For what seemed like the bulk of regulation time, this was not a game that lent itself to tactical analysis.
A stalemate descended into a street fight, but the snide fouls, ref-crowding, and unconventional headbutts were bookended by some genuine tactical thinking and tinkering.
They caused the frustration that spilled over into farce – and then when the referee finally seemed to regain some control, changes were made to try and win the game with the ball.
Colombia, without James Rodríguez, decided to match up England by playing a kind of 4-4-2 diamond, with a particularly defensive base.
The three central midfielders of Carlos Sánchez, Wilmar Barrios, and Jefferson Lerma stayed deep, with Barrios often dropping between the centre-backs while the others stuck tight to Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli.
Harry Maguire was something of a pressing trigger for Colombia, the South American side either identifying him as the most likely to lose possession of the back three or wanting to limit his runs forwards (or both).
England were only really able to pull this out of shape when one of the forward four players dropped deep. Their markers might drop with them, but they would often lose them again at some point during the next few seconds of play, meaning that England’s attacking players finally had some space to work in.
That was how much of the match shaped up, although gradually it was a military map rather than a tactical whiteboard that would have been more useful on the sidelines.
Perhaps England could have exploited the space their attacking players got when retreating more. It’s possible that Dele and Lingard were trying to do something of the sort with their usually very high positioning.
By pushing themselves high up, they helped create space in the central midfield that England could use to try and to past Colombia’s first line of defence – either through passes to Jordan Henderson or through one of the forwards (usually Harry Kane) dropping.
England’s passing was too slow though, John Stones as cautious with his distribution as Ian Wright is bold with his shirt choice on ITV. And Henderson, though better than some of England’s options in that area, has never been the kind of player who will solve your ball progression Gordian knot.
In the last half an hour of normal time, Colombia brought on more attacking players – most importantly Carlos Bacca replacing Lerma.
They switched to more of a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2, with Falcao and Bacca up top and Barrios still operating as the anchorman in midfield. It could even become a 3-5-2 in possession, with one – most often Johan Mojica at left-back – or both full-backs pushing forwards.
While Colombia’s man-to-man defensive coverage was still in play when they didn’t have the ball, when they did have it they were a much more potent threat.
Perhaps they sensed England weren’t going to pose much of a threat from open play (something they’ve gone under the radar for struggling at during the tournament) and decided to focus more of their troops on defending higher up the pitch, keeping the ball with England’s centre-backs.
The ‘what if?’
What could England have done differently?
Perhaps they could have played the ball long to Kane more often, trying to win second balls with Sterling, Dele, and Lingard all gathered around him to pick it up.
They could have switched formation, putting another man alongside Henderson sooner, but the addition of Eric Dier late on did little to help matters in extra time.
Perhaps a more radical change of formation, then? A 4-2-3-1 to strengthen the middle of the park? Maybe, but the system had been working quite well since its introduction, and there was – and still is – sound logic behind it.
England’s strength is in attacking midfielders. There aren’t any elite out-and-out defenders, so it makes sense to utilise the on-ball abilities of the ‘quite good’ ones that the nation has. Playing a back three helps brings this out, while also adding an extra body to help defend close to the box.
Late in extra-time, England started to pick up – mostly because Colombia were tired and gaps started to open up. Without these gaps, bringing Jamie Vardy on earlier would have been unlikely to work.
So, yes, perhaps the best option would have been to embrace English nature and lump it long for a bit. At best, it could have led to winning loose balls high up the pitch; at worst, it may have been a betrayal of the system, but it would have forced Colombia to think differently.
And so, penalties. Jordan Pickford. Eric Dier.
The rest was history. It’s probably good for England to have broken their penalty curse early in the tournament – and in terms of how long this generation will be playing – but they shouldn’t have needed to do it.