Croatia look ahead to Argentina but will be without Nikola Kalinić…

Croatia will only have 22 players to select from for the rest of their FIFA World Cup 2018 campaign after forward, Nikola Kalinić, was sent home on Monday. Rumours of a problem in the squad circulated just hours after their opening group game victory over Nigeria and Kalinić’s departure was confirmed shortly afterwards. The reasons surround an apparent refusal by the player to come on as a substitute on Saturday night. Kalinić claimed he had a back injury, but Croatia manager, Zlatko Dalić, raised concerns that this had happened not only during training shortly after their arrival in Russia, but also during the penultimate friendly game against Brazil at Anfield.

Whether Kalinić was sent home because of his injury or because of his lack of team ethic isn’t clear. The France team of 2010 know too well how infighting can ruin a World Cup campaign and credit is due to Dalić for nipping the toxic morale-kryptonite in the bud and ridding the squad of a petulant and apparently work shy player. Kalinić’s apparent de-motivation is astounding given the fact he might not play in a World Cup again and the chance to represent his country at the highest level is one that only a handful of players experience in their lifetime. Kalinić is hardly a huge loss for Croatia as they are more than capable of replacing him. Mario Mandžukić will likely continue as the lone striker, while Andrej Kramarić, Ivan Perišić, Marko Pjaca and Mateo Kovačić will provide the support.

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Going into Thursday’s game against Agrentina, Croatia hold the advantage at the top of the group after Argentina failed to beat Iceland in their first game, in fact a Croatian win would see them qualify for the Round of 16, but that will depend on the result of the group’s other game, Iceland versus Nigeria.

Croatia will be rightly confident after Saturday’s victory and Dalić likely stick with the team and formation (minus Kalinić) which brought the three points against Nigeria, however they were fairly lacklustre despite the win and rarely moved out of second gear, whether that was because of the limited opposition or because of some first-game nerves, is debatable. Croatia will need to do better in the middle, and more commanding performances from their big two, Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, are necessary as Argentina will more than likely play the majority of their game through the centre, with Javier Mascherano playing an influential role. However, having seen Argentina struggle against Iceland, Dalić will be aware the Argentinian defence is a little suspect and will look to exploit with some quality service to Mandžukić.

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Argentina will provide a much harder test than an overrated Nigeria, and will be itching to get their first win to relieve some of the pressure on themselves after they dominated the game against Iceland but couldn’t find a winning goal.

Lionel Messi in particular will be hoping for a better performance to make up for his penalty miss. The problem Argentina face is a little over reliance on Messi; sure he is a phenomenal player, but he cannot do it on his own.Their limited attacking flair was exposed on Saturday afternoon as time and again they looked to Messi to deliver. Argentina did create a few clear goal scoring chances against Iceland, but like England, they need to be a lot more clinical if they are to progress even beyond this stage.

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Argentina will also need to spread the play out wide more often than we saw against Iceland, if only to give their forwards, Messi included, more room to operate and to try to pull the Croatia defence out of position. My tactical article gives a little more insight to how Croatia play, but they tend to struggle against crosses and should Gonzalo Higuaín get the start, or at least see more than the five minutes he got against Iceland, we would definitely see a change in focus from Argentina.

Croatia can afford to draw this game so expect a cautious approach, much like their first match win over Nigeria. Argentina simply have to win to avoid having to go into their last game needing all three points.

Match prediction: Argentina, 1 Croatia, 1

 

Warming up for Russia: Croatia’s pre-FIFA World Cup 2018 friendlies..

How did Croatia fare in the lead up to the World Cup?

Croatia have gone against the usual warm up process for the FIFA World Cup, namely, playing a bunch of fourth-rate patsies, who are usually used as cannon-fodder to boost morale and bag a few goals. They lined up against fellow qualifiers, Peru, Mexico and Brazil, while Senegal provided the final opponents before the tournament begins. It’s obvious to see they’re preparing for their group games with Argentina and Nigeria. The fact they played Iceland, their other group opponents, in qualifying, means they’ll be well prepared for their group encounter in Russia.

