Why England lost the 2018 World Cup Semi-Final against Croatia by TAG Sport Mind

It was mainly about mindset psychology. It was less about tactics and it was less about ability. However the lack of the right mindset certainly impacted on both tactics and ability.

England was the more talented team – totally and without question. Yet they played, as is so often the case, in their default protective back foot style. Their superiority allowed them to benefit from their creative play in the first half, therefore less emphasis at that stage was put on protection and defence, although the defending they did do throughout the entire game was generally superb. Playing on the back foot alludes more to the fact they never took absolute advantage of their superior position. They simply demonstrated it marginally in the first half through their better play in the hope that Croatia would be impacted by it, and of course Croatia were affected in the early part of the match because England managed to deny them much possession. 

This approach will usually work very well if followed through with scoring goals to drive home that resulting impact. However to realise this, at least two or three goals are necessary. Yet with only a 1‑0 advantage, England persisted with playing the same game of superiority, which was that of being in control but with no real beef. They failed to capitalise on what they had. They were never a real threat and, as disappointing as it is to be a goal down, especially at half time, Croatia absolutely knew they were still in with a chance. In fact we all knew Croatia were still in with a chance. 

Additionally, even at 1‑0 up England had not scored a goal during actual play. Instead it was from a direct free kick. As great and uplifting as it is to score any goal, a free kick does not generally carry the same confidence as one achieved through the creative and combined effort of the team, leading to the glory of the final scorer, which also spills out on to the rest of the side. Notice the word confidence is being used here, not jubilation or celebration. The latter two factors did exist after England's goal but confidence is a different thing.

So England went into half time sensing they’d done ‘pretty good’. Whatever Southgate’s team talk might have been at this point it would have tried to enforce the message, “It’s great you’re ahead but it’s vital to ensure you maintain the push boys and therefore imperative you do even more to secure victory”. With the benefit of a lead, hearing becomes somewhat muted. Psychologically the inner mind will always veer towards taking comfort from the existing advantage so that harsh messages are diluted, instead delivering a milder translation to players as simply, “Keep it up lads but you need to try step it up a gear to guarantee a win”. Carrying within your psyche and subsequently playing to this message will never suffice. 

Obviously there are times where this type of encouragement, accompanied by asking for more, may be enough. Usually so if the other side has a weaker psychology and less talent. But Croatia didn’t have a weaker psychology and they only had slightly less talent. England needed to absolutely smash Croatia in the opening minutes of the second half and score a goal quickly but they came out trying to play at the same level of comfort and confidence, yet totally failed to build on it. 

Going into the game with Croatia necessitated a lead of 3 goals at half time. Only if this was the case should England have considered they were ahead and be able to translate it as owning the driving seat of being in the lead. The half time talk at 1‑0 should have been, "You are not actually ahead. You are in a losing position because you are well below the target your were given". Then the focus of the team talk should have been on what was required to make up for that loss of being 2 goals behind target and how to also go beyond it into further gain.

On the other hand, Croatia were most likely told at half time something along the lines of, “This is totally inadequate, you cannot continue to play this way. It’s do or die. You need to get in there right from the beginning of the second half and play as if your mother’s life depends on it. Believe in yourselves; get out there and win”. And that’s exactly what they did, which disturbed England no end and totally upset their rhythm and momentum.

In the heat of a battle, consider what generally happens when you carry a narrow advantage along with a belief in its effectiveness and then suddenly events turn and you realise your plan is not giving you the result you expected? You lose your existing impetus and are forced to change tactics but in doing so, it is so often conducted in desperation, where the decision and flow that go with those altered tactics carry little inner conviction. You’ve burnt your old plan and you’re hurriedly writing your new plan on scraps of paper in your mind. Whatever your manager said is out the window, he’s on the sidelines now. It’s all based on knee-jerk decisions – often literally. How can this ever be effective?

So England start playing a disjointed game. They begin to lose all the fluidity that they had earlier. Then Croatia score and every one of those newly assembled uncoordinated and negatively defensive tactical factors within the English team are exacerbated. From this point on Croatia have the total upper hand. Not only do they go all out to maintain it but also they push to capitalise on it. Unless luck came along to save the day, which it didn’t, England were doomed to fail. On and on Croatia pushed, continuing into Extra Time with England’s scrambled mindset desperate to get back into the game. Desperate is as desperate does and England carried that psychology of wishful frenzied hope through this extended period, which was cemented with Croatia’s second goal that led to more of the same approach from England until the final whistle blew. 

During matches, and at the end of them, the media pundits always talk about tactics and how things may have been different if certain players had done this or done that. They may allude in passing to psychology but they never reflect in depth about it, yet it is always psychology above talent that has the ability to sneak in unnoticed and influence a game. 

In the aftermath, when you review the psychological processes that transpired throughout this ‘England Croatia’ game, unless a huge dollop of luck was dropped on England (yes, luck does happen but it is rare; mostly we make our luck), then you realise that given the behavioural pattern timeline of the collective consciousness of the England team, this was the only outcome that could have transpired. If England wanted a different outcome, then they needed a different psychology. It is known that our national side now use Sport Psychology a little bit more but it never takes centre stage over tactics. I think it’s time it did. What to do? Perhaps contact TAG Sport Mind when ready to explore it. 

A final point of note. No amount of Sports Psychology can make you win every time but it can make you a regular winner. As we all know, in almost every national sporting event over a substantial number of previous years, England are never regular winners. Our wins, and indeed our winning streaks, are not a common occurrence. Our national mindset and the level of psychology we promote in our sports are barriers to consistent success. We need effective new emotional training to change this.

TAG Sport Mind