Croatia quietly confident after taking maximum points with minimum fuss…

While all eyes will have been on Argentina’s possible exit against Nigeria, Croatia took on Iceland in a game where Iceland could conceivably still qualify from the group with a win. Ultimately though it was Croatia’s squad players who eased themselves into the last 16 with a narrow 2-1 victory and thus sent Iceland heading for the departure lounge in Rostov-on-Don.

Croatia and Iceland are familiar foes having previously faced each other in qualifying for Russia. The teams split the games with Iceland claiming top spot with a slim two-point margin while Croatia finished second. They also squared off in qualifying for the 2006 and 2014 FIFA World Cups. This familiarity caused Icelandic coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, to quip the teams were “like a married couple”.

Croatia, having already secured qualification for the knockout phase rested nine players and although groups rivals, Nigeria and Argentina, can claim this gave Iceland an advantage it certainly didn’t play out that way as professional and committed performances from Mateo Kovačić, Milan Badelj and Andrej Kramarić saw them remain unbeaten throughout their group phase games.

The game itself was a lesson in squad management from Zlatko Dalić, and considering the problems Croatia have faced with the unceremonious departure of Nikola Kalinić  and the off the field legal issues involving Luka Modrić and Dejan Lovren, this is also a victory for squad morale. I don’t want to describe the players making their first start of the tournament as ‘back up players’, but their appearances will give the squad a more inclusive feel which will only help them if they progress past the next round.

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The majority of Croatia’s big-hitters were rested, however Modrić remained in the starting line-up, as they started in a defensive 4-3-2-1 with Kovačić and Modrić playing a more holding midfield role than they would usually incorporate. Real Madrid player, Kovačić, in particular turned in a magnificent performance, linking the midfield and attack and displaying the qualities which prompted high-praise from Inter legend, Javier Zanetti. On several occasions, in a game which Croatia were happy to play it safe and control possession, he held up play and completed an impressive 99% of his passes. In the end Croatia created few chances. Badelj hit the crossbar early in the second half before he drove home the opening goal in stylish fashion after 53 minutes. The injury time winner, came courtesy of a fine Ivan Perišić strike, across the Icelandic goalkeeper and into the far corner.

Iceland can rightly bemoan their lack of attacking quality; they certainly created a few chances but ultimately didn’t finish them. Alfred Finnbogason shot just past the post from the edge of the area after a defensive mix up and they caused mayhem in the Croatian defence with a long throw in the second half; the defence hardly knew where the ball was as stand in goalkeeper, Lovre Kalinić, fluffed his attempted punch and they were very fortunate to escape that time. Iceland were finally rewarded for their efforts when Gylfi Sigurdsson converted a 76th minute penalty.

Had the group winners, despite the changes to the starting line-up, not been their final opponents it may well have been a different outcome for the likeable Iceland team, but they can be pleased with their performances in Russia, with the draw against Argentina being their most memorable moment.

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Croatia’s defensive mix ups can be attributed to a lack of understanding between their squad players and a general easy-going approach to the game, but Dalić will want to make sure the old defensive problems don’t re-appear in the Round of 16 game. Nevertheless, Croatia will be very happy with their group stage efforts having won all three games, this including the 3-0 demolition of Argentina, and conceded just one goal from Iceland’s penalty on Tuesday evening.

 

Croatia will face Group C runners-up, Denmark, on Sunday in Nizhny Novgorod, and will be back at full strength and the momentum generated by their group performances will be vital, winning breeds confidence, and Croatia will definitely fancy their chances against an efficient, yet average, Denmark side.

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Again, Modrić is the key for Croatia, much like Christian Eriksen is for Denmark. They are very similar players and the worry for Croatia will be Eriksen’s ability to arrive late in the area or to use his devastating long-range shot. They are both integral to their country’s chances, but the support they get from their team mates is equally as vital and Croatia win this battle fairly comfortably with the likes of Rakitić, Perišić and Mario Mandžukić for company in the Croatia team.

