Tuesday 10 July 2018, 07:21

England primed for midfield battle royale

  • England are wary of Croatia's depth and quality in midfield

  • England's Jordan Henderson should be available for the game

  • Gareth Southgate will probably remain loyal to his usual plan

By Laure James with England

England have proven themselves as an attacking force, smashing the nation’s previous goalscoring record at the FIFA World Cup™, spearheaded by current top scorer, Harry Kane. They have also shown versatility in defence, with their three-man backline anchored by the impressive John Stones, in front of their fearless, agile goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford.

Yet it is England’s creative, dynamic and intelligent midfield that will need to be on the top of its game against Croatia. Zlatko Dalic’s side boast some of the best midfielders in the world, according to Gareth Southgate, who will be studying their movement and positioning very carefully.

“They have some very good players,” the England coach said. “Their midfield players in particular are some of the best in the world, so we know their strengths. We know they are a very proud nation, similar to Sweden: their identity as a team is very strong so we have to be extremely well-prepared for the game and play at our top level to have a chance of winning.”

Croatia’s captain is Real Madrid star and midfield dynamo, Luka Modric. Along with Ivan Rakitic, the pair are lynchpins in the team’s most deadly territory, and defender Harry Maguire identified them as players which England’s defenders will also have to keep an eye on.

“They’ll certainly have a big part to play, playing at Real Madrid and Barcelona week in, week out, they have to be up there with the best midfielders in the world,” he said. Glance down the team sheet and you’ll also find Fiorentina’s Milan Badelj, Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic and Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic, all capable of causing problems in the middle of the park.

Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic Croatia-Clasico montage

Maguire, however, insists that the Three Lions are mainly focused on themselves. “We know they’re top, top players but we have top players too,” he said. “I am sure we’ll be looking at ourselves more than the opposition but they’re a top team and they thoroughly deserve to be in the semifinal, as do we.”

While midfield battles could be where this semi-final is won and lost, England are once again concentrating on what they can control. Jordan Henderson is reportedly available for selection after tweaking his hamstring on Saturday, and will be key to freeing the ball from midfield for Dele and Jesse Lingard ahead of him. Combine their runs in behind defences with Raheem Sterling’s tremendous pace, England’s threat from set-pieces and a goal-hungry team, and Croatia’s centre-backs could have a long evening ahead.

With so much creativity and speed available, Southgate may opt to introduce Eric Dier alongside Henderson to firm up the spine, at the expense of an attacking midfielder. But his faithfulness to both the system and his players suggests he will remain loyal to the plan which has led them to the last four, and that means an attack-minded lineup.