Croatia 3-1 Ireland: Ireland invite pressure, but deal with it poorly
Croatia recorded a comfortable victory over Ireland and go top of Group C.
Slaven Bilic used Vedran Corluka in the centre of defence and played Darijo Srna in his traditional position of right-back in order to play Ivan Rakitic on the right of midfield, and used Ognjen Vukojevic as his holding midfielder.
Giovanni Trapattoni announced his XI days ago, and they started as expected (with 1-11 on their backs).
Set-pieces played a large part here, but Croatia were the better side – more inventive with their passing, cleverer with their movement, more ruthless in the penalty box.
Ireland played the usual 4-4-1-1, with Robbie Keane dropping off Kevin Doyle upfront, and the wide players forming a deep second bank of four ahead of the defence.
Croatia’s system could be interpreted as something similar, but as they dominated possession of the ball and pushed men forward, it was more like the old 4-1-3-2 they used at the last European Championships. Vukojevic sat very deep in front of the defence, with the other three midfielders attacking high up the pitch. Mario Mandzukic drops off Nikica Jelavic when Croatia are out of possession – but for the majority of the game they had the ball and were in the Irish half, so Mandzukic was a second striker and an outright goalscoring threat.
Srna – Rakitic
Srna has played as a winger for Croatia over the past year, but it was good to see him at home in his right-back position here – not high up against a full-back and getting the ball with his back to goal, but instead pushing on down the flank, able to see the whole pitch and time his runs well, and attack the space Ireland allowed Croatia on the flanks. He benefited from Rakitic moving into the centre of the pitch, which created gaps for him on the overlap.
Croatia’s most frequent passing combination was Rakitic to Srna (15), showing their constant route of attack. Srna’s crosses weren’t always accurate, but he was stretching the Irish defence and helping build pressure.
On the other flank, Ivan Perisic stayed wider, so Ivan Strinic was more cautious than Srna with forward movements. Perisic later crossed for the third Croatia goal.
Ireland’s basic problem was defensive mistakes, which completely undermined their gameplan. Trapattoni’s strategy is based around a solid back four, but the first two Croatian goals were incredibly soft, and both came following set-pieces, the area of the game Ireland were expected to specialise in (and the area Croatia were supposedly weak in). Granted, Sean St Ledger’s equaliser also came from a set-piece, but put simply, Ireland conceded more than they scored from set-plays…and they were never going to dominate Croatia in open play.
To what extent were the mistakes purely individual errors, and to what extent did Ireland’s strategy lead to them? To start, it must be said that Ireland were playing a risky game by defending so deep against Jelavic and Mandzukic. Against more technical sides, Ireland’s defensive positioning would have been fine, but Croatia were entirely happy to get wide and centre the ball – their side possesses both good crossers, and good aerial strikers. Ireland aren’t accustomed to keeping a high defensive line, but moving 5-10 yards further up the pitch would have been preferable.
Modric’s influence could be seen in two very different ways. You can make the case that he dominated the game (which can be backed up with statistics: he completed 58 passes, 19 more than the next highest player, Srna), and it’s certainly true that his intelligent passing and constant probing in the midfield zone steadily built the pressure that Ireland eventually crumbled under.
But it would have been difficult to stop him. Dropping Keane onto him wasn’t an option, as Modric played too high up the pitch. Moving one of the midfielders higher onto him would have left space in front of the defence, which the other central midfielder probably wouldn’t have been able to cover on his own, with Mandzukic dropping deep and Rakitic moving inside from the flank.
Modric’s importance was largely dependent upon Ireland’s penalty box defending. Because they made those mistakes, they looked stupid for giving Modric time on the ball. Had they defended like they did throughout qualification, it would have seemed intelligent that they stood off Modric and focused on preventing the next pass – after all, Modric is an orchestrator rather than a provider, and rarely provides the assist. Like Xavi Hernandez, he can be impossible to nullify, and you have to accept he’ll dominate and focus on keeping things tight in deeper positions. And, in fairness, when Ireland went 1-0 down they did start to close down Modric, with Andrews moving higher up the pitch to pressure him.
Ireland were disappointing with the ball – they were always going to play basic football, but their passing here was even more long and hopeful than usual, with the Croatian front two working hard without the ball, forcing the defenders into hurried clearances downfield. The passing performances of Richard Dunne and Stephen Ward were particularly ugly.
Doyle won some free-kicks and worked the channels well, Keane buzzed around but saw little of the ball. Damien Duff moved infield but Vukojevic was often in his way, while McGeady was invisible in open play, completely dominated by the superb Srna.
The second half mirrored the first. Ireland should have played higher up the pitch, but didn’t. And like in the opening period, they conceded after three minutes – this time, as a direct result of inviting a cross and defending deep.
That goal came after 48 minutes, but seemed to seal the game. Croatia’s ball retention after that was excellent, and while Trapattoni’s approach was logical considering the players he had available and the situation he faced, we always knew Ireland had no plan B, and were highly unlikely to fight back from a losing position. Three strikers came on – Jon Walters, Simon Cox and Shane Long – but Ireland played the same system and there was no James McClean to bring a spark of excitement on the flanks. Ireland relied on set-pieces for a couple of half-chances.
Bilic only made one significant change. Niko Kranjcar replaced Jelavic and played much deeper, helping Croatia retain the ball.
Predictably, this was nowhere near as interesting as the other Group C encounter tonight. A game based around defensive mistakes and set-pieces was perhaps what Ireland were hoping for – but Croatia put far more pressure upon the Ireland defence than vice-versa, and deserved their victory.
Bilic and Croatia played this one well – they knew they were up against an organised, defensive side, and combined clever movement and intelligent passing with some simple, brutal strength in the penalty box. Modric spread the play to the flanks, Rakitic created space for Srna, Srna stretched the play. The understanding and cohesion of the side was good, and although Croatia will have tougher tests than this, they’ve put themselves in a strong position in a tough group.
Croatia 3-1 Ireland: Ireland invite pressure, but deal with it poorly