Like Croatia, Denmark were impressive defensively, only conceding an Australian penalty in the group stage. However, they defend very deep when the opposition have the ball and this would give Modrić room to work his magic. For the Danes their lack of goals must be their real concern, having scored just twice in the three group games and given Croatia’s strong defensive displays thus far it is unlikely Denmark will have enough attacking firepower to beat them. It seems their main hope will be an inspired performance from Eriksen, a rare Croatian defensive slip up or taking the game to penalties.

Match prediction: Croatia, 2 Denmark, 0

The conveyor belt of class…

A closer look at the famous Dinamo Zagreb youth academy

Luka Modrić, Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinečki; all luminaries of the world game during their careers and they have one thing in common; they all progressed through the Dinamo Zagreb youth academy. The Građanski Nogometni Klub Dinamo Zagreb II was founded in 1967; the academy has won 26 Croatian under-18 titles, 11 Croatian under-17 championships and five Yugoslav under-18 championships. For the past 50 years Dinamo have produced some of the world’s most exceptional footballers and their ability to produce the next generation of Croatian national players shows no signs of subsiding.

Since the publicity around the celebrated early 1990s Manchester United youth players dubbed, ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ there has been a greater interest in finding the world’s next superstar at a young age. A decade later the graduates of Barcelona’s La Masia academy became the foundation of their legendary 2000s team and their success only intensified the need to produce successful homegrown players.

While it is a merely a wish for the majority of teams, one cannot deny there is something inherently romantic about someone who has been a one-club player since his youth. Someone who feels the pride when he pulls on the shirt, who has shared the highs and lows with the fans. It’s almost a parent/child relationship and that loyalty is priceless to most fans. It is also worth a great deal to the clubs themselves as bringing through youth players costs much less than buying someone from another club (although that may just be the cynic in me!? I’m sure they quite like the romantic ‘one of our own’ notion too!).

We all know most big clubs spend tremendous amounts on their youth academies and have scouts all over the world working tirelessly in an attempt to scoop up the most talented youth players. A big part of this desperation to find the next big thing is down to the greater exposure afforded to the modern game. Fans now don’t have to rely on newspaper reports of reserve team games to find out about their youth teams; they can easily use Google to find out everything they need to know in just a few clicks.

The term ‘wonderkid’ is widely used now also, it originates from Football Manager, and refers to a youth player, who with the right standard of training and first team action can become world-class. With games like Football Manager fans can be a real life Eric Harrison as they nurture the next Modrić or Boban from the youth team into the big time. Although it adds to the realism of the game it dangerously feeds the hunger for their club to find the next Messi.

The ease of access to modern footballers, coupled with the greater expectations from fans to ‘win now’, means clubs are always under pressure to produce quality youth players. Clubs like Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona are almost expected to spend millions on their academies and scouting, but just how does a team of the stature of Dinamo Zagreb produce such a conveyor of talent season after season?

Dinamo have long since been settled in their role among the European football’s pecking order; namely, a club with a wide-ranging scouting network and successful youth academy, who rear their youth players through the ranks, into the first team to then sell on at a large profit.

The Dinamo hierarchy deep down know the team will never compete at the top UEFA Champions League level, instead they purely set up to dominate domestically and gain entry into the Champions League, thus guaranteeing them a healthy revenue stream which by Croatian financial standards will keep their club and academy in business for many a year. This is partly the reason why their academy is able to flourish so well year after year despite being based in what some would consider a relatively small country, both in financial and population terms.

Presently Dinamo has ten age categories from under-8s to under-19s and they also hold summer training camps in Canada, United States, Australia, Slovenia, Germany and Poland.

A recent study showed they were ranked as the fourth best youth academy in the world, based on the quality of their youth teams and as of October 2015 Dinamo had the fourth most players playing in European leagues who had originally been part of their academy.

