Top Stories

England’s return to the long ball doomed its World Cup run


England’s World Cup story was about moving on from the laundry list of past failures. The Three Lions finally won a penalty shootout at a World Cup when they took down Colombia in the round of 16. They got to their first semi-final since 1990 thanks to a pretty convincing performance against an admittedly weak Sweden team. But, most of all, England’s World Cup showed that they are more than the boring, old school England team that everyone is used to watching.

Wednesday’s semi-final against Croatia did not support this narrative and instead took the team back in time. England threw out their new style and tactics as soon as they took the lead in the fifth minute of the match and returned to the England of old. Gone were the short, but direct, passes that brought them success against Sweden and Colombia, and back were the lumping, inaccurate long balls from England’s dark and unsuccessful past.

Plenty was made about Gareth Southgate’s trips to the United States, where he studied the tactics in other sports looking for ways to revolutionize the way England played. His travels led him to create new set-piece plays that helped the Three Lions to the most set piece goals in the tournament.

But that wasn’t Southgate’s only innovation. He seemed to pull England out of the dark ages when it came to the open-play tactics as well. The nation has a reputation of lumping long balls forward, playing in low percentage crosses, and generally hoping to run straight through opposing defenses with brute force alone.

It was the first time an English manager looked to actually alter the traditionally English style in quite some time.

Southgate introduced a shorter, but still direct, passing style that took advantage of England’s youth and relative lack of size anywhere up front. It was a style that not only worked well for most of the tournament, but was much easier on the eye than their past teams have been.

These tactics got them into the semifinal against Croatia and they were prominently on display in England’s 2-0 win over Sweden in the quarters.

The trouble is, as soon as the Three Lions abandoned that style the moment they went ahead in the fifth minute on Wednesday night in Moscow. They sat back and allowed Croatia to come at them and, instead of trying to manufacture precise counter attacks or longer spells of possession, the long balls came out and England were doomed to failure. The style led to less sustained possession overall (44%), and only 11 shots over 120 minutes.

The overly direct long ball style is also a very tiring way to play soccer. It requires a lot of stamina in forwards and attacking midfielders that have to run their tails off in pursuit of these often unpredictable passes and England simply couldn’t keep up with themselves. Their exhaustion towards the end of the match led to the lapses in concentration that created both Croatian goals.

Plenty of credit has to be given to Croatia’s defensive plan, however. They recognized England’s potential to fall back into their stereotypical style and pressed them hard throughout the entire match. That forced an inexperienced and uncreative England team to fall back down to their old ways as the shorter passing lanes were far less obvious than they had been for the rest of the tournament.

The failure against Croatia shouldn’t be seen as a black mark on England’s World Cup, and few, if any, fans are treating it as such. This unexpected semi-final run seemingly united a country around their national team for the first time since probably the 1996 European Championships. It proved that England can move on from the disasters that were 2014 in Brazil and the defeat to Iceland in the 2016 Euros in France. It showed that perhaps English youth can once again be inspired by a long dormant national team.

The next step will be maintaining success and not doing the typical England thing of flopping hard in its next crack at a major tournament like the Three Lions did when they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup after the 1990 run.


  1. Lots of naked enthusiasm, kicking and screaming from Engerland, very little talent…
    I am a Liverpool fan, but my God, Jordan Henderson is an abomination of a footballer, thank you Jesus this misunderstanding will NEVER play kn a WC final..
    Ps Deli Alli, or as I call him, Deli Bakery is shockingly overrated and sheer garbage as well…

  2. The article overlooks that England went to the long ball not because of a tactical sit-back approach, but they very quickly realized (credit to them) they could not play through the midfield because the Croatia midfield was better.

    • Hey doc, good call. as my 10 year old daughter also realized early, it was England’s plan to exploit their speed and athleticism advantage at the expense of possession and buildup. I’d say she was correct, and also you doc; England conceded midfield in their tactical approach, like they were afraid to try it

  3. England still has no true 10; not at the senior level. They DO have one coming up shortly – lil’ Phil Foden, who will be a Godsend to the current English team. Add Foden to the 2022 cycle and England may be able to reach the top.

  4. I think trying to bypass midfield was the strategy even before the goal. What I don’t understand is why they didn’t then start Vardy, as he’s the only striker who really excels in that scenario, as Leicester fans can attest. Pickford took almost every goal kick long, and predictable is never going to get you anywhere. A big disappointment.

  5. Croatia really should be more of a story. Strong backline, and perhaps the best midfield in the whole tourney. Short on strikers up front but Mandzukic is a wily veteran. How people considered England the prohibitive favorite in that matchup I’ll never know. France should be on notice.

    Crazy considering the developmental system in the country is a shambles…but their golden generation is finding a way in what’s likely their last go-round.

    • love seeing the midfield dominance get the exposure, the credit, they deserve in producing victories, especially on the D side. Kante and Rakitic

    • Modric, everyone knows his talent and pedigree, but his desire with effort late in games is pure inspiration

      just, the Sh!t

  6. this wc was the first time i had seen england play football in a long time. not impressive. the epl is one of the top leagues in the world, how can their national team be so mind numbingly unclever in the attack? being an american fan of the game, i’m used to seeing teams that in the attack move the ball in deliberate, clever ways, such for example overlapping fullbacks and wide mids spreading out the opposing defense. england? “the soccer blob”. the amoeba of soccer. shapeless, toothless in the attack. lacking any ideas or intentions. i felt a little angry and offended when i saw it, it was so “unpleasing to the eye” as joe says.

  7. I was still shrieking “STOP LUMPING IT!!!!” at multiple occasions throughout the second half.

    When England really, really tried to play out of the back, they were usually successful, especially but once their midfield trio started getting tired they almost completely stopped showing for the ball. And once longball fever set in, it seemed that was pretty much all the English were doing, and even the keeper just said Eff It and started playing kickball.

    Croatia richly deserved that win.

    • Agree, although I think your point about fatigue really was the core problem. England were spent, practically before the first half was over. The had a great opening 30 minutes, and perhaps if they could’ve scored 1-2 more times, they would have made the game safe. But they were going at a frantic pace, advancing the ball between the lines relentlessly and pressing high when they lost possession. It was, as many have observed, quite naive and Croatia seemed to know it was unsustainable. They were reduced to long ball less by fear than by physical necessity…. they were cooked and the equalizer broke them completely.
      One could say that this could be improved through better fitness but I doubt it. England has always seemed to wilt as games advance (2002 WC vs Brazil was the most painful example. Brazil had 10 men but it seemed like 13). They would be better served learning to change gears better — conserve energy, establish possession, and attack strategically. Teams in Serie A do this masterfully, as do the best Spanish teams. Hopefully they can evolve this way…. though the Premiership probably isn’t the best place to learn.

  8. Croatia has a very skilled midfield three, and speed/potency on the flanks. Tough match up for an England midfield, a quick and creative group, but not as good in the fine points of possession. So when they built up from the back, there were fewer options than in the other games. And even in the other games, Sterling or even Kane had to check in a lot.
    I feel like Jack Wilshere might have helped England in some of the play-making aspects. More of a number 10. Sounds like the team has a bright future, though. I wouldn’t discount the overall progress.

    • When a midfield duo is clicking like Modric and Rakotic were, its just a long day at the park for most teams, especially when backed up by a steady backline. Their calmness, decision making and cleverness are just a joy to behold; any young American midfielder should watch this Croatia team and take notes!


Leave a Comment