After England’s 2-0 victory over Sweden, and Croatia’s dramatic shootout win over host nation Russia, here are 10 takeaways from another incredible day at the World Cup.
Set-piece coaching matters
In a tournament where set-piece goals have been all the rage, England continues to showcase how coaching and proper preparation can make all the difference. Harry Maguire’s thumping header against Sweden, his first goal in an England shirt, came after a clever routine inside the penalty area that was clearly the product of work in the film room and on the training pitch.
Everybody in the stadium, including, obviously, Swedish bench boss Janne Andersson, knew that England would be looking for the giant presence of Maguire on corners and free-kicks. As such, freeing him would require more than simply hoofing the ball in his direction and hoping for the best.
So Southgate came up with a way to create both space and a favourable matchup for the 6-foot-3 behemoth.
England, using Raheem Sterling as a decoy and Harry Kane to set a screen, managed to isolate Maguire against Emil Forsberg. There was only going to be one winner from that contest, and the massive Leicester City stalwart thundered the ball home off his cranium.
England has scored five goals from set pieces – excluding penalties – thus far in the tournament, and now has more headed tallies (five) than any other team in the competition.
Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland have done their homework, and the former’s trip to the United States in February, when he watched an NBA game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks, has also played a role. Southgate was interested in learning how basketball players, in such a confined space, use screens to block off defenders and create openings. Obviously, that’s applicable to set pieces, and it’s no coincidence that England has had so much success from dead-ball situations in this tournament.
Ivan Rakitic has ice in his veins
Two times Ivan Rakitic has been tasked with winning a match from the spot for Croatia in this tournament, and twice he’s calmly delivered. The 30-year-old is often overshadowed at international level thanks to the presence of captain and Real Madrid superstar Luka Modric beside him in midfield.
But while Modric garners the deserved praise, Rakitic continues to deliver for Croatia, not only offering a box-to-box presence that perfectly complements Modric, but, over the past week, stepping up in the most pressurized moments to help his country reach its first World Cup semi-final since 1998.
Rakitic slotted home the decisive penalty in the shootout win over Denmark in the previous round, and then did the same Saturday, going low and to his left once again to help Croatia survive a herculean effort from host nation Russia.
Harry Maguire is taking over the world
This has been a great World Cup for the hefty footballers who are affectionately referred to as “Big Units,” but perhaps nobody has seen their reputation bolstered quite like Maguire.
Not only was he immense against Sweden, scoring once, winning nine aerial duels, making six clearances, and continuing to be an important part of the team’s buildup play out of defence, he’s now an internet sensation, too.
This meme is taking over the football world:
Not bad for someone who was playing at Hull City just over a year ago, and who travelled to France with his friends to watch Euro 2016 as a fan a year prior to that.
Raheem Sterling is doing all the right things
The critics will, once again, yell about his inability to find the net. Don’t listen to them.
The 23-year-old has done everything but score during his time in Russia, but that shouldn’t overshadow what has been a very good World Cup for the Manchester City attacker.
Sterling has been vital to an England side that hasn’t exactly been prolific in crafting chances from open play. His incisive runs have stretched the field and created space for his teammates, which was particularly important Saturday against a Swedish side that was happy to sit deep and defend with all 11 men behind the ball.
Sterling has played multiple roles for England during the tournament, being asked to act as the primary ball-carrier at times, before then switching to a role higher up the pitch, where he can threaten the opposing backline with his speed on the counter-attack when Kane drops deeper.
And he’s doing an excellent job of it, too.
Sure, it would be nice if he had banged in a goal or two, but he’s getting into the right places to do just that. The process matters, and if he continues to do the right things, the goals should come eventually.
Even if they don’t, the totality of his game – something Pep Guardiola noted earlier this year – makes him undroppable for England.
For someone who scored 22 goals between Premier League and Champions League play last season, the idea that he’s a poor finisher doesn’t really hold up. He fluffed a great chance against Sweden late in the opening half, but his track record suggests he’ll find the net if he gets into a similar position in the semi-final.
Knackered Croatia limping into semi-final
Zlatko Dalic’s players will get very familiar with the treatment table over the next few days as they prepare for Wednesday’s semi-final against England.
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic seemed to injure his hamstring late in normal time of the win over Russia – that he stayed on, made a few saves in extra time, and then stopped Fedor Smolov’s penalty was almost a miraculous achievement given how much pain he seemed to be in.
Sime Vrsaljko, meanwhile, had to be replaced in extra time due to an apparent knee issue. Even Mario Mandzukic, an absolute warrior of a footballer, was labouring as the match ticked into the final seconds.
Playing 240 minutes of high-intensity, high-stakes football in less than a week, and then going through the mental exertion of two penalty shootouts, will take its toll. Even superhuman athletes need time to recover. How quickly Croatia accomplishes that will play a massive role in deciding Wednesday’s semi-final meeting with England.
Kyle Walker continues to look solid in the back-three
It was more apparent against Colombia, perhaps, when the Manchester City right-back needed every bit of his electric pace to mop up long balls and kill counter-attacks, but Kyle Walker continues to be an invaluable part of Gareth Southgate’s 3-5-2 system.
Walker’s speed allows England to be very aggressive in committing men forward from set pieces, and that, as outlined above, has been crucial to England’s success. It’s not a direct reason for the set-piece proficiency – Kane and Co. aren’t scoring because Walker is back there cleaning things up – but it’s all interconnected, and it’s certainly playing a role.
His comfort on the ball, similar to that of his defensive partners Maguire and John Stones, also continues to be vital in allowing England to play a composed, methodical style that sees the team build from the back when in possession, instead of lumping long balls forward.
Welcome to Jordan Pickford’s coming out party
The meteoric rise continues.
Jordan Pickford had just three caps to his name coming into the World Cup, and though he didn’t play a significant role in the group stage – playing against Tunisia and Panama will do that – he has arguably been England’s most vital player in the knockout rounds.
The 24-year-old, coming in off the back of his first season with Everton after a transfer from Sunderland that could end up being worth £30 million, was monumental against both Colombia and Sweden. He starred in the shootout against the former – after making an unbelievable save in the dying minutes of that contest that, understandably, gets overlooked since it led to the corner that Colombia scored from.
And while England’s quarter-final win was largely comfortable, Pickford was called upon to make three outstanding stops in the second stanza to preserve his team’s lead. Any concerns about how the young shot-stopper – and the team as a whole – would handle the pressure have been dispelled.
Harry Kane does it all
Even when he doesn’t find the back of the net, which hadn’t happened in this tournament until Saturday’s hard-fought win (he didn’t play in the 1-0 loss to Belgium), captain Kane makes something happen.
It was his clever pick inside the penalty area that freed up his namesake, Harry Maguire, for the opening goal against the Swedes from a corner kick, while his hold-up play, aerial presence, and willingness to drop deep and facilitate all proved crucial in helping the Three Lions march on to the final four.
As football continues to become more specialized, and forwards find themselves taking up very specific roles – pure poacher, out-and-out winger, and playmaking No. 10 among them – Kane stands out as a rare breed who truly is an all-around star.
This tournament continues to dazzle
Every. Single. Day.
Even matches that look on paper to be less compelling are delivering incredible levels of drama. Russia’s gut-wrenching loss to Croatia was just the latest example, featuring a contender for goal of the tournament, two tallies in extra time, and a riveting shootout.
The stakes of the quadrennial tournament make for instantly compelling viewing, regardless of who’s out on the pitch, but the matches themselves, even if some of them haven’t been the most visually appealing, have always figured out a way to hit fans right in the heart.
Football’s coming home
It’s time to believe.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)