However, perhaps the most notable commitment of their academy coaches is they promise to play at least two of the academy graduates in the Dinamo first team, thus guaranteeing their best youth players first team action. The others who have a chance of making it as a senior professional, but aren’t quite ready for regular games at a high level, are sent on loan to Dinamo’s local feeder club, NK Lokomotiva Zagreb.

Some of the world’s star players have been a product of their academy, the aforementioned Modrić and Boban are the more obvious ones, but players like Andrej Kramarić, Niko Kranjčar and Champions League winner, Igor Bišćan are all Dinamo graduates.  Below we’ll take a look at some of their finest academy products in more detail.

 

Zvonimir Boban

Yugoslavia team mate of Robert Prosinečki when they won the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championships in Chile. He played for Dinamo for eight years in total and captained the club at just 19 years old. He made his name as an agile, attacking midfielder of great flair and determination. Boban was one of the main protagonists during a riot at a game between Dinamo and Red Star Belgrade in 1990, his resulting suspension forced him to miss the 1990 World Cup, however he was back to represent a newly-independent Croatia at UEFA Euro 1996 and the World Cup in France in 1998. Boban played 142 times for AC Milan, between 1991 and 2001, he won four Serie A titles and the Champions League in 1994.

Robert Prosinečki

As mentioned above, Prosinečki was part of the victorious Yugoslav squad in 1987. An intelligent and technically gifted midfielder he was a product of the Dinamo academy, he played for them between 1980 and 1987 then moved to Red Star Belgrade after a contract dispute with Dinamo. He won the European Cup with Red Star in 1991 and, like Boban, represented Croatia at the tournaments in England and France. Prosinečki went on to play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona in an injury-hit career.

Vedran Ćorluka

Versatile defender, Ćorluka, played for Dinamo on 61 occasions between 2003 and 2007 after graduating from the academy and helped Dinamo to three successive league titles. He moved to Manchester City in 2007, then to Tottenham Hotspur a year later, where he played alongside fellow Dinamo youth product, Luka Modrić. He went on to make over 80 appearances for Spurs . Ćorluka will be representing Croatia at the 2018 World Cup; he has 98 caps and will hope to get past the century mark during the tournament.

Luka Modrić

Probably the most famous Dinamo youth graduate of recent times, Modrić joined the academy at 17 and played 94 times for Dinamo’s first team before joining Tottenham Hotspur in 2008. A wonderfully gifted passer of the ball with a creative intelligence which few can match, his talents paved the way for a £30m move to Real Madrid in 2012 and has been heavily involved in their three consecutive Champions League victories. Internationally, Modrić has played at five tournaments for Croatia, amassing over 100 caps in the years since his 2006 debut.

Dario Šimić

A tough and powerful defender, he represented his country exactly 100 times. Šimić joined Dinamo’s academy in 1987 and went on to play 140 times for the senior team. Inter Milan paid £11m for him in 1999, Šimić played for the Nerazzurri over 60 times before he crossed the divide to play for rivals AC Milan in 2002, he won two Champions League titles with Milan, in 2003 and 2006.

Dejan Lovren

Lovern played for Dinamo between 2004 and 2010, winning two league titles. He moved to Lyon, then Southampton and finally to Liverpool for £20m in 2014. He has a UEFA Europa League and Champions League runners up medal and has 38 senior caps for Croatia; representing them at the 2014 World Cup.

Alen Halilović

Diminutive winger, Halilović, was Dinamo’s youngest ever debutante, aged just 16 years and 112 days old when he made his first senior start in 2012. He played just 44 games for Dinamo before Barcelona signed him in 2014. Halilović has had a succession of loan moves since then and is currently at Spanish side, Las Palmas. He has enormous potential and could be one to watch for the future.

