Talk to anyone who saw England win the World Cup in 1966 and they can rattle off that famous side without batting an eyelid. We are getting to that point with the current vintage.
Gareth Southgate knows his strongest side. He almost certainly knows his team from one to 11 ahead of Wednesday’s semi-final against Croatia in Moscow. But that does not mean he does not have issues to deal with.
Sportsmail has taken a look at the conundrums facing Southgate when it comes to the Croatia team, the advantages England have and how the Three Lions can go about exploiting the opponents en route to the final.
Gareth Southgate has a number of decisions to make ahead of the game against Croatia
Winning the midfield battle
Croatia are strongest in central midfield, with both Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to call upon. Modric is arguably the best player in the world in that position, while Rakitic is just a small level below.
Both have had good tournaments in terms of their contributions to Croatia reaching this stage — they have been composed in crucial penalty shoot-outs.
But in open play they have been less than brilliant, and in part that comes from a conundrum that England have had to confront themselves in the past.
For years, the Steven Gerrard/Frank Lampard central midfield partnership was an issue for the Three Lions. It was two attack-minded midfielders, neither of whom wanted to sit.
That is not an inherent problem, as long as a team compensates with a more defensive minded player to make up a trio. Croatia have talent in that role in Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brosovic.
In Luka Modric (left) and Ivan Rakitic (centre), Croatia have highly talented midfielders
Oddly, they did not pick either against Russia, and that is a key reason why they were unable to dominate against a team they would have expected to do so against.
The huge plus to that for England is that the system Gareth Southgate favours sees two attack-minded players either side of a defensive-minded one. Jordan Henderson sits and dictates play, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli prefer to get forward.
Neither Modric nor Rakitic have controlled games in the way people would expect so far at the World Cup. They both want to do the same thing, to too great an extent. It is hard to run a game if you have no willing runners.
If England can continue to disrupt their rhythm and take advantage of the fact that neither will willingly track players as they move forward, what should be a tough contest could fall in the Three Lions’ favour.
England’s midfield trio of Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Jordan Henderson could deal with them
Exploit makeshift defence from set-pieces
As Saturday rolled on, as people sang Southgate’s name across the UK, as pints were thrown and heroes toasted, Croatia were being drawn into a ding-dong battle with Russia.
They would not have anticipated needing 120 minutes to get past Russia. That also applies Denmark. These were games Croatia were simply meant to win in normal time.
Troublingly, as the Russia game rolled on, Croatia player after Croatia player started to go down with injuries.
Both Ivan Strinic and Sime Vrsaljko, their two full-backs, had to be withdrawn due to their problems. Vrsaljko is out of the semi-final according to reports on the continent.
Sime Vrsaljko could miss the England game due to the injury he picked up against Russia
That could lead to a makeshift defence for Croatia, which is a huge issue against a team like England.
Southgate’s side are the World Cup set-piece kings. They have scored from them in three of their five games so far. They have players who are capable in the air, and in Ashley Young and the Bury Beckham, Kieran Trippier, two players with exceptional delivery.
Set-pieces are an underrated method of breaking a team’s resistance. They can also change the dynamic of a game in an instant — giving a team a 1-0 lead that turns it into defence against attack, for example.
And if Croatia are missing two of their preferred back four, that will only help an England team that are exceptionally organised from attacking set-pieces.
Ashley Young’s delivery has made England a potent threat from set-pieces at the World Cup
Stopping Mario Mandzukic in the air
Croatia possess a big threat — both figuratively and literally — in Mario Mandzukic. There are few attacking players in world football who have both his technical ability and aerial dominance.
He is a useful out ball for them when they are under pressure and also a threat to any defenders when they are in attacking positions.
Luckily, England should have a defender in Harry Maguire who will be able to deal with the most dangerous aerial aspects of his game.
Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic provides them with a threat in the air going forward
Enough has been made of the size of Maguire’s head, but it is worth making the point again — it is a veritable Easter Island statue of a head.
The Leicester City defender is the man you would want up against Mandzukic, who will not enjoy much joy against a player who has shown his ability in the air over the course of the World Cup.
It is just important to ensure he does not peel off and go up against John Stones, who sometimes struggles in a physical battle, or Kyle Walker, who is not really a central defender.
Keep Maguire on Mandzukic and he will be slightly more nullified than he usually would be.
But Harry Maguire is a defender cut out to handle the Juventus striker in the aerial battles
Trippier’s toughest opponent… but he could benefit from Perisic
Kieran Trippier has been one of the shock breakout stars of the tournament in Russia, although anyone watching him develop for Burnley and Spurs would not be surprised by his ability.
That said, he has not faced a particularly dangerous opponent yet. Ivan Perisic, the man he will be up against for Croatia is a talented winger and one of their key men.
He is a tricky customer, explaining Manchester United’s interest in him last season, and Croatia were notably worse when he was substituted off early against Russia at the weekend.
Ivan Perisic is one of Croatia’s most important players and need to be handled by England
Perisic is also good at tracking back, but Croatia need him to stay forward if they want to avoid another situation like the Russia game. They found themselves surprisingly pinned back.
Which could actually be to Trippier’s benefit. Kyle Walker has the ability and positional nous to cover the right flank.
If Perisic stays forward that gives England an opportunity to get Trippier in behind the Croatian defence. And that is one of England’s most dangerous attacking movements.
Breakout World Cup star Kieran Trippier could exploit any space that the winger leaves behind
Harry Kane against Dejan Lovren
Dejan Lovren has hugely rehabilitated his reputation in England this season. He was once viewed as a liability, but for Liverpool — especially with Virgil van Dijk alongside him — he was excellent.
There were still tricky moments for the centre-back, not least when he came up against England captain Harry Kane.
Back in October 2017, he was caught out for the build-up to Kane’s opening goal when Liverpool faced Spurs at Wembley. He then made another error, misjudging a throw from Hugo Lloris to leave Kane clear to set up the second.
Harry Kane gave Dejan Lovren a torrid time when Liverpool faced Spurs at Wembley in 2017
Lovren was so bad that he was hooked by Jurgen Klopp after just half an hour.
In the return game, Lovren also missed a clearance while marking Kane that led to a penalty — which Kane missed.
That shows the hoodoo Kane has over him.
Some teams have bogey opposition. It seems as though Lovren does too when it comes to one player. Luckily, Kane plays for England.
Lovren had such a difficult game that he was hooked by Jurgen Klopp after 30 minutes
Author: Nancy Parker
Nancy Parker is a five time Emmy Award winning journalist and seven time Emmy nominee who has spent almost twenty five years covering news in South Louisiana. She has anchored every prime time newscast at WVUE FOX8 during her twenty year tenure in New Orleans.