Will Croatia Play Without a 'True' Holder at the World Cup?

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Will Croatia Play Without a 'True' Holder at the World Cup?
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Croatia's provisional squad list for the World Cup tells a story—but only if you know what to look for.

Those who are really familiar with manager Niko Kovac's tactical leanings and the characteristics of the players in question will, however, notice one important detail: There’s only one "true" holding midfielder on that list, as reported by BBC Sport.

The kind of player we're talking about here is what is often referenced to as the "destroyer type" in football jargon—someone who is primarily a ball-winner rather than ball-player; physical rather than technical. A midfielder who can offer screening protection of the defensive line and act as a safety net for the more creative types around him.

Of the 10 midfielders who made the 30-strong list, only one fits the description: Ognjen Vukojevic.

The sturdy, experienced but often-doubted holder who plays for Dynamo Kiev can hardly be considered a sure starter, though.

In the three games since Kovac took over the helm—two against Iceland in the World Cup play-offs and a friendly against Switzerland—Vukojevic spent merely two minutes on the pitch.

Mate Males, also a typical ball-winner who plays for NK Rijeka in the domestic league, should have been in the squad as well. He had been called up for all those three matches and got his debut in the third, but he’s injured now.

There was speculation in the media that Kovac could instead call Dinamo Zagreb's Arijan Ademi or Napoli's youngster Josip Radosevic—both have already been capped—but that didn't turn out to be the case.

Croatia's boss was a holding midfielder himself in his playing days—and a good one at that, though arguably underrated. One would think that he, of all people, should understand the value of having such a player on the team.

But Kovac was never a classic destroyer type. He started as a more attacking player and gradually evolved into a holder. At his peak, apart from shielding the defence and winning the ball in defensive midfield, he was also very capable of late surges and carrying the ball higher up at his feet. 

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In his column for the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson wonderfully explained the ongoing evolution of the holding midfielder, who can now be divided into three types: the destroyer, the regista and the carrier.

If we were to accept that division—much less theoretical than it simply recognises the state of things—Kovac's style could have been described as a mixture of destroyer and carrier types, perhaps similar to today’s Sami Khedira.

It may be that precisely because Kovac was a non-typical holder himself that he wants his midfielders to be versatile rather than specialised and pigeonholed. And that is the way of the evolution.

"The higher the level," writes Wilson, "the more teams are agglomerations of bundles of attributes; the key is balance rather than fitting to some abstract designation [...] as players are defined less by their positions than by what they can do."

Kovac has selected no fewer than seven players who can vaguely be described as central midfielders. Interestingly enough, three of those are young prospects who have never played for Croatia before—and all three are primarily "carriers."

Both Dinamo Zagreb's Marcelo Brozovic, 21, and Hajduk Split's 19-year-old Mario Pasalic (who has already agreed on a deal to join Chelsea) are basically a modern version of a box-to-box midfielder, while Rijeka's Ivan Mocinic, 21, is something slightly different.

He could perhaps be best described as a carrier with a hint of destroyer. As his teammate, the aforementioned Males got injured late in the season, Rijeka proceeded to play without an alternative of a similar type. They won the Croatian Cup, beating Dinamo 3-0 over two legs in the final, with Mocinic in particular impressing.

The youngster might now be closer to making the final cut than the other two midfielders from the domestic league; perhaps even closer than HSV's Milan Badelj, who is a little bit of everything but doesn’t excel in any of the three typical roles.

However, as much as Mocinic is a promising alternative, it's still unlikely that Kovac would opt to play a debutant as his first choice—especially against Brazil in the tournament opener. 

Toni Rodriguez/Associated Press

There's an even more intriguing plan: fielding three playmakers in midfield, without a true holder.

The need to counter-balance creativity with a physical presence has been an issue for Croatia ever since Niko Kovac retired as a player in 2008. Various attempts were made to make up for his absence, with varying degrees of success, and playing without a destroyer type was one of them.

Most notably, it happened in Croatia's grudge match against Serbia in the qualifiers (2-0), when Igor Stimac, Kovac's predecessor at the helm, fielded a 4-4-2 with Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic at the centre of midfield.

The shape morphed into a 4-1-3-2 during that match in Zagreb, with Modric advancing forward on the ball and leaving Kovacic as holder—that was actually a full international debut for the Inter Milan player, then just 18, and he did very well.

Although Croatia's play began to fall apart in the second half, as Serbia looked to restore balance and use the home side's lack of width, Kovacic was not to blame for that.

Later the hopes of promoting him to a permanent holding solution failed, as Stimac further experimented with formations and Kovacic's defensive weaknesses were left exposed in the match against Scotland (0-1) where there was no Modric alongside him.

But in the second leg of the World Cup play-offs against Iceland in Zagreb, Niko Kovac fielded a 4-2-3-1-come-4-1-4-1 formation, with Luka Modric and Sevilla's Ivan Rakitic as defensive midfielders and Kovacic in front of them. That meant Croatia were playing with three central playmakers.

What is particularly intriguing about that approach is the fact that these three really complement each other in style. Modric dictates tempo and keeps the ball in movement with many passes; Rakitic is much more direct, phenomenal with his key passes and very accurate crosses; Kovacic is a great dribbler, a player who thrives in space but is also capable of slicing open the defences with killer through balls.

They can also switch positions among themselves effortlessly, making it very difficult for the opponent to mark them.

Alex Grimm/Getty Images

But playing Iceland at home is one thing; facing Brazil away is quite another. While all three central playmakers are also apt at winning the ball, none of them offers the kind of physical protection to the shaky Croatia defence behind them. 

Manager Kovac is seriously considering giving all three a start, without a true holder, in the tournament opener against Brazil. This writer was told that by him in person during a recent, yet unpublished interview.

It would be a remarkably brave decision, but one that would perhaps make more sense than it does at a first glance.

As star-studded as Brazil's midfield may be, with these three players, Croatia could pretty much battle them for possession—regardless of which three of his midfielders the home side's manager Phil Scolari decides to use.

The real danger with Brazil lies on the flanks, where they are much better than Croatia, so Kovac's strategy could well be trying to keep the ball in central areas, where he has players who are very comfortable in possession, and attacking through the middle with a vast variety of creative options that Modric, Rakitic and Kovacic can offer.

It looks very risky, but is it really more of a gamble than replacing one with a true holder would be, thus reducing the team's prospects in one key battle they have a realistic chance of winning?

 

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