Croatia’s World Cup dream goes on

Modric’s foul on Dele Alli gifted the Three Lions a free kick in a dangerous position early on, and Trippier stepped up to bend the ball over the wall and into the top corner, leaving Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic rooted to the spot. When that happened, I thought to myself – it is definitely coming home. There is no chance for Croatia to return from this one. After suffering extra time and penalty shootouts against both Russia and Denmark, this was way too much to turn over.

Apparently, there was only one dream at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow in the first half. A dream for England to win their first semi-final in 28 years and qualify for another big stage – the final against France. Trippier’s first ever goal for his national team gave Southgate’s side a start which they could’ve only dreamed of. And they kept the early pressure on as Croatia were slow to get going.

England’s threat at set pieces was as constant as ever, with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, as well as Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling making all sorts of problems for Croatia’s defence. Moreover, the Three Lions should have doubled their advantage on the half-hour mark when World Cup top gunman Harry Kane was slipped through on goal, only to be firstly denied by Subasic when one-on-one, and then a combination of Subasic and the post from point-blank range.

It took 32 minutes for Croatia to properly call Jordan Pickford into action for the first time when Rebic’s curling effort was easily stopped by the Everton goalkeeper. Then the second half came and a new dream was born, or better say roused because it was active until the majestic display of Dalic’s side against Argentina in the group stage of the World Cup. That dream turned the first one to reality and it became clear that football isn’t coming home, not this year.

I honestly don’t know what Dalic told the lads in the dressing room but it must’ve been one hell of a team-talk, Sir Alex Ferguson-like for sure. As if they did not play those two packs of 120 minutes in previous rounds, Vatreni made an astounding achievement in the second half, and later in extra time. With just over 20 minutes remaining of normal time Perisic got in front of Walker and steered the ball past Pickford with an inventive finish.

After that goal I knew – we are gonna win this. And Croatia’s threat slowly began to grow, with England hanging on in the closing stages of the game. In the second period of extra time, it finally came: a Perisic header caught Stones flat-footed as the ball bounced through to Mandzukic, and he was sharp enough to latch on to it and sweep his finish beyond Pickford.

A dream started 20 years ago ultimately came to an end. Croatia reached their first World Cup final in their history. A brilliant moment and something fans of all ages have dreamed of for two decades.

How did they do it?

Croatia struggled to find their rhythm in the beginning. The early goal disrupted the plans they prepared before the game and England were cruising. Alli and Lingard were particularly dangerous with their central runs behind Croatia’s defence. Vida and Lovren seemed uncomfortable and the latter was on the brink of getting a red card.

Croatia were also too sloppy and impatient in their attacks, especially when coming out from defence and trying to find solutions in the final third. The Three Lions successfully restricted them to long shots, but the half-time team talk changed everything. After they came out from a 15 minute break, Croatia slowed their game and adjusted the tempo according to the situation they were in. England retreated more and more into their half, inviting pressure while waiting for a counter.

This transition of Croatia’s play can be seen splendidly on 11tegen11’s dynamic passmap. ‘The most impressive one of this World Cup’ as he called it.

As I wrote in my preview of the game, the key was in the midfield trio Modric-Brozovic-Rakitic. Those three were vital in holding the ball for longer periods of time and constantly exchanging passes from flank-to-flank. As you can see on the passmap, strong passing links emerged between Modric and Vrsaljko as well as between Rakitic and Strinic.

It’s pretty simple, especially when you have world-class midfielders, to create overloads with short passes and then quickly switch the side. Repeat that constantly for some period of time until you put in that perfect cross and provoke an opposition mistake.

Croatia’s 4-3-3 looked staggering while in possession and Marcelo Brozovic was crucial in that. He was always returning back to cover the duo in front of him but was also always well positioned to help with ball circulation. The result of this type of play is that he covered the most distance on the pitch; Marcelo ran 16.3 km leaving his teammates Rakitic and Modric (both 14.5 km) behind.

(Courtesy of @CharlesOnwuakpa)

Southgate’s England gambled here with their 5-3-2 formation which allowed Vrsaljko and Strinic plenty of time to cross the ball. According to Whoscored Croatia attempted 41 crosses, but only three were successful. However, that was enough for Walker to leave Perisic behind his back to score an equaliser which later sucked Southgate’s men into the abyss.

To be understood, that gamble was a legitimate one because Southgate and his staff counted on their aerial quality in the back three of Maguire, Stones and Walker. Unfortunately, the latter paid the price because of a lack of experience playing in an unnatural position.

Perhaps Southgate could’ve made some changes to his formation to prevent the incoming catastrophe, or pick better and more strategic substitutes, but it makes no sense now to talk about ‘what if’ scenarios. One thing is for sure: if a fairly young England squad with a relatively new manager in Gareth Southgate can build upon their performances in Russia, their future is definitely a bright one.

To confirm the above, take a glance at Twelve’s data for Croatia’s best performers in an attacking sense. Vrsaljko scored 742 points including his key assist which led to Perisic’s goal, Rakitic and Modric were second and third with 605 and 588 respectively while Brozovic, who covered them in a outstanding way, was fourth with only ten points fewer than Barcelona’s deep-lying play-maker.

When I wrote my debut piece for Twelve three weeks ago, I titled it ‘Can Croatia dream of winning the World Cup?’. Now, I think we’re all closer to the answer. With their passion, courage, unbelievable amount of sacrifice and hunger for winning and returning from the dead, I think they absolutely can.

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