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It’s Not Coming Home: England’s System for Success Doomed Them in the World Cup Semis

What felt like an inevitable run past Croatia and to the final turned into a disaster for the Three Lions

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Turn off the BBC, and throw out the tea. Football isn’t coming home.

It took 120 minutes for Croatia to turn what felt like an inevitable England victory into a disaster for the Three Lions. Everything up to now had broken perfectly for England. A second-place finish in Group G meant that England landed in the side of the draw with Colombia and Spain, avoiding tournament favorites like Brazil and France until a potential final matchup. Strong English play in the round of 16 eliminated one of those foes, and Russian home-field advantage and a misguided reliance on mindless short passing doomed the other. Only Sweden and Croatia stood between England and their first major final since 1966. England dispatched Sweden easily enough, but when the team needed a hero late against Croatia, there wasn’t one to be found. Geoff Hurst, the hero of their last title run, was absent on the touchline, and none of the players that followed him were able to replicate his historic performance. The final whistle blew, and the Lions wept. Croatia 2, England 1.

Within five minutes of the first whistle, it already felt like it was coming home. Just a few ticks into the match, English fullback Kieran Trippier sent a well-placed free kick over Croatia’s wall that would’ve been a challenge for most keepers, but was a de facto thunderbastard against Danijel Subasic, who is still hobbled by a hamstring injury.

But that was England’s last shot on target until extra time. And over those next 30 minutes, they took only one more. That chance, a driven John Stones header off the corner, was destined for goal, only to be cleared off the line by Croatia’s Sime Vrsaljko. Along with Harry Kane’s early misses and Jesse Lingard’s off-target attempts, it was England’s best chance to pull away. Instead, Croatia did what it does best, taking their first goal off of their first completed cross, and their second from a scrum caused by a failed one. But England’s inability to fend off Croatia’s attacks was only part of the reason the Three Lions fell.

As is so often true of great teams that fall short, the system that carried England to such lofty heights was the same that doomed them. Nearly all of England’s best chances this summer came from set pieces. Of the 12 goals England scored across their six games at this tournament, just three came from the run of play. The other nine came from a dead ball, with six tallies from set pieces, and three more from the spot. Kane — the two-time Premier League Golden Boot winner, and likely this tournament’s highest scorer as well — found the net six times for England, but three of them came from penalties, and only one came from open play. And that goal appeared to be an accident.

Coming into the tournament, much was made of English manager Gareth Southgate’s study of the NBA to conjure up a strategy to score from dead balls. Set pieces have long been soccer’s greatest inefficiency, and for a month, the Three Lions mined them to perfection. But the problem with relying on free kicks and corners to create chances is there is no fallback for when none come. Croatia fouled England 21 times on Wednesday, but only five of the resulting free kicks came from close enough to actually put a ball into the box. England weren’t able to adjust, and often found themselves scrambling to keep up. Croatia’s Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic ran free on the wings, and the first-time finalists had plenty of chances to try to swing the ball into the middle for Mario Mandzukic.

Croatia attempted 41 crosses and completed just three. Since the knockout stage began, they’ve tried 105 lobs. Just 17 have found their man. It should stand to reason that this strategy should’ve stopped paying out by now — that a team that ignores its two most talented players in favor of whipping low-percentage balls over the middle would’ve yielded to a superior squad before the final. But after three consecutive extra-time victories amounting to a full extra game of wear and tear on their feeble legs, Croatia stand one last match away from winning their first World Cup. Football isn’t coming home this summer. But it could be finding a new one.