England’s final Nations League group clash of the campaign serves as a perfect advertisement for UEFA’s new tournament, with reaching the final four, finishing second and relegation all still possibilities for Gareth Southgate’s side. That will be determined by how they fare at Wembley on Sunday against Croatia – who the Three Lions held to a stalemate in Rijeka the last time both countries met.
So will the reverse clash in London end any differently? This week’s experts, Football FanCast’s England-loving duo Will Jones and Greg Potts, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of the all-or-nothing Nations League clash.
Of course, the Croatia clash hasn’t been England’s only game during this international break. The Three Lions warmed up by beating USA 3-0 on Thursday night, a game that will mostly be remembered for Wayne Rooney’s ceremonial cameo. But it was a strong performance from what was essentially Southgate’s second string side, featuring a number of players that have only really been on the peripheries of previous squads, and that may well give him a few key decisions to make for Sunday’s showdown at Wembley.
Did anybody earn themselves a start on Sunday?
Will: “Dele Alli provided England with a more aggressive, dynamic option in the middle of pitch. Southgate won’t want to be without the Spurs man’s drive from the start on Sunday and the fact that he withdrew him on the hour mark against the USA suggests he’s aware of that. Elsewhere, Jadon Sancho demonstrated with his busy, confident display that he could have a telling impact from the bench if and when he is called upon.”
Greg: “For me, both full-backs played their way into contention to start in Sunday’s game against Croatia. Ben Chilwell was impressive on the left but it was Liverpool youngster Trent Alexander-Arnold who really shone against the Americans. The 20-year-old has had a bit of a tough start to the season with the Reds but he scored his first ever international goal on Thursday and put in a man of the match performance that deserves to be rewarded with another start ahead of Kyle Walker.”
The USA game saw Southgate continue with his 4-3-3 setup, which he first returned to competitively the last time he faced Croatia after Sunday’s opponents exposed the weaknesses of England’s 3-1-4-2 system during the World Cup semi-final. It went on to inspire the 3-2 win over Spain but the clash in Rijeka ended up a scoreless stalemate, largely because Croatia use the same 4-3-3 formation as well and have a squad of relatively similar ability.
Is 4-3-3 now a better fit for England than 3-1-4-2, or should the Three Lions return to the old game-plan?
Greg: “Southgate’s 3-1-4-2 certainly worked against the smaller teams in the World Cup, but in the two games against Belgium and the semi-final against Croatia we didn’t seem to understand the system well enough when coming up against top quality players. I hope then that the England boss sticks with the 4-3-3 that worked so well against Spain in the last international break, with three at the back saved for when we need a plan B.”
Will: “Southgate is unlikely to revert back to his Word Cup system, so four at the back is here to stay, which is generally a good thing. Though, with Kyle Walker, Joe Gomez and Thursday night’s man of the match Trent Alexander-Arnold all vying for a place on the right-hand side of that back line, the England boss has some decisions to make.”
Croatia may have got the better of England during the World Cup, but the last encounter showed how little to choose there is between these sides in overall quality. Croatia, though, do boast three standout talents that England fans will no doubt already be aware of – winger-forward Ivan Perisic, and midfield duo Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric. The latter was the player of the tournament at the World Cup, owing in part to how he completely controlled the game in England’s semi-final defeat.
Aside from Perisic, Rakitic and Modric, which talents in this Croatia team should be England most wary of?
Will: “Whilst he struggled to show it in his time with Leicester City, Andrej Kramaric is a player with the capacity to hurt England. The attacker has been in fine form for Hoffenheim so far this season and scored a fine goal in Croatia’s impressive triumph over Spain last time out.”
Greg: “After their 3-2 win over Spain on Thursday, it would seem that England need to be wary of Croatia’s young defender Tin Jedvaj. Against Spain the 22-year-old popped up with late runs into the box that allowed him two simple finishes to win the game for the home side. Whether he gets a start at Wembley it remains to be seen, but if he does England’s wingers will have to be alert and ready to track back for the full 90 minutes.”
If the last instalment is anything to go by, not to mention the fact both sides could still make the final four or suffer relegation, Sunday’s meeting at Wembley looks set to be an incredibly close encounter – one that could be decided by one key battle or single factor.
Where will this game be lost and won?
Greg: “The key battle will undoubtedly be in the centre of the park. We know how good the Croatian midfield is and Modric and Rakitic will dominate the game if they are given the time and space. A positive for Southgate on Thursday though was the form and work-rate of Alli, who constantly hassled the USA midfield and forced them into mistakes. The Tottenham man will have to replicate this on Sunday and be backed up by whoever else starts in that central midfield role. For what it’s worth, I’d pick Ross Barkley and Jordan Henderson alongside Alli to provide the legs that the Three Lions will desperately need.”
Will: “England have to make their superior quality on the flanks count. Southgate’s side are unlikely to be able to dominate the midfield battle with the likes of Modric and Rakitic operating in there. However, the Three Lions can punish the visitors on the wings. If the likes of Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Jadon Sancho are at their best then Croatia will struggle to cope.”
And finally chaps, let’s hear your score predictions…
Will: “2-1 England. Both teams need to win here and have the capacity to score goals, but with an optimistic Wembley crowd behind them and the prospect of the next round of the Nations League on the horizon, the home side should have just about enough to prevail.”
Greg: “I can’t say I’ve been too fussed about the Nations League so far, but being relegated clearly wouldn’t be ideal and would mean the opposition in the next group stage would be far less interesting. So, I’m banking on a 2-1 England win with Alli and Harry Kane getting the goals.”
Thogden witnessed Wayne Rooney’s final England cap. Check out his vlog here…