Sackings, Corruption and Sulking Stars…

Croatia triumph over adversity

Croatia have made the Quarter Finals of the FIFA World Cup 2018; a not entirely unexpected feat given the plethora of talent in their squad and of course their relatively easy progress to the last eight – victories against a nervous Nigeria, a decaying Argentina and likeable, but limited, Iceland and Denmark, have seen them within touching distance of their best ever Finals.

However, it could’ve all been so very different for them given the disasters the squad and the Croatian Football Association has faced over the last nine months. In October 2017, just days before their crucial World Cup qualifying game, away to Ukraine, Croatia sacked their coach, Ante Čačić, after the team took just four points from their previous four qualifying games; defeats to Iceland and Turkey before a dreadful 1-1 draw, at home to Finland, sealed Čačić’s demise. The Croatian FA certainly took a huge gamble and appointed current coach, Zlatko Dalić, with immediate effect. Dalić’s future wasn’t assured, with an underwhelming and less than confident statement from Croatian FA president and former Croatian legend, Davor Šuker, in regards to Dalić taking the job permanently he sulked, “coaches live and die by their results, so we’ll see”.

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England know all too well about the upset in continuity and stability which can be caused by changing your coach with a qualification or a tournament on the horizon; Roy Hodsgon took England to Euro 2012 having had only two previous games with the national team, this after Fabio Capello resigned months earlier after he was gloriously undermined by the FA over the John Terry trial issue.

The gamble paid off for Croatia in Kyiv as two Andrej Kramarić goals confirmed their 2-0 win and their runners up place. They kicked off their Play Off game against Greece with renewed optimism and a sense of relief having overcome the Ukraine obstacle and they hammered Greece 4-1 on aggregate to book their place in Russia.

Having successfully qualified for Russia the squad could focus on preparation for what could be their current squad’s last attempt to emulate their 1998 counterparts, with Luka Modrić, Mario Mandžukić, Vedran Ćorluka, Ivan Rakitić and Ivan Perišić all reaching the twilight of their careers, one would realistically expect them to have handed over the international reigns when the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Qatar.

However, their preparations were thrown into crisis once more as two of their star players were caught up in a shady transfer scandal. Both Modrić and Dejan Lovren coud face prison sentences if found guilty in a trial involving former Dinamo Zagreb Chief Executive, Zdravko Mamić, and the personal profits he made when both Lovren and Modrić moved from Dinamo to Olympique Lyon and Tottenham Hotspur respectively.

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Mamić has a long history of dubious political, media and sporting connections and has never denied signing personal contracts with the players when they were in the Zagreb youth academy. By doing so it meant the players would share a proportion of their earnings with him. One can argue this is slightly naïve on the players’ part, however, the picture becomes clearer when we find out the players were being represented by Mamić’s son, and football agent, Mario. The focus for the prosecution was the clauses were put in place after their transfers and were backdated to their youth academy days. Mamić was found guilty and fled to neighbouring Bosnia, he is awaiting sentencing at present.

For Modrić and Lovren, they face a nervous few months. Modrić has already been charged with perjury after he changed his statement, he revealed the clause was written into his contract after his transfer, but then changed his version of events. Lovren has also reportedly changed his statement and is waiting to hear the outcome of the court ruling, although given Modrić’s charge for the same offence, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Lovren charged too. Both could face between one and five years in prison.

Modrić has gone on to become one of Croatia’s key players at the World Cup, while his presence in the Croatian midfield was expected for a man of such talent, his performances are much more impressive given the mental strain he is under at present; a leader and captain on the pitch, who has had to battle more than most. However, his and Croatia’s next complication was just around the corner; just days before their massive World Cup Group D encounter with Argentina.

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The day after a Modrić-inspired Croatia secured their first win of the tournament against Nigeria, striker, Nikola Kalinić, was sent home. According to the Croatian FA he had refused to come on as a substitute during the second half of the Nigeria game. The player citied a back injury, while the coach, pointed to a lack of commitment on the part of Kalinić. Dalić stated the same problem had occurred during the team’s friendly against Brazil at the beginning of June and with good reason, wanted only players who were 100% committed to the Croatian cause to be part of the squad in Russia. Kalinić is certainly one of Croatia’s better players, and although inconsistency has hit his time in Italy’s Serie A, he could’ve been a big loss. Again it has been a huge gamble by Dalić and the Croatian FA, but one has to applaud their decision to not pander to the whims of their star players. Their subsequent qualification from the group with three wins from three games is a testament to squad morale, togetherness and determination.

They remain dark horses, as they usually are, but given the above average nature of the teams ahead of them, they have to be confident of at least a Semi Final place. Modrić may well end up in some very hot water over his perjury charge but he may well also be lifting the World Cup trophy in Moscow a week on Sunday. Given the turbulent 9 months they have had it would be just Croatia’s luck to have their captain jailed in the same year they reach the pinnacle of world football.

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

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

 

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.