Eduardo

A product of Dinamo’s far-reaching scouting tentacles, he was spotted playing for Bangu in Brazil in 1999 and joined Dinamo a year later. He played for Dinamo for six years, winning three league titles and three cups. Arsenal paid £7.5m for him in 2007 and although he had a decent start with the Gunners his career in England never quite recovered from a horrific injury he sustained against Birmingham City in early 2008. He was part of the Shakhtar Donetsk team which won four Ukrainian league titles between 2010 and 2014. Eduardo scored an impressive 29 goals in 64 games for Croatia.

Marko Pjaca

A strong, skilful and fast winger, Pjaca was Dinamo’s most expensive sale when Juventus paid £23m for him in the summer of 2016. He was making tentative steps into Juve’s first team when he suffered an ACL injury while on international duty in March 2017. Pjaca has been regaining his fitness and match sharpness on loan at Schalke 04. He will be a part of Croatia’s 2018 World Cup squad and has 16 international caps thus far.

Milan Badelj

Badelj is the current captain of Fiorentina, but started out in Dinamo’s academy in 2005. He played 113 times for Dinamo and not only captained the senior side, but such was his ability he was also touted as a possible replacement for the departing Modrić in 2008. He joined Hamburg in 2012 and then moved to Italy in 2014.

Mateo Kovačić

Gifted midfielder, Kovačić, has been the subject of some lavish praise during his fledgling career; he was compared to Prosinecki by his coaches at Dinamo’s academy, later at Inter his potential was similar to a young Ronaldo by club legend, Javier Zanetti. He played for Dinamo between 2007 and 2013 before joining Inter. Kovačić moved to Real Madrid in 2015 for £29m and has won three Champions League titles since arriving.

 

The list of Dinamo’s youth alumni is endless, and there are plenty more players to be discussed in length. None of this would be possible without Dinamo’s complete and unwavering commitment to youth development, they deliver this very impressively, which considering the stature of the club, is staggering. Most of the current Croatia national squad are approaching the twilight of their careers (in fact they have the tournament’s oldest squad), and it will be exciting to see how Dinamo contribute to producing the next generation of national players.

A Tactical Manoeuvre…

Delving into Croatia’s tactics, strengths and weaknesses ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2018

Tactics are a football nerd’s wet dream, now I’m not here to go all Football Manager fanboy on you, but similarly, I won’t be leaving you thinking I’m some kind of pre-historic Mike Bassett-type either; nevertheless, I have been watching Croatia closely recently (God bless YouTube) and here is what I found.

Overview

Croatia qualified for the FIFA World Cup 2018 via the Play Offs under the guidance of Zlatko Dalic and playing a very familiar 4-2-3-1. They secured 7 wins in 12 games using this formation and even when his predecessor, Ante Čačić, was in charge at the beginning of qualifying they rarely deviated from this. Clearly, Croatia use personnel to fit the tactic, rather than the other way round.

Their formation uses two central defenders and two wing backs who support the inside forwards when in attack. The holding midfield duo, usually Luka Modrić and Milan Badelj, stay in position when the team is attacking, although one of the two occasionally moves forward to support the attack. The formation can also become a 4-1-4-1 with Modrić playing the lone holding midfield role, on these occasions Badelj moves forward into the central midfield, this in turn allows Ivan Rakitić  more space in attack. The inside forwards, with Rakitić or Modrić as the central player of the three, support the lone striker and also look to move into the outer channels to provide crosses into the opponent’s area. Depending on the situation the tactic can be easily be changed to a 4-3-2-1 by substituting an attacking midfielder for a defensive midfielder.

Defence

Croatia’s defensive durability was demonstrated by conceding just 5 goals during their whole qualifying campaign. Their central defensive partnership of Domagoj Vida and Ivan Strinić, is an intelligent one and they are rarely pulled out of position. Although it cannot be denied Strinić and Vida provide a physical aerial presence they do concede goals in the air; three of their five goals conceded in qualification came from either a left wing cross or a high ball into the area. This is a concerning trait and also points to a weakness with their full backs. These problems persisted during their recent friendly games as the defence again struggled against these deliveries.

