How long will the old guard stand strong? Croatia’s World Cup squad has a host of recognisable names; not least captain Luka Modrić, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona duo, Mateo Kovačić and Ivan Rakitić respectively. While this means little in isolation, their wealth of experience is demonstrated by the fact that only 11 out of their preliminary 24-man squad have under 30 caps. By contrast, only six members of England’s squad have 30 caps or over!
The influence of this core of players is demonstrated by the fact that Croatia’s coach, Zlatko Dalić, was only appointed before the last game of the qualifying campaign following public concerns about his predecessor’s cagey tactics. As reported by The Independent, Luka Modrić vehemently lamented the team retreating against Finland, after taking the lead. He scathingly denounced it as “unbelievable” and compromising the team’s path to the World Cup. After Croatia’s 4-1 rout of Greece in the first leg of their play-offs, goalkeeper Danijel Subašić adroitly remarked: “What has changed? The coach. He talked to us more than his predecessor and brought the best in us.”
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The Qualifying Campaign in Review
While Croatia eventually managed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup comfortably, the qualifying campaign did not go to plan for them. In fact, that’s an understatement. If they had not beaten Ukraine in the final round of games, Croatia would probably not have even qualified, in a group where Iceland finished top. Rather than celebrating, and trying their best to forget all the flaws that ever existed, fans and journalists would probably be diagnosing the exact cause of the inevitable institutional crisis.
That said, the rigid tactics deployed by Croatia were not disastrous by any stretch of the imagination. Throughout the entire campaign, they only conceded four goals; the next best team, Iceland, conceded seven. They also scored 15, only one less than Iceland. Reliable 32-year old striker Mario Mandžukić, who will inevitably be perceived as a powerhouse when the team perform or some kind of cumbersome plough horse if they don’t, was joint second top goal scorer with five goals, and was ever-present in all ten games. In their first five games, before losing to Iceland and Turkey, and drawing to Finland, they amassed 13 points out of a possible 15.
Ultimately, it’s hard to tell how well Croatia’s qualifying campaign will serve them for the 2018 World Cup, due to managerial and off field issues. It might be fair to draw a line over Croatia’s performance under Čačić. His appointment was extremely controversial in the first place, being described as a “clown fiesta”; the former radio and television repairman, whose notable managerial exploits include managing GNK Dinamo in the Champions League, then getting fired promptly afterwards and sent to feeder club Radnik Sesvete, was widely considered to be completely unqualified. He was said to lack authority, being a mere ‘house coach’ in HNS con-man/president Zdravko Mamić’s calculated game to make a personal profit. As the ‘puppet master’ of Croatian football, Mamić is said to have wanted a manager he could ‘handle’, with the popular former manager Slaven Bilić not picking enough of the players he could profit from. As reported by Total Croatia News, Dejan Lovren and Alen Halilović have previously been left out. The former for being involved in a trial against Mamić, and the latter for Mamić not having a role in his future transfers. Amidst this, shall we say… unsettling news, Čačić was trying to shift the focus away from Mamić; he valiantly trumpeted his radical new tactical ideas such as “negative transition”.
Ever since Zlatko Dalić came in, Croatia have played three competitive games: two against Greece in the play-offs and one against Ukraine. Dalić is allegedly the best manager in the UAE Arabian Golf League’s history, for his exploits with Al-Ain. Anyway, in that period, Croatia achieved two wins and one draw, scoring six goals and conceding just one in the process. The problems with Mamić and the HNS still persist, otherwise away fans would not have been banned in both play-off legs, due to previous protests. However, there now appears to be more unity within the team and a more effective tactical system.
In all three competitive games under Dalić, Croatia have operated with a fairly rigid 4-2-3-1. Defensively, they tend to stand off their opponents and use a low block, morphing into a 4-4-1-1 shape with Mandžukić or Kalinic finding space to be an effective out-ball up front, and Modrić pressing while dropping just off the striker. Croatia’s non-aggressive nature is typified by them neither attempting nor completing more tackles than their opponents against Ukraine and Greece. They also had a significantly higher tackle completion rate than their opponents in each of those games, suggesting their conservatism has been effectively implemented.
In attack, Croatia’s play is slightly less primitive than this piece might have suggested. They often patiently play out of defence, with Rakitić dropping into the back three as a half back, and the two full-backs pushing forward. In particular, Sampdoria left-back Ivan Strinić provides an advanced option, with cross-field balls being played to him in both legs against Greece. In both of the games Croatia won under Dalić, they at least doubled their opponents’ number of dribbles; this typifies how often the players had to evade pressure in tight spaces in the middle and final thirds themselves, before releasing the ball. Attacking players besides Modrić opted to make runs off the ball, often behind the opposition defence, rather than offering short passing options. Wingers Ivan Perišić and Andrej Kramarić offer dynamic options on each flank, driving at their full backs, making aggressive runs, and getting in the box whenever the other winger or Strinić is about to cross into the box. With more dribbles and a higher dribble success rate than the opposition, and such an aggressive crossing strategy, it’s no surprise that a goal against Ukraine and two of them against Greece came from crosses.
