Croatia 2-2 Russia (4-3 pens): An ode to Modric but problems still persist

Croatia are the last semi-finalist of the World Cup after Vatreni got past Russia on penalties. Croatian people waited two decades for this to happen. Vatreni finally did it, but it was really rough, dramatic and thanks to a penalty shoot-out win over the hosts at the Fisht Olympic Stadium, following a 2-2 draw after 30 minutes of extra time.

Croatia have knocked out the host nation at a World Cup for the first time in their third attempt, following unsuccessful battles against France in 1998 and Brazil in 2014.

A low quality 90 minutes, which saw Andrej Kramaric cancel out Denis Cheryshev impressive ‘goal of the tournament’ candidate, was followed by a dramatic period of extra time in which both teams – again – scored.

Five minutes separated Russia from elimination after Domagoj Vida put Croatia in front, but Mario Fernandes scored a towering header which saw the game levelled again and forced it to penalties, which Croatia won 4-3.

Ivan Rakitic again proved to be Croatia’s truly silent warrior. The midfielder, who had an excellent season under Ernesto Valverde for Barcelona, transferred his performance to a World Cup and again netted the decisive penalty with cold feet.

Only two nations have twice won a penalty shoot-out at a single World Cup. Argentina were the first, in 1990, and now Croatia this year which saw them to the semis and booked a classic clash against England.

Modric is a genius and a legitimate Golden ball winner

No particular emphasis is needed to conclude that Luka Modric is one of the greatest midfielders, if not the best, of the beautiful game. He absolutely deserved the ‘man of the match’ award against Russia, and it was undoubtedly a 9/10 performance by Real Madrid’s magician.

Modric bossed the midfield like he usually does every other day at his office. It is utterly amazing how much ground this 32 year old footballer can cover, which is illustrated perfectly in this tweet. His passing was immense, dictating Croatian play. Modric is the heartbeat of the Croatian side, and he captained it towards the clash against the Three Lions.

It can’t be ignored forever and now is the time to say it: Luka Modric is a legitimate Golden ball winner. It was supposed to be Lionel Messi or Andres Iniesta before the World Cup. And then, from the ‘right half of the draw’ Modric came out and although he isn’t taller than 172 centimeters, he shadowed all of world footballers who already returned home and made himself a genuine candidate for the best player of the tournament.

Even if Croatia do not win the World Cup, it is possible that it’s captain will be declared as the central figure of the tournament. It would not be the first time that is happening either. Four years ago in Brazil Lionel Messi claimed the best player of the tournament award even though he stood trophyless in the finals against Germany. Twelve’s sophisticated football algorithm agrees with my pointed out possibility that puts Modric as the top footballer in the tournament.

The World Cup Leaderboard

But still, there are a few competitors in Kylian Mbappé and/or Antoine Griezmann from France, Eden Hazard and/or Kevin De Bruyne from Belgium and Harry Kane from England. Each of these players is remarkable in their own way.

Mbappe will excite you with his bolt speed, Griezmann with smart off-the-ball movement and surgically precise shots, Hazard with outstanding all-around attacking performance with emphasis on his dribbling and Kane with his almost visionary sense for a goal. But no one can be at the same time as imaginative and effective as Los Blancos’ midfielder is.

One more thing which statistics cannot see: the run in the 107th minute which saw Modric saving a loose ball at the corner of the pitch, which reflects how much of a born leader he is. To conclude the love-in, let’s take a look at his performance by numbers.

Apart from Luka’s show, problems are still present

Zlatko Dalic brought up a 4-2-3-1 formation against Russia with Rakitic & Modric as the double pivot. His thesis was that if an additional attacker is invited into the pitch the team will perform better in the opponents’ third. This is half correct because it doesn’t get effective if you can’t distribute the ball to the forwards but only via long balls.

We saw the ugly limitation of Croatia’s two most creative players, as they launched only 20 long balls fewer then Russia who had 107 (!) of them. This was a sheer waste of talent. Yes, Modric did create four chances but it was only after Dalic realized his mistake and introduced Marcelo Brozovic in extra time, which unleashed Rakitic & Modric and saw the latter stepping up his game.

Also, the double pivot caused Croatia another problem. The midfield duo were often outnumbered with opponent midfielders, which Russia used perfectly in winning second balls after finding the tower-like Dzyuba. After all, the first goal came about because of similar problems when Cheryshev picked up the ball.

Croatia took control of the game once Brozovic was on pitch, but again they struggled to create chances and this problem remains unsolved since the beginning of the tournament. Croatia can’t attack effectively against a set defence.

Croatia struggle making quality chances in open play (Courtesy of Instat)

There is no one using half-spaces properly or at all (though Kramaric does sometimes, but he won’t start against England), the tempo is rather slow and inside forwards like Perisic & Rebic are predictable for the defences which remain at the tournament. England defend in a very structured 5-3-2 formation so Croatia’s unpredictable movement and creative freedom will be key, but Dalic’s side doesn’t have it (or they haven’t showed it).

That couldn’t pass unnoticed by Twelve’s algorithm, which ranked the Croatian forwards very low after the Russia game. Kramaric was the best with 1,492 points because of a first half goal, Mandzukic was in ninth place (1,110 points) and Rebic 11th with only 747 points. When it comes to overall performance in the tournament, thing aren’t getting much better.

Ante Rebic is the sixth best Croatian player and the best forward with 4,959 points. Mandzukic follows him in ninth place with 4,231 points and Kramaric is 11th (with 3,788) but he wasn’t a starter in every game.

Croatia’s World Cup Leaderboard

Modric won’t be able to carry the whole Croatia squad alone to a win against England which means that in front of Dalic and co. is a lot of work to be done. On the other hand, this was another ‘far away from the best’ performance by Croatia but yet again they won. They’ve showed real character as they’ve bounced back twice already and both times on penalties which again proves my thesis that a shootout is not a lottery.

Who knows, maybe this generation is predestined to claim the World Cup and we can’t do anything about it. We will find out more on Wednesday in Moscow.