Euro 2012 preview: Croatia
Of the 16 teams in this competition, Croatia are one of the hardest to define. They seem trapped between a few different ways of playing, and don’t have a specific footballing identity
They are clearly not as good as the excellent side of 2008, despite retaining a few of the key players, and a hint of the same formation and style. The loss of Niko Kovac, the excellent holding midfielder, has never really been compensated for, and while their current defensive midfielder Tomislav Dujmovic is hard-working, he lacks the positional intelligence of Kovac.
When that is combined with a centre-back duo that badly lacks pace, Croatia are forced into a much more conservative style than four years ago. Slaven Bilic’s reputation has fallen sharply in that time, but he still has a chance to go out on a high before joining Lokomotiv.
At their best, Croatia played an attack-minded 4-1-3-2. There’s still the vague hangover from that formation, but it’s more of a boxy 4-4-2 for longer periods. Luka Modric, Croatia’s star man, was effectively a number ten in 2008 but after a few years playing as a deep-lying playmaker for Tottenham, now operates broadly in his club position as part of a midfield duo, and spends a lot of time drifting around trying to pick up the ball close to the centre circle.
Modric is exhausted after a long season at Spurs (where compatriot Vedran Corluka suggested a lack of squad rotation was the reason for Spurs’ sharp decline in the final months). He’s been put on a special training programme in order for him to regain full fitness, but is unlikely to be 100% fit.
That’s a big blow, because much of the creative burden falls upon him. Elsewhere in midfield, the left-sided midfield position now seems likely to go to Dortmund’s Ivan Perisic, an attack-minded winger, although it’s also possible that Ivan Rakitic could play there. The problem when Rakitic and Modric play together, however, is that they tend to operate in roughly the same zone and make Croatia too narrow on the left.
On the opposite side is Darijo Srna, formerly a rampaging right-back but now pushed forward into midfield. He plays an interesting role – rather than bombing forward down the flank, he is less explosive with his movement, and comes deep to collect the ball. His defensive awareness helps Dujmovic in front of the back four as he moves narrow without the ball, and this balance allows Croatia to be more attack-minded on the left.
Slow, narrow defence
What of the defence these players are protecting? Dejan Lovren might not have been selected for the first XI, but his injury was a blow. The first-choice duo is likely to be Josip Simunic, who at 34 is very slow on the turn, and Gordon Schildenfeld, who isn’t much quicker. They’re protected by both the midfield and by the full-backs, who play very narrow.
Domagoj Vida is basically a centre-back shoved out wide and offers little on the ball, and on the other flank Vedran Corluka offers roughly the same thing, though both Ivan Strinic and Danijel Pranjic could play there and offer much more going forward, with Corluka moving into the centre and offering slightly more mobility. Stipe Pletikosa is a good goalkeeper and a firm first-choice.
At the other end of the pitch, Croatia are weakened by the absence of Ivica Olic through injury. Although he had a poor season, he is an extremely energetic player who helped close down high up the pitch, and constantly made runs into the channels. It means Bilic will now play Everton’s Nikica Jelavic as the primary striker – he tends to hang back on the opposite side of the pitch to where the ball is, and then storm towards the near post for a one-touch finish. He’ll be supported by Mario Mandzukic, who is more mobile and energetic, and can drop into midfield without the ball if needed, to mark the opposition holding player.
From the bench, Nikola Kalinic is Jelavic’s understudy, while Eduardo may also feature – his record of 22 goals in 45 international appearances is superb and he remains a good poacher.
Expect Croatia to sit deep and then break quickly – sometimes their counter-attacks can be extremely swift and effective, like in their superb 3-0 play-off win at Turkey. They take advantage of their two strikers staying high up the pitch, and the lack of an opposition spare man at the back (assuming they’re playing against a four-man defence) does have its advantages. The disadvantage is that they don’t compete well in midfield, and despite the guile of Modric, they’re often very slow in possession and keep the ball for long periods without looking to penetrate the opposition defence.
There are also concerns about the attacking-to-defensive transition – Croatia can be slow to get back into shape. Set-pieces are also another area of weakness, judging by the crucial 2-0 loss at Greece in qualification, and that could be a significant factor against Ireland.
Croatia aren’t a bad side, but it’s difficult to see how they’ll pull off a shock at this competition. They don’t appear to excel at anything in particular, and their star man Modric seems exhausted and won’t be able to carry the side by himself. Quick forwards should enjoy playing against Croatia, although their counter-attack remains a threat.
Coach – Slaven Bilic
Formation – 4-4-2
Key player – Luka Modric
Strength – as always, a deep squad for a country of its size
Weakness – a lack of pace at the back
Key tactical question – will Bilic be more proactive against Ireland? That seems like a game Croatia must win
Key coach quote – “Modric is our main player”
Betfair odds – 65.0 (64/1)
Recommended bet – Croatia to finish bottom of Group C at 3.45
Euro 2012 preview: Croatia