The England players were downcast after their defeat to Croatia in Moscow

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

There was a telling reply from Harry Maguire as he discussed what England learnt from their World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia three years ago.

“Could we have been a little more brave or composed?” the defender asked rhetorically. “And take the ball when we were leading the game, rather than sit back and soak up the pressure? Is that something we could have done better?”

It was as if Maguire was repeating what Gareth Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland have told the players. It is fair to say that the pair of coaches have watched the events of that agonising evening in Moscow far more than any other of the 59 England matches they have taken charge of and they, along with the players, are determined to avoid a repeat tomorrow against Denmark.

Southgate has even joked that watching the game again does not mean it gets any better, in an honest acceptance that, as a manager, he got things wrong.

Certainly, the analysis of the 120 minutes – when they took an early lead but were eventually worn down – backed up the theory that, as in the past, England were guilty of “camping tents on the edge of the box and praying” as one senior source within the camp put it, adding: “I have seen in the past when it’s a slow death or we try and get over the line on penalties”. There is an absolute determination for that not to happen again.

In a sense, that is a harsh assessment – although it shows the ambition to do better from Southgate and the players – given England could have been out of sight against Croatia had they taken their first-half chances and how far the team had progressed, in mood, in re-engaging the fans, as well as achievement, in that glorious summer.

Harry Maguire speaks to the media for England's game against Denmark

Credit: AFP

But mistakes were eventually made and not repeating them was a theme that Kieran Trippier – like Maguire a veteran from the last World Cup who started the semi-final – warmed to as he also spoke positively about the effect the new, young players have had.

“The team has changed a lot,” Trippier said. “There are only maybe six or seven of us from the World Cup team [nine in the squad]. We’ve got so much good young talent. It is there for everyone to see the attacking players we’ve got. I think we’ve taken that step forward from 2018.

“When you are a defender up against Sancho or Rashford, Foden, Grealish, Calvert-Lewin, you can imagine it’s tough. Bukayo [Saka] ran past me the other day and I felt like grabbing him. ‘Where are you going?!’”

Maguire said: “Of course we’ve looked at it and, for sure, we’re in a better place now than when we played Croatia. We’ll probably have a little bit more belief going into the Denmark game than what we did in the Croatia game. We hadn’t been to a semi-final in so long as a country, so the belief wasn’t there, I’m sure the fans are believing more now. As players and staff and everyone involved in the bubble, we’re all believing as well.”

For Trippier, who scored against Croatia, that belief is allied to ability.

England to make classy Christian Eriksen gesture ahead of Denmark clash

“We have so much talent … because the players we’ve got are world class, you are ready,” Trippier said. “When you train against these guys every day there are no fears. I spoke to some of the younger lads before the tournament and said: ‘Have no fears. Enjoy it because they are only around every couple of years these tournaments. You need to enjoy yourself, just have that freedom and you don’t need to prove to anybody how good you are, just express yourself, enjoy it’. That’s the most important thing.”

That and, at this stage, winning, although Trippier’s argument is that it is harder to win without the freedom that enjoyment brings. It could, of course, be the last chance for the 30-year-old, and it was something that Gary Neville – who was 21 at the time – has spoken about over his experiences at Euro ’96. He never reached another semi-final.

There is a sense that England are building something far more substantial now. The World Cup in Qatar is only 16 months away and they are making the case to be among the favourites for that tournament but as Kane – and Southgate – have said, this has to also be about seizing the day, right now. England are better and improving and the foundations are sound but they may not get a better chance. Maguire recognised that, also.

“I think you have seen in this tournament from first game to the Ukraine game there have been a lot of differences in the principles we are demanding of each other,” he said. “Of course we are in a better place now but we still have a long way to go.”

England Denmark poll

What England can learn from their World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia 

Analysis by Sam Dean

As England prepare for their second major semi-final in three years, the memories of their defeat by Croatia in 2018 will inevitably play on their minds. Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland have re-watched this game more than any other, analysing where and why the match slipped through England’s grasp.

After taking a fifth-minute lead through Kieran Trippier’s free-kick, England were dominant for much of the first half. The tide turned after the break, though, as Croatia’s Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic began to tear apart the English midfield and defence. 

An equaliser from Perisic was followed by an extra-time winner by Mario Mandzukic, with Croatia ultimately deserving their victory. Denmark represent a different proposition on Wednesday night, in terms of their tactical approach and the dangers in the team. But for Southgate there are some clear lessons to be learned from that painful loss in Moscow.

Be proactive with substitutions

One of England’s biggest problems against Croatia was their failure to adapt to the shifting circumstances of the match. Southgate’s game-plan had worked well in the first half but everything changed in the second, when England’s 3-5-2 formation was bent out of shape by Croatia’s intelligent midfielders and dynamic wingers.