Their goalkeeper, Danijel Subašić, is a fine shot stopper, but his command of the area and his communication with his defence is questionable. This lead Croatia to concede a number of chances (not to mention a couple of goals) because of defensive lapses of concentration. These defensive problems will need to be rectified quickly.

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Midfield

This is where Croatia’s greatest strength lies. They have a plenitude of midfield talent in the shape of Rakitić, Badelj, Modrić, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovačić.

In most situations Croatia use Modrić as the defensive midfielder and Rakitić as the classic attacking midfielder, but either can revert these roles and this has been shown a number of times in qualifying. Croatia, while attacking, have also pushed Modrić forward from defensive midfield to support the attack, this can be especially effective when the opposition defence is pressed back on to their own 18-yard line. In this situation it isn’t uncommon to see Modrić’s very good long range shot which can be used to dazzling effect on occasions.

Rakitić is usually the conduit between midfield and attack; an immensely energetic and talented playmaker, he often holds his position when Ivan Perišić and Marko Pjaca or Nikola Kalinić are pressing from the left and right hand sides of attack. When Croatia switch to the 4-1-4-1, Rakitić and Modrić assume opposite points of a midfield diamond and this can be fruitful against a similarly strong attacking midfielder like Modrić’s Real Madrid teammate, Isco.

One notable line of attack is, unsurprising given their wealth of technical ability, the through ball and shot from the edge of the area, with six of the 18 qualifying goals coming this way. Another is their great proficiency in being able to work the ball in to the area with simple, short passes coupled with great awareness. This route was responsible for a significant number of goals from just inches out during qualifying. Again their technical ability in midfield is a huge part of their success and this works well with the predatory instincts of Mandžukić and company up front.

Simply put, you cannot give this midfield time to think and pick out a pass or shot on goal. This is one of the keys to their attacking prowess.

On the flip side, Croatia lacks a physical midfield presence. Even though Modrić is adept at holding the midfield he lacks the physicality to consistently control the middle and protect the defence. They have on occasions played Badelj in this position but if they were to move to a 4-3-2-1 it would give the defence, and Modrić, more support, while still maintaining their attacking midfield shape.

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Attack

Croatia’s attack has a physical bluster about it. Juventus forward, Mario Mandžukić and Inter striker, Ivan Perišić have primarily played as the lone striker but have also provided support from the left attacking midfield position. Both provide the opposition defence with different problems; Mandžukić provides the height and power, while Perišić is more of a technical forward with a great left foot. They can also be supported in a three-man attack by inside forwards such as Marko Pjaca and Nikola Kalinić when they need to score goals.

A impressive ten of their 18 goals in qualifying came from crosses or corners and it is obvious the sound service to the attack is vital in Russia. Despite this success, Croatia do not play with any real out and out wingers so the high percentage of goals from corners and crosses suggests a reliance on their full backs to get forward. They also rely on the left and right attacking midfielders moving outside to hold up play and provide crosses and this poses its own problems, as a lack of bodies in the middle will hurt their goal scoring chances. They may face a battle to provide consistent service if they are stifled and pinned back by the better teams in Russia.

Despite a wealth of attacking talent Croatia only scored 15 goals in ten games before the 4-1 aggregate victory over Greece in the Play Offs. Mandžukić scored five (although three of those were against Kosovo), Perišić scored one goal and Kalinić three goals. This against teams of the calibre of Finland and the aforementioned, Kosovo. This is slightly worrying and the strikers will need goal-scoring assistance from the midfield in Russia.

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Verdict

Croatia will almost certainly line up with the flexible 4-2-3-1 in Russia and the keys to their progress will be the stability of their defence, the creativity in midfield and providing the striker with the best quality service. If any of these were to stall, particularly the persistent problems the defence faces against crosses, then Croatia will be in for a short stay at this year’s tournament. If all click into gear they could be well on their way to emulating their 1998 counterparts.