Spain 1-0 Croatia: Navas snatches late winner
Spain played an extremely cautious game, but won after Croatia pushed forward.
Vicente Del Bosque kept the same starting XI, meaning Fernando Torres again spearheaded the attack.
Slaven Bilic made various changes, effectively using a version of the 4-2-3-1 system he finished the Italy game with. Domagoj Vida started at right-back, pushing Darijo Srna forward to the right of midfield. Danijel Pranjic started on the left, with Luka Modric as the number ten. Nikica Jelavic and Ivan Perisic were only substitutes.
Spain were particularly unimpressive despite their eventual win, predictably dominating possession but creating few chances.
The interesting part of this game was Croatia’s shape. Bilic adapted his side significantly, changing Croatia’s style of play to suit the challenge of Spain. Whereas they’d previously played with one solid holding midfielder in position at all times, here Ivan Rakitic played deep alongside Ognjen Vukojevic and occupied the space in front of the back four.
Modric played higher up, not looking to get space between the lines, but instead dropping in and helping battle in midfield, generally getting goalside of Sergio Busquets. On the flanks, while Srna and Jordi Alba spent the game tracking each other up and down the line, on the other side Pranjic came inside and effectively was another central midfielder at times, with Alvaro Arbeloa allowed the entire right wing to himself – always in space, but not considered a real threat.
It’s difficult to say how much the formation contributed to it, as Spain have been slow, predictable and unimaginative with their use of the ball in all three first halves in this tournament, but Croatia defended very well. They stayed compact, they didn’t get dragged around and they always had numbers in midfield, with Modric and Pranjic helping the two holders.
Spain had the same old problems – a slow tempo, no width, and not enough forward runs from midfield. The exception, as against Italy, was Andres Iniesta, who was direct on the ball and had a good chance when he stormed into the box to get a pass from David Silva. Elsewhere, Spain were simply too horizontal – always looking for the sideways ball, never getting around the Croatian defensive unit, with Arbeloa too slow and Alba being tracked.
Interestingly, with Croatia packing the midfield zone and bringing Mandzukic back to remain compact, both Spanish centre-backs stepped forward in the first half, and had long-range shots.
By virtue of Spain having the full-backs so high up the pitch, Croatia sometimes threatened on the counter. Sergio Ramos made rash decisions when moving out to the left flank to cover for Alba (something he also did against Italy).
Croatia immediately became more fluid after half-time, within the same system. The two holders were given more freedom – Rakitic is the more natural attacking player, but Vukojevic also moved forward a couple of times.
Modric really came into the game in the second half. He’s a perfect player for playing against Spain, as he has the composure to look up and pick a pass, helping his side keep possession, but also trickery to get past Spain’s initial press. He led the charge, and his superb outside-of-the-foot cross for Rakitic should have produced the game’s opening goal.
Croatia had to go for the win, so moved roughly back to their 4-4-1-1 system, or 4-1-3-2 with the ball. Pranjic and Vida were withdrawn, with Srna dropping to right-back and storming forward on the overlap. Rakitic went to the right of midfield, Modric dropped deeper into the centre, while Perisic came on down the left, and Mandzukic was now just behind Jelavic upfront.
Croatia looked more threatening with two strikers, although they struggled to win the ball from Spain and could have been much more energetic with their closing down. Modric, in a deeper position, continued to drive his side forward.
Del Bosque went for two more direct players, with Navas on – in place of Torres, with Silva briefly becoming a false nine – and then Fabregas introduced upfront in place of Silva, so an Iniesta-Fabregas-Navas frontline.
The key change was Navas – he stretched the play, ran with the ball, made Spain much more varied in possession and made it difficult for Croatia to crowd out Spanish attacks in the centre of the pitch. Navas also stopped Ivan Strinic getting forward, which was important considering the way Croatia dominated the left late on against Italy.
Were it not for the situation in the group, this probably would have meandered to a 0-0, but Bilic really tried to force the crucial goal, bringing on Eduardo for Vukojevic, with the Brazilian-born striker seemingly playing down the right flank. This was probably a change too far, and while you can’t blame Bilic for trying it, the third substitution didn’t really help Croatia in any way. It meant Modric had to cover a large space in front of the back four, and was too far from goal.
Spain’s goal came from their three most dangerous attacking players of the game – Fabregas, Iniesta and Navas. Fabregas’ chip over the top of the defence was superb, but it was obvious how much space he had to work in – the space Vukojevic would have been covering.
A bit of a ‘false’ match – Croatia needed the win more than Spain (because of slightly unfortunate circumstances – who had battered Ireland by more) and had to push forward for the win. Instead, they got caught out on the counter-attack, but they’d been equally as impressive as Spain for the majority of the game.
Croatia can be pleased with their performance at this tournament – a comfortable victory over Ireland, a spirited fightback against Italy courtesy of a clever change from Bilic at half-time, then a commendable display against the World Champions. Bilic leaves on a disappointing note, but hopefully having restored some pride after a brief problematic period a couple of years ago.
For Spain? Nothing new. They’re still not scoring as many goals as they should, nor creating as many chances as they should. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge them upon this game, when a 0-0 would have suited them, but continued false domination is a risky game, and del Bosque simply isn’t making the most of his considerable resources.
That said, Spain generally improve after half-time, and their constant possession play is unquestionably tiring for the opposition, who struggle to play against them for 90 minutes. Still, you can’t help wanting more from such a ludicrously talented squad.