England’s central midfield consisted of Jordan Henderson, who sat at the base of the three, and the more advanced Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli. Wing-backs Trippier and Ashley Young provided width. 

In the second half, the Croatian wingers were able to pin back Trippier and Young, essentially forcing England into a back five. This left enormous spaces for Lingard and Alli to cover on the flanks, and the pair were soon being dragged all over the pitch by the clever passing of Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic in the Croatia midfield.

This often left Henderson on his own in the middle, and the Liverpool captain was visibly exhausted in the second half. England’s average positions in both halves demonstrates the problem: in the first half, Henderson often had Alli alongside him. In the second, Alli and Lingard were pulled further wide and Henderson was more isolated in the centre.

England v Croatia _ England positions

Croatia’s equaliser highlighted the issue for England. When right-back Sime Vrsaljko received possession on the flank, it was Alli who tried to shuffle wide to close him down. Young, the left wing-back, had instead been dragged deeper and into a more central position. With Alli unable to get there in time, Vrsaljko had all the space he needed to play a decisive cross.

It soon became clear that something needed to change, but Southgate hesitated. Not wanting to upset the balance of the team, he did not make a substitution until the 74th minute — six minutes after Croatia had equalised. Even that change, though, did little to alter England’s shape or combat the problem presented by Croatia: Marcus Rashford replaced Raheem Sterling, which was essentially a like-for-like swap in attack.

Not until the 97th minute, deep into extra time, did Southgate remove the flagging Henderson. Eric Dier came on into the holding midfield position, but England’s shape remained the same. Alli and Lingard, increasingly tired due to the amount of time spent without the ball, played the full 120 minutes.

Against a Denmark side that is capable of playing with a back three or quickly shifting to a back four, England will need to be far more flexible than they were in Moscow. There is encouragement to be found in the fact that Southgate has generally shown willingness to make changes this year. Indeed, he transformed the game against Germany by throwing Jack Grealish into the action. 

Show more composure with the ball

All of these problems against Croatia were exacerbated by England’s lack of calmness in possession. Much of the post-mortem centred on the absence of a Modric-type midfielder in England’s ranks, but it would be wrong to say that Southgate’s players did not have the technical ability to keep the ball more effectively.

Speaking immediately after the match, Gary Neville said some of England’s younger players had failed to “slow themselves down in their minds”. It was all too frantic at times, with the likes of Alli, Lingard and Raheem Sterling trying to attack quickly and directly when they had the ball.

England v Croatia _ Modric pass map

As the match wore on, this meant that England would spend considerable time and energy trying to win the ball back but then surrender it again almost immediately. Their lack of patience did not allow the wing-backs to move up the pitch and join the attacks, and this in turn meant that the Croatians were able to hold their shape.

In the first half, when England were the better team, Southgate’s side enjoyed 47 per cent of possession, playing 147 successful passes to Croatia’s 162. In the second half, however, Croatia’s dominance could be seen by the fact that England had just 35 per cent of possession. They played only 105 successful passes in the second half, compared to Croatia’s 223.

England v Croatia 2018

England’s passing accuracy also dipped after the break, from 77 per cent to 68 per cent, as they became flustered. The panic could be seen most obviously in a series of hurried back-passes, from Trippier to Kyle Walker to Jordan Pickford, which could easily have resulted in a Croatia goal.

It is a sign of England’s development as a team that they have so far shown themselves to be far more composed on the ball in Euro 2020. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips provide a solid base in the midfield, and they are both happy to slow down the game with simple passes. Players of their quality could have made a significant difference three years ago, and it is hard to see Southgate’s side looking quite so agitated in possession against Denmark. 

Be ruthless in front of goal

An obvious point, perhaps, but a vital one. Major semi-finals are rarely open affairs, and England will not be given many opportunities by Denmark’s powerful defence. These matches tend to be decided in key moments, and England must be as clinical with their chances as they were against Germany in the round of 16.

For all the tactical issues they faced in the second half against Croatia in Russia, England could (and perhaps should) have been out of sight by then. Sterling, Lingard and Harry Maguire all had big chances in the opening 40 minutes in 2018, while Harry Kane spurned a glorious opportunity after half an hour. 

Clean through on goal, and with Sterling alongside him, the England captain chose against passing and instead saw his shot smothered by Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. He was also unable to convert the rebound, which was somehow blocked by Subasic’s leg. 

Again, there is reason to believe that Southgate’s side will not be so wasteful this time around. They were clinical against Germany, scoring with their two clear chances, and against Ukraine in the quarter-final when they scored four goals from six shots on target.

A theme of England’s tournament so far has been that they create early chances. If they can do so again, and they are able to take those opportunities when they come, they could force Denmark into playing a more desperate game. If all goes to plan, it could be England who control the game — in the same way that Croatia controlled the game against them in 2018.