Welcome to the latest in a B/R series where we will take a tactical dive and explore each and every one of the 32 qualified World Cup teams.
Next up is Croatia, a team which required a last-gasp playoff victory over Iceland to qualify for the finals in Brazil next summer.
Croatia finished second in Group A to Belgium by a whopping nine points, planting them squarely in the playoffs against Iceland by a comfortable margin.
They managed a 1-1 draw with the Red Devils in Brussels early on in the campaign, but lost at home and away to Scotland and were held by Serbia—three results they could not recover from.
Goals didn't exactly flow during the Igor Stimac reign and the Croatian FA made the bold move of replacing their manager just before the World Cup playoffs.
Niko Kovac has posted one win and two draws thus far in his short time in charge of the team. We'll be analysing his methods, but there's not too much to go on. As such, there's plenty of room for maneuvering.
Formation and Style
Kovac has switched the formation around a little as he assesses his options, but has stuck with a settled back four of Darijo Srna, Josip Simunic, Vedran Corluka and Danijel Pranjic for all three games.
The full-backs, Srna and Pranjic, are very attack-minded and like to push forward aggressively on their respective flanks. That can leave a temporary platform of three at the back—defensive midfielder dropping in—unless they take it in turns and the formation rotates.
Midfield is their obvious strength, with La Liga's two best central midfielders in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic playing superbly all season long.
Mateo Kovacic played as a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 against Iceland in the playoff's second leg, completing a triumvirate of creative options in the centre.
Modric single-handedly dictates the tempo, opens up space, creates and drives his side forward. Rakitic can provide vertical drive and running, but Modric has shown the ability to play in several different ways and adapt to the opposition.
Up front, Mario Mandzukic performs a complete forward's role, but the players available to him for linking are far from the quality he's accustomed to at Bayern Munich. In particular, the unsettled nature of Croatia's wingers means he's unable to drift wide and link with as much confidence as he would with Thomas Mueller.
It's likely that the Vatreni will utilise a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 at the finals in Brazil. Unlocking the talents of Modric will be Kovac's rightful focus.
There is some flexibility to be found in how Croatia line up in midfield, and that can be a key factor in surprising and flummoxing teams in Brazil.
Kovac is also only three games in, so he's tough to predict at this point.
Modric and Rakitic must play in central midfield to make best use of the nation's two best players, and Kovacic can be deployed as a No. 10 in central midfield or on the wing.
Playing all three in a 4-3-3 could lead to them being overrun and outmuscled in deeper areas, so to make a 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 work, Kovacic will likely be pushed out wide.
Srna is still a premium full-back in world football and can be a driving force on the right.
Croatia have three clear weaknesses running through their squad.
The first is the complete and utter lack of a true defensive, holding midfielder with the requisite skill set to drop in and cover gaps. It's a similar issue to Portugal pre-Fernando's naturalisation and William Carvalho's rise to power—and it creates imbalances all over the pitch.
If Srna and Pranjic both steam forward, the Vatreni cannot rely on anyone to effectively anchor the base of the formation.
Milan Badelj is an odd player who doesn't fit the role and Ognjen Vukojevic is a limited option. Josip Radosevic isn't getting enough playing time at Napoli for now, while Mate Males is the epitome of inexperience.
Secondly, the wing situation looks pretty dire leading up to the finals, with the tournament seemingly coming a little too soon for Fiorentina's inexperienced Ante Rebic.
Kovac negotiated the playoffs vs. Iceland with stalwart Ivica Olic from the left and the underperforming Ivan Perisic on the right—hardly the ideal duo to start against Brazil, but what else is there?
Lastly, there's a real lack of depth in most areas. Left-back is a big concern even with Pranjic in position and replacing Mandzukic for his one-game ban won't be easy either.
Nikica Jelavic got a strong run-out in the nation's latest friendly against Switzerland but may not start against Brazil. Simunic is banned for a supposed neo-nazi chant and Dejan Lovren will step in.
If Kovac can switch his setup on a game-by-game basis to protect the defensive line—either with high pressing or a true holder—and simultaneously create an environment for Modric to dictate in, they can surprise a few teams.
It's a tough group with Mexico and Cameroon, but the former are also adapting to a new coach and the latter look pretty weak in comparison.
Brazil in the opener, without Mandzukic, is a step too far. The other two games, though, are eminently winnable and the Croatian football federation can lay down some strong groundwork for the 2018 edition with some precocious young talents coming through.
Prediction: Round of 16 (loss to Spain)
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