Croatia vs England Preview: Midfield supremacy vital for Vatreni

It seems almost nothing can stop Croatia on it’s way to the World Cup final. They’ve walked through the group stage in a surprisingly easy manner. Winning against Nigeria was not impressive, but it was enough for the initial self-confidence injection. Afterwards came the match against Argentina where Dalić’s team proved to be a serious candidate for a medal in Russia.

High-quality counter attacking football turned out to be a perfect plan for Croatia in the situation where it is opposed by a strong opponent. Vatreni began to feel very good in the role of an underdog as they showed against Sampaoli’s side.

But then the obvious problems in play while being a favorite started showing up. Dalic’s side started to struggle when in possession which was clear in the next two games.

In the first round of the knockout phase Croatia held off both it’s nerve and Denmark 3-2 in penalty kicks with the veteran shot-stopper Danijel Subasic stepping up at the right time. The Danes completely controlled the situation on the pitch for almost the whole match and similar was repeated against Russia.

There Modric and co. showed that football isn’t all about tactics, but a sport filled with strong emotions where they again came out as winners. It was simply unbelievable to see them pulling out from another penalty shootout intact. But, if they would play like in the last two games – against Denmark and Russia – they don’t stand a chance opposing England.

How can Croatia upset Southgate’s side?

First of all, Zlatko Dalic needs to return to a formation with three in midfield where Marcelo Brozovic will be the one who can unleash Modric’s abilty to drive his team forward, drag the opposition out of shape and generally dictate the match tempo. Dalic’s decision to introduce Internazionale’s deep-lying playmaker against the hosts after an hour proved to be a game-changer. Ultimately, in similar shape Croatia completely outplayed Argentina who, like England, play with three at the back.

Brozovic played a decent game against Argentina where he successfully, in cooperation with Rakitic and the defence, stopped Lionel Messi. He is the third best Croatian as per Twelve’s ‘points per minute’ overall rating at the tournament and will be vital in stuffing the midfield with players in order to stop England’s excellent duo Alli and Lingard in their roaming.

This means dropping his ‘extra man in attack’ Andrej Kramaric. He is decent in reading the game and in his off-the-ball movements but he is also a necessary sacrifice for Modric to play in the no.10 role while Mario Mandzukic will most likely lead the line.

He will represent the next key figure on Dalic’s table. The Juventus forward plays as a wide left target man in Turin, but for Croatia he’s attacking through the centre. Since Kieran Trippier will be looking to find space and ball further up the pitch on the right side, Kyle Walker will be exploitable on the right hand side of the back three. Mandzukic could use his aerial ability to cause England real issues and make space for Rebic or Perisic to run in.

Shut down Trippier and win the battle of the midfield

When not in possession, Croatia should exploit Alli and Lingard’s natural tendency of moving forward and put pressure on Jordan Henderson, England’s holding midfielder. Modric should exploit the space with his surging runs and incisive passes to the forwards. Both Rebic and Perisic should also fall back and help their fullbacks when they lose possession because England work their attacks through wide areas (and Trippier in particular).

The ‘Bury Beckham’ has had an excellent tournament so far and has been England’s most creative player in Russia creating 3.2 key passes per90 and scores the most attacking points for England as per Twelve’s algorithm. The Croatian wingers should therefore have dual roles: occupy England’s fullbacks, in particular Tottenham’s right back, limit their forays deep into Croatian territory, and offer cover especially for the vulnerable Strinic on the side where Trippier attacks.

Croatia cannot afford to allow England to dictate terms in the midfield and would have to control the tempo of the game. And right now, there is none better in the world than Luka Modric in doing that. He should inspire Croatia again in their most crucial match by winning the midfield battle against Liverpool’s captain.

Get their act together in defending set-pieces

Eight of England’s eleven World Cup goals have come from set-pieces or penalties. Harry Maguire alone won ten aerial duels against a physically strong Swedish team. Furthermore, England are second only to Russia, in winning 59% of their aerial duels. This means England would pose a constant threat from the set-pieces and the Croatian defenders would have to get their act together.

Both Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren have been excellent at the centre of Croatia’s defence but they cannot afford to concede an easy goal from the set-pieces like they did against Russia and Denmark. Practicing this part of play must’ve been in the focus of Dalic’s team preparation. If not, they’re in great trouble.