Italy 1-1 Croatia: Pirlo dictates first half, Croatia dominate the second after half-time switch
Croatia initially had problems with Italy’s 3-5-2, but a clever half-time switch by Slaven Bilic got them back into the game.
Cesare Prandelli kept the same formation and starting XI, so Mario Balotelli remained upfront despite Antonio Di Natale’s impact as a substitute in the 1-1 draw against Spain.
Bilic rewarded the eleven players that played in the 3-1 win over Ireland with a second start.
A game of two halves. In the first, Italy recorded 11 shots compared to Croatia’s three. In the second, Croatia ‘won’ this statistic 7-3, summing up the change in the balance of play.
This was role reversal – Italy had the least possession of any of the 16 sides in the opening round of games. That was mainly because they were up against Spain, of course, but it was still a completely different situation to see them taking the game to the opposition early on here. Croatia, on the other hand, were the dominant force against Ireland – but this time sat back and let Italy come onto them.
Italy were again a standard 3-5-2, but Croatia’s formation was different from against Ireland. Luka Modric sat much deeper, Ivan Rakitic moved inside from the right flank even more and Darijo Srna pushed higher up on the right with Ognjen Vukojevic looking to cover for him. Higher up, Mario Mandzukic started the game by dropping onto Andrea Pirlo when out of possession.
So where were the free players? Italy broadly had a 3 v 2 situation at the back when Mandzukic was high up the pitch, but at the other end, Croatia had no spare man. Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano against spent the game working the channels, particularly towards the left, as Srna moved higher up the pitch than Ivan Strinic.
In theory, Croatia’s advantage was on the flanks, where they should have had 2 v 1 situations. But they rarely took advantage of this, with Strinic staying in position at left-back and Ivan Perisic cutting inside down the left. On the right, Rakitic moved into the middle so quickly that it was difficult to overload Emanuele Giaccherini. Interestingly, Rakitic rarely tracked Giaccherini back, leaving him to Srna.
But the key to the first half was Pirlo, and Italy’s dominance in midfield. In the first few minutes, Mandzukic did a good job, dropping deep onto Pirlo and forcing him to play sideways passes – they left Italy 3 v 1 at the back, and forced the two outside centre-backs, particularly Giorgio Chiellini, to step forward and play passes into the midfield. The game was fairly even.
But Mandzukic, for some reason, stopped tracking Pirlo. This may have been pure laziness, and he stayed higher up the pitch next to Italy’s centre-backs. This didn’t help Croatia at all – it didn’t even eliminate Italy’s spare man, they were still 3 v 2 – though maybe it stopped the advance of Chiellini.
However, it meant Pirlo became free. And he was the most important player in the first half, enjoying time on the ball and looking to hit good long diagonals towards Balotelli, who clearly fancied his chances up against Vedran Corluka. It’s also worth asking what Rakitic’s defensive task was – he wasn’t doing much to stop Giaccherini, and could have been asked to help shut down Pirlo. Pirlo’s opening goal came from a free-kick rather than from open play, but he was the appropriate goalscorer.
Bilic didn’t make any substitutions at half-time, but he did completely change the shape of his side. Croatia were now a 4-2-3-1 – Rakitic came into a deep midfield position with Vukojevic, with Modric moving forward to a number ten position. Mandzukic was moved away from Pirlo, and became a right-winger / second striker.
The most important development in all this was Modric up against Pirlo. Italy’s creative fulcrum was now closed down quickly and no longer had such an influence on the game. He couldn’t hit those diagonals into the channels, and it also meant he wasn’t getting time on the ball and allowing Italy to push higher up the pitch – that’s particularly important with wing-backs – often Italy only had two players in attacking positions, whereas in the first half they were getting plenty of players forward.
Croatia were now in charge of the game, pushing Italy back into their own half. Now, the 2 v 1s down the flanks became much clearer, particularly with Strinic moving higher up on the left (although there was no real reason he didn’t attack more in the first half). Italy’s wing-backs became full-backs, and Croatia started putting more crosses into the box, putting Italy under constant pressure.
Danijel Pranjic came on for Perisic down the left, but he and Vukojevic had briefly switched positions for the goal. Still, Vukojevic made a good run along the flank to create a 2 v 1 versus Maggio, and Strinic had plenty of time and space to cross for Mandzukic at the far post for the equaliser.
Of course, Italy should have been able to cope with crosses – they still had 3 v 2 at the back when Mandzukic arrived from the right wing into the box, and it was a simple misjudgement by Chiellini that was crucial for Croatia’s equaliser.
Like in the Spain game, Prandelli brought on Sebastian Giovinco and Di Natale upfront to offer a different attacking threat, while Bilic replaced Nikica Jelavic with Eduardo – but a third goal wasn’t forthcoming, and a draw was a fair result.
Croatia’s starting shape would have worked if Mandzukic had been stricter with his defensive job on Pirlo, or if Rakitic moved into the centre permanently to help defend in that zone. But Pirlo was allowed the freedom of the midfield, a suicidal strategy. Manduzkic staying high up meant Italy were effectively playing against a 4-4-2, and were comfortable with a spare man at the back.
Croatia were better when they switched to a system with only one forward. Italy now had a surplus at the back and were matched in midfield, and Croatia’s improved use of the flanks highlighted Italy’s wing-backs’ inability to cope with two direct opponents at once.