On paper, Croatia should qualify from their group. Their team is considerably stronger than Iceland or Nigeria, and the juggernaut presented by Argentina’s strike force overshadows their lack of any reputable goalkeeper, along with their relatively mediocre defence and midfield. Jorge Sampaoli was recently appointed by Argentina following their disastrous qualifying campaign, in which they only qualified for the 2018 World Cup by a measly two points, 13 points behind Brazil in their group. In that run, they managed to lose to Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia, and fail to beat Peru and Venezuela. While England fans begrudge how easy the qualification process is, Argentinian fans probably repeat “you think that’s bad” in their heads, trying to resist their urge to tell England fans how plainly wrong they are. In summary, Croatia have a good team, and the group doesn’t look too overwhelming for a team that only finished second in their qualifying group!
As indicated previously, Croatia also have plenty of leadership in their side. Their captain, Luka Modrić, has amassed 104 caps; only half of the sides have a player with more caps, and many of them have not even trimmed their squad to 23 men yet. As seen, when things go wrong, Modrić and several other players are not afraid to make their voices heard and instigate change, without letting their performances drop. Modrić is still their prime creator in midfield, having more possession of the ball than any other Croatian attacker in all three matches under Dalić, invariably taking every set-piece, and scoring a crucial penalty in the first leg against Greece.
It also helps that many of those players, which lead the team, are still in their prime. Besides Subašić, the highly reputable Monaco goalkeeper, not a single player is aged above 32. By contrast, many other national sides have players with more caps than Modrić, by virtue of being national legends and there being a lack of options. 38-year-old Australia captain Tim Cahill has 105 caps to Modrić’s 104, and he’s just been released by Milwall! 13 of Croatia’s preliminary 24-man squad play for clubs which have already qualified for next season’s Champions League group stage, and many are regulars.
In terms of individual talent, the leadership and experience at the highest level beaming throughout their side, and the tactical understanding they’ve demonstrated over the past three competitive matches, Croatia seem hard to beat.
Throughout Croatia’s qualifying campaign, excluding the play-offs, they did not win a single game without keeping a clean sheet. Their defensive shape will certainly be tested in a group containing Argentina… obviously led by Lionel Messi, and the aforementioned Iceland. If those sides patiently probe, there are signs that Croatia’s rear-guard might not hold firm, with three of Croatia’s four goals conceded coming in the 75th minute or later, including two in second-half stoppage time. Croatia did not manage to score after conceding in a single game, if we exclude the play-offs again.
There are many other potentially worrying signs ahead of the World Cup. Croatia have not got past the group stage since 1998, despite having many formidable-looking sides, even featuring a similar core of players to this squad in some of them. Mamić’s presence is also showing no signs of looking any less messy. As reported by journalist Ivan van Duren in Mamić’s Cash Machines- Modrić and Lovren Stuck on the Balkan Route, Modrić and Lovren allegedly played “a key role” in “one of the biggest corruption cases in Croatia’s history”, by giving false testimonies and bringing Mamić nearly 20 million euros. With plenty of distractions, and Mamić’s tendency to exacerbate them by interfering as wildly as possible, it’s hard to have any confidence that Croatia’s World Cup campaign won’t be disruptive.
Croatia’s attacking options are also slightly concerning. While Mandžukić has scored a lot of goals, his role varies, with him sometimes being played on the right wing under both Čačić and Dalić. Croatia’s system is set up for the strikers, and sometimes the wingers, to predominantly make runs behind the opposition’s defence, which arguably does not play to Mandžukić’s strengths. Especially when Croatia play better teams, and resort to their 4-4-1-1 shape without Kramarić on the right-hand side bombing forward to support the striker, the striker could become very isolated and ineffectual. The other option, who has sometimes been preferred in the lone striker role, is Nikola Kalinić. He can often look anonymous when he’s not presented with chances. In the second leg against Greece, a 0-0 draw with Croatia mostly containing them, Kalinić only had 1.2% of the possession; Subašić had 3.1%! At any rate, he’s only scored 6 goals in 42 appearances at club level. It’s crucial that Croatia sort this situation out; this could either be through finding a striker who plays to Modrić’s strengths, by predominantly running in behind the opposition defence, or re-balancing the team accordingly.
The first question is whether Mandžukić or Kalinić will start up front; if the latter situation happens, Mandžukić may take Kramarić’s place on the right wing, or be left out. Central midfield is also unpredictable, with Marcelo Brozović being a strong contender for Milan Badelj’s spot. Mateo Kovačić may even have an outside chance of being included somewhere.
If Croatia win their group, they’re likely to reach the quarter-finals, with France being the only particularly strong team in Group C. However, Group D is highly unpredictable, besides the likely event of Nigeria finishing bottom. If I were about to be buried alive in a Mexican desert, I’d go with the boring prediction of Argentina winning, with Croatia behind them and Iceland falling just short. Unfortunately, France would inevitably beat them in the round of 16 in that scenario. It wouldn’t even be that surprising if Argentina failed to qualify from the group stage, though.
Other articles you may enjoy:
- Who Gareth Southgate Should Have Taken To Russia – England Squads 2018
- Will England win the 2018 FIFA World Cup? – Football Manager 2018 Simulation
- The importance of a Youth Development Structure – Football Manager Guide
- Success with a Cherry on top – AFC Bournemouth’s rise to the top – Part One
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