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14 Jul 2018

World Cup 2018: Where did it go wrong for England?

World Cup 2018: Where did it go wrong for England?

The Three Lions were dumped from the World Cup at the semi-final stage as the heartache goes on for the English - but where did they go wrong?

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England's golden chance?

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Bad setup, bad tactics?

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Midfield neglect

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One-dimensional England

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What now for the Three Lions?

Reuters/HENRY NICHOLLS

England's national team had been on a downward spiral; a miserable record in recent summer tournaments had done a lot of damage. 

The belief and hope of the fans were in the gutter, they'd had enough. England usually qualifies comfortably for the biennial football parties, but their performances have been leaving a lot to be desired in recent years.

For once, the usual optimism and hope in England that builds pre-tournament was absent before things got underway in Russia, and it may well have been a blessing in disguise.

Gareth Southgate won over critics, doubters, and disbelievers with his turnaround of the England football ship, but despite the overachieving, despite the surprise of making the last four, there will forever be an underlying feeling of 'what if?'.

England's golden chance?

The 2018 World Cup has been full of surprises and shocks. 

Favourites have gone home early, smaller teams have gone far and the hosts have captured the hearts of their nation. 

Given the Three Lions' recent track record, few gave them much of a chance of progressing far. A group draw, though, that threw out Tunisia and Panama alongside Belgium, should have provided the comfortable passage to the knockout rounds. 

Reuters/KAI PFAFFENBACH

Come the end of the group stage, the stars slowly began to align for Southgate's side. With reigning champions, Germany crashing out, finishing second in Group G placed England on arguably the weaker side of the draw. 

Colombia pushed England all the way to a penalty shootout, then Southgate's side comfortably overcame Sweden before reaching their first semi-final on the world stage since 1990. 

With an unforeseen momentum and belief, England's chances of edging past Croatia in the semi-finals weren't slim.

Despite taking the lead early on, the Croatian's deservedly came through to win in extra time - but will England look back on this as a once-in-a-generation chance missed...? There's no suggestion that beating France would be a probability, but to have been there, and gone for it... will that chance come back again?

Bad setup, bad tactics?

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where things went wrong for Southgate and his team, to find one particular fault in their game that cost them.

Upon taking over as manager, Southgate was clear in his approach and intention to strip the stale set up and philosophy back to its bare bones and start again. 

Reuters/HENRY ROMERO

Dropping senior, undeserving players and making bold calls and decisions that his predecessors didn't, Southgate was building a new identity. 

Finding a shape and formation he thought would work was well and good, but the ability to find enough quality players in England's pool that would fill the system was a problem in its own right. 

Choosing the 3-5-2 system worked, to an extent, though there would always be concern over how it would cope against a more efficient team, such as Croatia. 

With England winning games and progressing, there was limited need to discuss the way the team lined up. Croatia exposed the frailties in this young team that many were waiting, dreading would happen - there were square pegs in round holes, and the glass broke from under England's feet.

Midfield neglect

The system that Southgate implemented and stuck to is a relatively unique, untried formation. 

While largely untested through much of the group stage and knockout rounds, Jordan Henderson's role in the middle of the pitch was a lonely one. 

Tasked with marshalling the back four and then trying to link play going forward, his job was arguably the most important, or busiest, of anyone. 

England's lack of midfield presence or options may well have cost them in this tournament. Henderson can only do so much, and Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard aren't the players that were needed. 

Reuters/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN

Croatia, though, have a plethora of midfield talent on their hands. Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Marcelo Brozovic are all midfield players of the highest quality, and the imbalance between the two teams would always be heaviest in that area. 

Modric had been given differing roles in Croatia's earlier matches in the tournament, but their effectiveness going forward was blunted with him sitting deeper.

The Real Madrid playmaker produces some of his finer work in more advanced positions and introducing Brozovic into the defensive role allowed Modric to play higher, alongside Rakitic.

Southgate kept the same midfield shape, opening the high possibility of Henderson becoming overpowered in the centre. Bringing Eric Dier or even Ruben Loftus-Cheek in alongside Henderson may well have combated this more effectively. 

One-dimensional England

As good as England's run has been in Russia, there will always remain a criticism of playing a laboured, long-ball game against sides who are better than them with the ball on the floor. 

As the game wore on and Croatia's more technical players controlled the ball, England found it increasingly difficult to play through their opponents, resorting to playing the ball long to gain territory. 

England made 28 clearances on Wednesday evening, many of which were made by Jordan Pickford in goal. Southgate's side were intent on keeping possession, often going backwards to keep the ball which resulted, ultimately, in the ball going long with no other option.

Reuters/GRIGORY DUKOR

Henderson had a poor game in the middle, at least by his recently high standards, and his searching, long-range passes seldom found their target. The Liverpool man completed only 73% of his passes, and as the only deep-lying midfielder, that percentage wasn't high enough. 

The lack of standout ball carrier forced England to take this approach, but with Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida rarely allowing Harry Kane or Raheem Sterling to win anything in the air, England found the ball coming right back at them too often. 

Southgate knew where his side was lacking, but England don't have their own Modric-type player to turn to in those situations, limiting their attacking options from open play.

What now for the Three Lions?

They still have one more game to play in Russia, facing Belgium for the second time in the third-place play-off, but the outcome will matter little to both sides. 

England's tournament has given them lots to work on, lots to take positives from. It has, though, also outlined where this squad is lacking.

Southgate will probably use Saturday's glorified friendly to give some of his fringe players a game, so the real work will start once the tournament is over. Where does he go from here? What needs to change?

England will always face the trouble of the Premier League's stature and the influx of foreign talent, so Southgate may now just have to work with what he has. His system works, to some extent, but will need tweaking and refinement to reach its potential and effectiveness. 

England lost to the better side on Wednesday, but they'll take great pride in restoring belief in the national team.