They kicked off their preparations in March with two friendlies in the United States, against Peru and Mexico. Their third friendly was a lot closer to home, at Anfield, as they faced off against pre-tournament favourites, Brazil. Their final friendly, against Senegal, will be a send-off in front of their fans in Osijek. No doubt playing the three games at a neutral venue will help to replicate the atmosphere of a World Cup game and will certainly help their preparations.

 

Peru / Miami, FL, USA / 24 March 2018

Their first friendly was at the Hard Rock Stadium, Miami. They faced a Peru side who finished fifth in the CONMEBOL group but, like Croatia, qualified through the Play Offs. Croatia fielded a familiar line up in a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, with their big hitters, Mario Mandžukić, Nikola Kalinić, Ivan Perišić, Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić all starting. For this game we saw Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić swap roles, with Rakitić playing as defensive midfielder and Modrić the link between the midfield and attack. We have seen these two interchange during qualifying as they possess a similar skill set. Verteran, Verdran Ćorluka, made a welcome return to the centre of defence.

The match was dominated by Croatia, they had almost twice as many shots and 61% possession, however, they went behind early to a goal from Watford player, André Carrillo; a defensive mix-up, a failed clearance and a pass intercepted by Peru on the edge of the Croatia area, all contributed to the circus act which was the opening goal. The shot, a powerful low drive, was deflected past Danijel Subašić. Worse was to follow for the Vatreni as Edison Flores scored a relatively simple tap in just after half time. The initial through ball had beaten the Croatian defence, and Christian Cueva, slightly to the left of goal, fired in a low shot under pressure, Subašić parried and Flores was left with an open goal. 2-0.

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There wasn’t the rash of substitutions we usually see in friendlies as Croatia only made four, the most notable of which saw Marko Pjaca play a 20-minute cameo to continue his quest to regain his form after a post-Christmas loan from Juventus to Schalke 04. He was singled out for glory at international level before a horrific ACL injury in March 2017, but if he regains his fitness and form he could still prove to be a valuable asset for Croatia in Russia and the years to come.

Peru had Yoshimar Yotun sent off for two cautions with just 12 minutes left, the official reason will be unsportsmanlike conduct as he prevented Modrić taking a quick free kick in midfield. It’s a shame a player should be sent off for a trivial caution in a friendly but the referee appeared to be committed to applying the rules no matter the occasion or the situation. The game ended in defeat for Croatia but they can be heartened at the performance and they move a step closer to full match sharpness ahead of Russia.

 

Mexico / Dallas, TX, USA / 28 March 2018

Next up four days later, a journey across the country, all of 1348 miles, to AT&T Stadium in Dallas, to face Mexico; a much more rigorous test for Croatia against the number 15 ranked nation. Zlatko Dalić fielded a much changed side as only Rakitić remained from the team who started the Peru game. Pjaca started, as did Mateo Kovačić and TSV Hoffenheim man, Andrej Kramarić .

The game was fairly even and entertaining in regards to chances, although clear cut chances were at a premium. As mentioned in my tactical article, Croatia’s defence again struggled a little on crosses and on more than one occasion they were left to hurriedly clear the knockdown or half chance; something to work on before the tournament.

Given the lack of real goal scoring opportunities it isn’t a surprise it finished 1-0. The single goal was an Ivan Rakitić penalty just after the hour. Having watched the incident leading to the penalty a few times it is still debatable whether Tin Jedvaj, the player fouled, was actually on the pitch! He cut inside his marker close to the touchline and penalty area and was hacked at, it was a foul, no question, but he appeared to leave the pitch during the act of turning the Mexican player. Regardless, the win will have given Croatia something to smile about on their journey home.

