Croatia made it through their World Cup play-off against Iceland on Tuesday night with a level of comfort, despite having Mario Mandzukic sent off before half-time, but for all the quality in their squad, they are still some way short of reaching the sort of level they should be aiming at.
Niko Kovac took over as coach from the deeply unpopular Igor Stimac at the end, and he acknowledged there is still a significant amount of work to be done before Croatia can approach the World Cup as he would like.
As per Sports Illustrated: "Today was a demonstration of power and I have to congratulate my players for that," he said. "I’d give straight As for all the players. When everyone gives their maximum, that’s what it looks like. I hope this is only the beginning of something I would like to see from Croatia. I have a clear idea of what we want to do. We have the players for it and things can only get better."
Two clear tactical issues stand out. The first is at the back of midfield. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic were untroubled there against Iceland but better sides, surely, would exploit their lack of ball-winning bite.
It’s true that Ognjen Vukojevic was left out of the squad only because he would have been suspended for the first leg, but it’s equally true that he is not the player he was two or three years ago, and was loaned out by Dynamo Kyiv last season.
If fit, Vukojevic will surely return to the squad for the World Cup, but another option is Milan Badelj of Hamburg.
What Kovac really needs is a player he used to be, somebody to cover the ground in front of the back four, to use his reading of the game to release the more creative players. If a holder can be found, that would allow Modric to operate as a deep-lying creator, thrusting forward with those darting runs in which he so specialises. And if the Real Madrid playmaker can be used as a second holder, that frees up Rakitic to operate in one of the wide midfield roles.
The other issue is at full-back. When Kovac last played for the national team, in 2008, he would have been used to looking to his left and seeing Danijel Pranjic surging forward from full-back. But the Panathinaikos player tends to operate in midfield these days and, besides, back then Pranjic’s sallies were balanced by the use of Vedran Corluka as a defensive right-back.
Corluka now plays in the centre with Darijo Srna, that most attack-minded of European right-backs, dropping back from the wide midfield role he used to adopt to play as a full-back.
From an attacking point of view that gives Croatia overlapping options on both sides—and Srna, of course, was the source of Croatia’s second goal with one of his charges down the right, but to play two such aggressive full-backs without a true holding player is to leave Josip Simunic and Corluka dreadfully exposed.
Kovac must recognise that, and it may be that, hand forced by Vukojevic’s suspension, he decided it was better to take the game to Iceland, that, with the aged and static Eidur Gudjohnsen as their creative hub, he could risk a highly proactive approach. Perhaps if he can institute a high press similar to that operated by Chile, he can even keep the same personnel, but to do that in the limited time available before the World Cup seems all but impossible.
So the likelihood is that a true holder—whether Badelj or Vukojevic—will come in, but the left-back issue is not one with such an obvious solution.