On the surface of things, Croatia’s double playmaker midfield looks very promising. But underneath lies a true conundrum—and how manager Niko Kovac attempts to solve it is very likely to be crucial for the nation’s chances at the World Cup.
Both Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic are among the best central midfielders in this season’s La Liga, a competition known for producing top class players for that position. Very few teams in the world can boast a pairing of such quality: together, they make for a terrifying creative axis and little wonder that Spanish radio station COPE (via football-espana.net) reported of Madrid’s interest to unite them at the Bernabeu from next season.
What’s more, Modric and Rakitic are very different types of players and complementary to each other.
With 12 goals and 11 assists to his name (14 and 19 across all competitions), Ivan Rakitic is one of only four players in the league with double figures in both categories—the other three are Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale and Carlos Vela. According to WhoScored.com, with 7.74 he’s tied with Bale for the third best player in the league. Only Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have higher grades.
Marca recently called him the "Todocampista" (article in Spanish), meaning Rakitic can play in any midfield role: as long as he’s fielded in the middle of the park, it doesn’t make too much difference to him whether his position is defensive, central or attacking midfielder. He can contribute almost equally well from any of them. His biggest strengths are very accurate crosses (best in the league), key passes (second only to Angel di Maria), through balls, a great shot from distance and taking set pieces.
Luka Modric is another kind of playmaker—not nearly as direct, with his contribution less evident in conventional statistics. He only has one goal and six assists on his record, but with an average pass success of 89.5 percent and 6.4 accurate long balls per game, he is someone who controls and changes the tempo and can be trusted to keep the ball when given to him.
He’s very rational in distribution and if you’ve ever seen a Croatia game, you would have noticed him completely bossing the midfield and acting as the brains of the operation even more so than in Madrid.
It’s only natural that you’d want to build a team around your flagship duo—especially if you’re Croatia, a country whose population is just over four million, and you don’t have a very large pool of quality players to choose from.
Incredibly, former national team manager Igor Stimac failed to recognize what the team’s biggest strength was. During the World Cup qualifiers, he kept experimenting with formations and mainly played Rakitic wide—even though the player did cut inside at every opportunity, his impact there had been limited.
Modric, on the other hand, had been given too large a workload: Playing without a holding midfielder alongside him, he was expected to lead the charge both defensively and in an attacking sense.
He was criticized for not taking enough "initiative", but Croatia were usually outnumbered in midfield and they didn’t have true, quality wingers (something that has remained arguably their biggest problem), so Modric often found himself isolated and lacking in passing options.
Paradoxically, the team with so much creative power struggled to create and they only scored 12 goals in 10 qualifying group matches—these mostly came after set pieces, counter-attacks and grave defensive errors by opposition players. In the end, the enormously unpopular manager Stimac was sacked and the former iconic team captain Niko Kovac installed in his place just before the playoffs.
It was only then that the idea of the double-playmaker midfield really came to life.
Right from the start of his tenure, Kovac stated his firm intention to play 4-2-3-1, transforming into 4-1-4-1. He remained very adamant about it but soon new questions arose about the usage of Modric and Rakitic within the system.
While both are defensively sound and valuable, they are primarily playmakers and not ball-winners. You don’t want to suffocate their creativity with too much defensive onus playing them as the "2" in 4-2-3-1.
Against Iceland in the playoffs, Kovac fielded Modric and Rakitic together with Mateo Kovacic, the young Inter Milan midfielder, prompting many journalists in Croatia to call the three their new "magic triangle" reminiscent of the 1998 generation that featured three playmakers in Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Aljosa Asanovic.
But that original triangle rarely played together. Much more often than Croatians care to remember, the team that won the third place in the 1998 World Cup had been reinforced in midfield with a defensive holder; also, in Slaven Bilic, Stimac and Zvonimir Soldo, they had defenders who were quite comfortable on the ball and hadn’t shied away from stepping out of the back line to help the creative-types win the ball.
Nowadays, the Croatia defence—the ex-Spurs player Vedran Corluka, now at Lokomotiv Moscow, and Southampton’s Dejan Lovren are expected to be the centre-back pairing—is very slow and not very confident. That’s just one more reason to have a defensive midfielder ahead of them—and none of the new "magic triangle" can provide the much-needed physical presence in the area. And neither can HSV’s Milan Badelj, another midfielder who is more technical than physical.
The 20-year-old Josip Radosevic (Napoli) could be perfect for the role in a few years' time, but he has hardly ever featured for his club this season and Kovac is reluctant to call him up. The same goes for Roma’s Tin Jedvaj, 18, who is actually a centre-back but also fully capable of playing as a holder. These two made big transfers very early in their careers and are now struggling to get a chance.
Fans had hoped to secure Bordeaux’s defensive midfielder Gregory Sertic, but FIFA stalled the paperwork for months and the French-born player of Croatian ancestry won’t be eligible for Kovac’s selection in time for the World Cup.
Then there are Mate Males (Rijeka) and Arijan Ademi (Dinamo Zagreb) from the domestic league—decent, though perhaps too one-dimensional players who haven’t been truly tested on the biggest stage and their quality remains in question. There’s a realistic danger that they would be too impressed by the occasion.
That only leaves Ognjen Vukojevic. The arguably underrated 30-year-old Dynamo Kiev’s anchorman offered good screening protection to the defence and a "safety net" for Modric at the 2012 Euros, but he became much less regular in the team later on.
Due to a yellow card suspension, he wasn’t even called up for Croatia’s playoff matches with Iceland and he only got three minutes on the pitch in a friendly against Switzerland last month. He may be in decline, but he is the only tried and tested option, capped 54 times over the years.
It seems very unlikely that Kovac would field a team without a "true" holder at the World Cup, especially in the opening game against Brazil, even if that means breaking up the new "magic triangle" (Kovacic’s best position might be wide, anyway). But who exactly will play alongside Modric and Rakitic—or behind them in a 4-1-4-1—is just about anyone’s guess for now.
Croatia’s manager was a defensive midfielder himself—and a good one at that—in his not-so-distant playing days. Hopefully he can make the right call and draw maximum benefit from his creative axis.