Croatia must stop the unstoppable

Even if football is not coming home, the show must go on. Croatia continues to dream as they face France in Sunday’s final of the World Cup. Maybe not in football terms, but in historic or political ones this will be the battle of David vs. Goliath.

Croatia, a nation that became relatively newly independent in 1991 with only four million people and has only got past the group stage twice, will face giant France which has more than 60 million people and significantly richer football history.

It is interesting that France stood in the way of Croatia in the 1998 semi-final and wound up winning its first World Cup title on home soil that year. France has been to three finals over the last six World Cups and now again stands in the way of Croatia in their pursuit of winning an elusive first World Cup title.

We Croats must be honest and say this is the ‘underdog against a favourite’ type of game and all signs point to France coming out on top. Deschamps’s side is well rested, it had already been tested in the knockout stage and presents the most powerful defence of the whole tournament.

On the other hand, Croatia somehow scraped through three tough rounds of knockout football, going the full 120 minutes in every one and needing penalties to settle two. They’ve had to come from behind in all three of these games and have had to dig deep for those wins using all 22 players at their disposal (after Nikola Kalinic was sent home following their opening game).

There must be a lot of tired legs in Zlatko Dalic’s team, as well as injuries. Five first team players skipped the last training session with Ivan Perisic as the one who is the most questionable to start in the final. But, as it has been in the tournament so far, Croatia’s medical staff will do their magic and no major changes are expected.

The latest odds and betting lines have France as a massive favourite to come out on top, but like always, this is the final game and everything is possible.

I am going to discuss a few tactical solutions which would help Croatia to claim their first World Cup, aside from the more obvious midfield battle between Pogba-Kante and Modric-Rakitic which Gustavo Fogaca splendidly described in his preview to the final match.

Croatia showed two different playing styles in Russia. In the quarter-final against the host, Croatia opted for a 4-2-3-1 where Andrej Kramaric played behind Mario Mandzukic, with a midfield double pivot of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric.

It was a special occasion in which Dalic wanted to attack Russia with an additional player in attack. In other games though, his side have looked more like a 4-3-3 where Kramaric was substituted for an extra midfield man in Marcelo Brozovic, whose presence added greater defensive solidity and cover for Rakitic and Modric to go forward more.

Improvements in the pressing against England

Apart from the special semi-final win against England in extra time, Croatia showed much improvement in their aggressive high-pressing plan. They pushed men forward into something like a 4-1-5 formation, and pressed England high up the pitch which stopped Southgate’s side from building from the back.

As five men were pressing high, a big gap was left in the middle of the pitch where Pickford or his defenders were often finding Harry Kane who dropped deep. The reason for that gap was Croatia’s backline stayed deep to prevent Raheem Sterling making runs in behind.

This approach worked against England, in part because Kane’s not the best hold-up player in the world and England’s inability to win second balls meant they were unable to hit Croatia on transitions. Now, the key will be in Dalic’s decision what style to pick against France. Ideally, it would be possession-based football like they played against England but with one major change in defence.

Counter-attacking football is key

Olivier Giroud is yet to score in Russia but has become indispensable for Deschamps’s side. It’s due to his excellent hold-up and link-up play which he showed brilliantly in his short spell at Chelsea under Antonio Conte. This is exactly why Croatia can’t afford to give up a big gap of space in the middle of the pitch. Giroud will use that space and launch Griezmann and Mbappe upfront and Croatia could suffer with five men high up the pitch.

To eliminate that big space, Croatia could go with a high defensive line and press as a team, but this decision is a bit of a gamble for a World Cup final because Lovren and Vida aren’t the fastest defenders in the world and nor can they create a quality offside trap.

Instead of that, Croatia could go with a more defensive approach and create a giant five men wall in midfield. Similar to a style they adopted against Argentina but with the difference that they won’t dominate midfield like against Sampaoli’s side which attacked with five men.

But this approach can neutralize France’s biggest strength which is counter-attacking football. Winning the ball deep and then trying to make a quick break using Perisic and Rebic on both wings could prove to be Croatia’s main weapon in the final.

Stop the unstoppable

Kylian Mbappé is having an amazing tournament and will be the biggest threat for Croatia in the final. It is very difficult to defend against this type of a player. If you leave him alone then he will use his pace with excellent dribbling to run past defenders and if you mark him tight, then he will create space for his teammates.

We could see this in the Uruguay and Belgium matches when they decided to man-mark PSG’s young star. He often drew his markers outside of their positions and Giroud and Griezmann are elite players who exploited it. This means a more zonal marking approach could be the right choice for Croatia, as they used to stop Messi in the group stage.

It will be important for fullback Ivan Strinic not to be drawn out of the position and for the midfield trio of Modric-Rakitic-Brozovic to exchange in marking him. Also, with a deeper backline, Croatia can take the space from Kylian which he likes to attack the most.

This may also be a problem for Croatia though because Strinic is their weakest link. Newly promoted AC Milan’s left-back scored the least number of points (5,146) of all defenders in his team. It will be necessary for Croatia to defend collectively against France on that side.

At the same time, Mbappé’s runs and Benjamin Pavard’s positioning further up the pitch could prove decisive.

Croatia can use Rebic’s or Perisic’s ability to drift inside and Mandzukic’s all-around quality to expose France on their right side whenever the aforementioned two push forward and leave the space behind. Perisic was under the radar throughout the whole tournament but he finally broke through by scoring the equaliser against the Three Lions in the semi-final.

As shown on the first chart in the preview, Internazionale’s inside forward is very dangerous when cutting inside and making behind runs against the opposing defenders. Same goes for Ante Rebic, altough he is key on the right-hand side in creating space for constant runs and crosses from Sime Vrsaljko.