Croatia 2-0 Serbia: brave decision to use Kovacic in midfield helps Croatia dominate the game

March 24, 2013

The starting line-ups

Croatia’s two strikers – Ivica Olic and Mario Mandzukic – scored a goal apiece before half-time, to win an incredibly hotly-anticipated derby.

Igor Stimac’s major decision was the surprise selection of 18-year-old Mateo Kovacic for his international debut in the centre of midfield.

Sinisa Mihajlovic used Ivan Radovanovic as a holder, and Alen Stevanovic rather than Dusan Tadic on the left. Marko Scepovic played upfront, although he lasted less than ten minutes.

Why Croatia v Serbia? Well, for both political and football reasons, this was an absolutely huge fixture – especially the meeting between fierce rivals Stimac and Mihajlovic. For the incredible background to the story, read this excellent summary – with that in mind, the main feature of the match was its surprisingly sporting nature.

Croatia midfield dominance

On paper, it seemed Croatia might have encountered a problem in the centre of midfield – the typical 4-4-2 against 4-2-3-1 issue. Instead, they actually ended up dominating that zone. Croatia weren’t, of course, using a pure 4-4-2. This was partly the 4-1-3-2 they’d often used over the past half-decade, a formation particularly helpful to a side possessing multiple playmakers – with one solid holder, the other three have license to roam further forward.

But they didn’t attack in a chaotic way – both Niko Kranjcar and Ivan Rakitic moved inside to the centre of the pitch, helping Croatia to overload the two Serbian defensive midfielders. With Kovacic watching Filip Duricic, the other two Serbian midfielders weren’t entirely sure how to close down Luka Modric, Kranjcar and Rakiatic, which meant Croatia simply passed around them.

The downside of Croatia’s strategy was a lack of natural width, but they’ve become accustomed to taking advantage of Darijo Srna’s galloping runs down the right anyway. On the opposite side, Ivan Strinic was much more conservative – he was dispossessed by Zoran Tosic early on, and rarely ventured forward after that.


The key to this game was how comfortable the Croatian quartet were in possession. Modric advanced forward on the ball from a deep-lying role, skipping past challenges comfortably – but that was expected from one of Europe’s most impressive central midfielders. Kovacic’s performance was even more pivotal considering this was his debut – he evaded Serbian challenges and was always keen to play a forward pass into the attacking trio, rather than knocking a simple ball out wide, helping to keep Croatia’s attacking threat constant.

Amazingly, Kovacic isn’t even a natural holder. As his coach at Inter, Andrea Stramaccioni, says: “Mateo’s an extremely skilful player; he doesn’t give you that protection in front of the backline but he can certainly float between those positions.” At Inter, he wears the number ten shirt.

Or as Zvonimir Boban says, “He can play either on the left or right of central midfield in a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2. He could also become a playmaker in a few years’ time.” This is a ’second function’ midfielder, or maybe a deep-lying playmaker – but surely not a true holder in a 4-1-3-2. Stimac’s decision to play a debutant in an unfamiliar role, and therefore four creative players in a game of this importance, was remarkably brave.

Of course, the narrowness of the four in the middle allowed Croatia to play with two proper strikers without being short in deeper positions – and the strike partnership was crucial in the opening goal.

Serbia approach

Whereas Croatia focused upon their creative potential, Mihajlovic’s team intended to play on the counter-attack. The two holders interchanged positions but remained very deep, with the front four doing the majority of the attacking – with sporadic bursts forward from Aleksandar Kolarov.

Serbia were weakened with the early departure of Scepovic through injury – he was replaced by Filip Dordevic, who didn’t appear comfortable holding the ball up. The one interesting area for the away side was in the left channel – Filip Duricic charged forward on the break from central positions, but naturally drifted to the side where Srna left gaps. Still, Serbia created very little.

Croatia down the right

Croatia’s attacking primarily came down the right, particularly through Srna. However, they were helped by a disastrous display from left-back Kolarov, who gave away possession cheaply for the first goal, then conceded the foul that allowed Srna to whip a free-kick into the box for the second.

Kolarov’s defensive ability is clearly a weakness – he had a poor game against Everton’s Seamus Coleman last weekend – and it’s no coincidence that he made his name at Lazio as a wing-back in a 3-5-2, rather than a full-back in a defensive quartet. It’s difficult to know whether Croatia targeted him or simply played down that flank naturally through Srna, but from an early stage Kolarov was clearly the weak link in the backline.

In addition to Srna’s devilish free-kick for the second goal, his long throws were also a threat in the opening stages – not always from positions in the final third, but often with 30-yard throws into the strikers from close to the halfway line.

You won’t see many duller second halves – Croatia had the game won by the break.


Some expected Stimac to make significant changes when taking over from Slaven Bilic – and he has experimented with a back three – but this 4-1-3-2 formation was very much the Croatia that often impressed under Bilic. Although on a bad day it would look more like a simple 4-4-2, it’s refreshing to see a country commit to a slightly unusual formation in order to accommodate their best players – in a balanced system, of course.

Modric, Kranjcar and Rakitic are all excellent playmakers, while the raft of decent forwards (in addition to the two starters, there is Eduardo, Mladen Petric, Nikica Jelavic and Nikola Kalinic in the squad) means playing two upfront is also useful.

The key when using such an attacking front five, of course, is the identity of the holder. Niko Kovac played that role brilliantly for years – his role was appreciated best once he’d gone. Stimac does have the option of Ognjen Vukojevic or Tomislav Dujmovic, both experienced, sturdy defensive midfielders (see their Euro 2012 side) – but his selection of Kovacic was crucial. That made Croatia extremely comfortable in possession – useful both for creating chances, and then killing the game in the second half. “It’s not easy to play from the start in a game like this,” said Kovacic. “But I cancelled out the pressure thanks to the help from my more experienced teammates.”

Serbia offered extremely little. Their attacking threat is minimal and their defensive play – despite an excellent group of top-class defenders, and a former centre-back as a coach – was atrocious. Mihajlovic must fear for his job.

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