, their approach has also displayed a pragmatism. They do not have a Modric, a Kevin De Bruyne or a Paul Pogba.
One of the tests Southgate has passed has been finding a way to score when none of his side is used to shouldering the creative burden. Only Dele Alli of his squad was among the 17 players who fashioned most chances in the Premier League last season and even he was not Tottenham Hotspur’s creator-in-chief: that was Christian Eriksen.
Kieran Trippier finished tied for 32nd in that particular Premier League chart. Now, courtesy of crosses and corners, the revelation of a right wing-back finds himself in unlikely company in a World Cup top five with Neymar, Modric, De Bruyne and Philippe Coutinho.
Some way down the list – joint 234th, to be precise – lies Jordan Henderson, and yet the lone defensive midfielder has been pivotal. Isolated from his supposed sidekicks when Alli and Lingard burst forward, charged with releasing them, Henderson finds himself on the brink of an achievement that may finally convince some of his many doubters of his merits.
Wesley Sneijder, in 2010, was the last player to start the Uefa Champions League and World Cup final in the same year. If Modric does not emulate him, Henderson will.
It was a sign of his importance when Southgate substituted him in the closing stages against Sweden and, if a 2-0 lead. Henderson was a booking away from a ban.
He inherited Steven Gerrard’s armband at Anfield and if he could not follow a mentor in orchestrating Champions League glory, he will achieve something a greater player could not when he lines up in a World Cup semi-final.
Henderson against Modric is a meeting of different classes of footballers, but England will look to counter a playmaker with set-piece expertise.