Football may be coming home but while England fans are dreaming of a run to the final in Moscow as an open World Cup has transformed into a chasm on one side of the draw, there are still football matches to play and Colombia are a significant test for Gareth Southgate’s side.
Los Cafeteros have delighted and disappointed in equal measure in Russia and are arguably the most enigmatic of all 16 qualifiers to the knockouts. England’s evening could prove straightforward but if Colombia are on it, it could be very complex indeed.
Quarter-finalists in Brazil four years ago, many of Jose Pekerman’s side remain but with an added youthful vigour in defence of Yerry Mina, Davinson Sanchez and Santiago Arias and a fully fit Radamel Falcao in attack, as the veteran was absent in 2014.
They should be considerably better opposition than Tunisia, Panama and Belgium’s second XI.
Our friends at Football Whispers break down the tactical battles that will decide the final last 16 encounter of Russia 2018.
Setting the tone
The secret is out regarding England’s set-piece prowess and the attention to detail Southgate and his coaching staff have afforded an aspect of the game so many coaches overlook.
The Three Lions have scored five of their eight goals from dead-ball situations and after entering the tournament without a defined free-kick or corner taker, now have the trusted right boot of Kieran Trippier and, if required, Ashley Young.
Borrowing ball screens and movement from the NBA, England have aerial threats in John Stones, Harry Maguire, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Gary Cahill and Eric Dier â€“ all of whom stand in excess of 6ft 1ins.
Trippier’s 2.81 set play key passes per 90 minutes rank him second in the competition, emphasising what a rich area of opportunity it is. When you factor in David Ospina’s weakness at crosses, England will almost certainly target this area.
But Colombia have four goals from corners and free-kicks, including two headers by Barcelona’s Yerry Mina â€“ reportedly a West Ham transfer target. As proficient as England may be, Pekerman has his own plans in place and with the fantastic delivery guaranteed by Juan Quintero or James Rodriguez (if fit), England will have to get the defensive aspect of their set-piece drills absolutely water-tight.
The importance of such scenarios, and the respective teams’ abilities, may see them cancel each other out. Or it could even develop into a duel as to who can produce when it matters.
Shackling the playmakers
James’ fitness is the great unknown leading into this game. The No.10 wasn’t ready to start their opener against Japan, was excellent in his return against Poland but then limped off after 31 minutes against Senegal.
His calf injury refuses to go away and, failed to train over the weekend, his appearance in the starting XI will be a surprise. But Pekerman will do all he can to include his talisman; Quintero (1.21) and James (1.18) are third and fourth for big chances created per 90 at this World Cup.
If James doesn’t start then Pekerman will likely play Luis Muriel in support of Falcao with Quintero as playmaker. If James is declared ready, it’ll be the two magicians operating behind the Monaco striker.
The mystery surrounding James’ involvement poses a conundrum for Southgate. So far he’s only played one defensive pivot â€“ Jordan Henderson for the first two games and Dier against Belgium â€“ with two attacking midfielders ahead of them.
If James’ availability was certain, Southgate may be tempted to play Henderson and Dier to match up the Colombian No.10 along with Quintero and attempt to starve all service into Falcao.
Playing Henderson and Dier without James to deal with could impact England’s own fluidity, while selecting just one and seeing James on the teamsheet may result in dangerous overloads with John Stones or Harry Maguire having to come into midfield to help.
But whatever he decides, one or both will have to be nullified. Quintero’s mercurial nature sums up this Colombia side and if he’s permitted time and space, his reverse passes could expose an England defence that, despite the meekness of their opponents so far, hasn’t convinced.
From a Colombian point of view, their mission in stopping Jesse Lingard, Alli or Loftus-Cheek is not so much with preventing passing, it’s tracking their runs into the penalty area. Carlos Sanchez is a fine ball-player but is not the most mobile of defensive shields and Pekerman may want more legs and energy in that area.
Trippier and Young are integral pieces in Southgate’s system, especially as â€“ unlike Colombia â€“ he doesn’t have a recognised playmaker. The two wing-backs patrol the flanks, stretching the field and providing service into Kane and the late runners from midfield.
Curiously, despite, this concentration on obvious width, England only rank joint 14th in the World Cup, alongside Colombia, for crosses per game with 15.0. But that has as much to do with Young’s inefficiency as anything else.
The left wing-back almost always cuts back inside onto his favoured foot and has just 1.5 crosses per game compared to Trippier’s 4.5 which makes England’s attack a little imbalanced.
Danny Rose’s poor display against Belgium won’t have changed Southgate’s mind as a more natural left-footer could prove more effective.
If Young can start to produce like Trippier England would have a much more multi-facted threat. As things stand, if the Tottenham wing-back is contained the Three Lions would have to move the ball through the much more congested centre of the pitch.
Lingard has zero open play key passes, Alli and Loftus-Cheek one apiece; unless things change, Colombia know exactly who to stop.
But Young is also crucial defensively to stop the runs of Juan Cuadrado who is Colombia’s most obvious outlet. The 30-year-old can act as winger or wing-back, depending where Santiago Arias is stationed, and is a relentless presence up and down the touchline.
Cuadrado can be completely ineffective and drift from view or deeply destructive.
With Arias in support there is also a danger Young could find himself in a two-v-one situation, unless Maguire can come across, as Henderson will have to remain in a central area. If Young can keep Cuadrado relatively quiet, it will go some way to deciding the encounter.
Kane and Falcao are strikers at opposite ends of their careers who share similarities beyond both being No.9s. England’s clogged midfield means that Kane can’t move into deeper areas like he does for Tottenham, meaning his action is reserved for when the ball reaches the 18-yard box, the natural habitat of Falcao.
They are both pure strikers, excellent at spotting space and weaknesses in defence â€“ of which there could be several on both sides.
Tottenham defender Davinson Sanchez produced the tackle of the tournament with a fantastically-timed effort to stop Senegal’s Sadio Mane but he was also responsible for a lapse in concentration against Japan which led to Carlos Sanchez’s dismissal for handball.
The 22-year-old is an outstanding young defender but can be guilty of relying on his pace to correct any positional areas. If he’s caught the wrong side, a couple of strides later and he can correct the misjudgement.
He has also had to cover Mina’s indiscretions as the centre-back isn’t the sharpest on the turn and can struggle when run at directly, as Mane showed in the final group match by completing four dribbles.
Given how well Kane and Davinson Sanchez know each other’s games from weeks of training sessions for Tottenham, it makes for an intriguing battle.
At the other end, Falcao may lack in pace but is a clever finisher who plays on the shoulder, darting in behind. Stones will remember the tortuous night he gave him in a Champions League tie 16 months ago, scoring twice for Monaco.
As yet, Stones, Maguire and Kyle Walker haven’t really been tested but have endured a few nervy moments against Tunisia, and even early on in the Panama match, by cheaply surrendering possession and space in vulnerable areas.
Both strikers are proven commodities with formidable scoring records, but the individuals who make up the respective central defensive areas are nowhere near as established.