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Brazil / Liverpool, England / 3 June 2018

Croatia’s penultimate friendly saw them line up against Brazil in a real test of their credentials ahead of the tournament in Russia. A familiar Croatian line up took to the field at Anfield, with the exception of Mandžukić, who dropped to the bench, Andrej Kramarić took his place. Regular starters, Strinić and Kalinić also started on the bench. It was apparent from the formation that Rakitić and Modrić had swapped roles in order to give Modrić more freedom in attack.

Brazil too fielded a strong line up with Fernandinho, Marcelo, Gabriel Jesus and Phillipe Coutinho starting the game. The game itself was, pardon the atrocious pun, a game of two halves. Croatia started very physically and gave Brazil little time on the ball; watch for this tactic when they face Argentina in a few weeks time. They created few chances though, but troubled Brazil with the corners they forced. Again it was encouraging to see Croatia using the flanks as a point of attack and they created a little panic in the Brazilian defence more than once. The first half was probably most notable for an obvious, but not malicious, studs up tackle by Kramarić, which was received with a comedy late hop-and-dive about 5 seconds after contact from Thiago Silva.

The second half saw the introduction of Neymar and an improved Brazil performance. They played Croatia at their own game and pressured them into a number of misplaced passes. Neymar scored the opener with 20 minutes remaining, a rasping shot into the roof of Subašić’s goal following a dribble past two Croatian defenders. While the dribble and finish were impressive, it can be argued the Croatian defence showed too much respect to Neymar and they had ample opportunities to make a challenge. They cannot afford Lionel Messi or Paulo Dybala the same respect in Russia.

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The flurry of second half substitutions, as usual, affected the flow of the game and Croatia offered little else in the early-summer sunshine. Brazil’s second goal in injury time was courtesy of a high ball over the top of the defence which wasn’t at all well dealt with by the defence and local favourite, Roberto Firmino, lofted a nice finish over the stranded goalkeeper. The curse of the high ball strikes again as more than one Croatian defender was stood watching the ball over the top.

In the end the scoreline wasn’t as important as the performance and Croatia can be encouraged by their first half pressing and physicality; it may be just enough to unsettle Argentina in the Group Stage game on 21 June.

 

 

 

 

 

Senegal / Osijek, Croatia / 8 June 2018

Croatia rounded off their pre-World Cup friendlies by hosting Senegal in Osijek, the hosts would no doubt be hoping playing at the home of former national hero, Davor Šuker, would inject some of his goal scoring prowess in to them in the coming weeks.

The Croatian line-up was again a fairly strong one, Mandžukić was back in the starting XI, Modrić and Rakitić reprised their roles from the Brazil encounter, but Vida started in an unfamiliar right back role.

In a fairly even first half neither team looked particularly threatening, although it was notable Croatia were was looking to attack from the wings with plenty of crosses now Mandžukić was back as the lone striker.

Once again though, Croatia’s defence looked suspect on high balls and crosses as the central defensive awareness was severely lacking at times. This was highlighted in the worst possible way just minutes into the second half as a high ball split the two defenders and Vida was caught ball watching as Ismaila Sarr latched on to the ball and easily stroked the ball past Subašić.

Croatia hit back just after the hour as Perišić’s deflected free kick found its way in, it was a deserved equaliser as they had relentlessly attacked since going a goal down, showing some great mental qualities in the process. Andrej Kramarić, a half time substitution for Milan Badelj, hit the bar just before the equaliser but eventually hit Croatia’s second with just over ten minutes left; a powerful low finish at the second attempt after he cut inside the Senegal full back. Kramarić is certainly one to watch in Russia and has impressed in the Croatian team during their recent friendlies.

It stayed 2-1, and the smiles and relaxed atmosphere at the final whistle showed a team ready for the challenges ahead in Russia. Croatia dominated the possession and their reaction to the Senegal opener was reflected in this. Their build up play and organisation, when compared with the earlier friendlies, was vastly improved.

Croatia’s defence remains the biggest problem but winning breeds confidence and if they can get off to a good start against Nigeria on Saturday they may just be able to make some noise in Russia this year.

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.