In the words of Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic, “This was not a beautiful game, it was a fight, a battle for the semi-final. We were lucky.”
And he was right. At this late stage, luck can be a game changer but Croatia’s quarterfinal win against Russia was characterised by a safety-first approach which is hardly befitting the talent they have at their disposal.
Russia’s approach has been clear — they sit back, they look to break at speed and they can be very good from set pieces. That much Croatia knew and yet, for most of the game, Luka Modric was played in a withdrawn position.
From there, he tried to orchestrate things. But because he was playing so often in front of the defenders, he always had to look for the magical pass and given how Russia were set up, that was not going to be easy.
At his best Modric can run the team with an energy that seems inexhaustible. There is little he cannot do — his close control, the ability to hold the ball, pass into space and link up with strikers makes him the man to mark. But more importantly, when in the mood… he can set the rhythm of the game.
It can be high tempo if he chooses it or he can slow it down into a more arresting rhythm. Against Russia, a lot of the passes went through him. He was involved but because he was playing so deep — he wasn’t able to deliver a decisive pass.
The statistics tell the story of how passive Croatia were. Despite having much greater ball possession (62% to 38%), the Croats were let down by their pass accuracy (just 82%) but they also had only three shots on target — Russia had 7.
“Another drama for us. We didn’t play well in the first half, we didn’t control the game as we wanted,” said Modric. “From the start of the second half we played much better, but unfortunately we couldn’t finish the game.”
Modric spent only 15% of his time in the attacking third. That was less than Vrsaljko (19%), Perisic (37%), Rakitic (17%), Kramaric (37%), Mandzukic (38%) and Rebic (36%). But Dalic should really be looking to set him free because against England, this won’t be enough.
To have your most creative player away from the action cannot be a good idea. The chart above shows how often the Croatians were doing nothing with the ball. It spent too much time in the midfield.
Earlier in the tournament, Dalic had promised uncompromising attacking football by Croatia.
“We have our own style,” the manager had said. “We are not going to give up on tactical, attacking football.”
But against Russia, they seemed happy to play a passive role. The passing wasn’t crisp and fast and the game lacked the pace needed to achieve a breakthrough. That is where Modric could have definitely helped.
“Russia played a great match against us. They broke the rhythm, they scored two goals and played as they should,” said Dejan Lovren. “But we showed the mental strength again and that’s a big thing for our team. We deserved to go through. It will be a great encounter [with England]. We have four days to rest and prepare for the game.”
And against England, Croatia will need to show the true power of their midfield. England are quicker, they have had the better… more comfortable route to the semi-final. But one area that they should not be able to dominate Croatia should be the midfield.
Dalic should look to not just keep the ball but also send it forward. The only way to beat England will be to not just say positive things but also do them on the field. Belgium showed them the way by playing Kevin de Bruyne in a more attacking position and it paid dividends against Brazil.
Penalty shootouts are an extremely risky way to advance and Croatia have already gone through twice in two matches. In takes a physical and mental toll on the team and if they can, they must avoid it. Modric must do more but so must Mandzukic, Perisic and Rebic. They are now too close to the title to worry about losing.
Just before the tournament began, Modric had said how ‘it is only right that there are great expectations of the team.’ And now perhaps it is time to step up and wrest what is their due from the opposition.
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