After two very different games at the World Cup, last night’s clash with Mexico was a moment of truth for Croatia—as it turned out, the truth wasn’t very nice. Not to take anything away from Mexico, who have been great and fully deserved their success, the impression is Niko Kovac’s side had their chance at this tournament and blew it, not playing to their strengths.
It was difficult to assess the true quality and the possible reach of this team as Croatia approached the deciding match in Recife. Against Brazil, the Vatreni held their own and were arguably equal to the hosts for most of the game. The tie seemed to be heading for a draw until an unfortunate call from the referee to award the Selecao a very soft penalty turned it around.
Cameroon helped Croatia and offered itself on a platter when their Barcelona star, Alex Song, got himself sent off for deliberately kicking Mario Mandzukic’s back with his elbow. After that their play fell apart and Croatia were able to destroy them through quick counters, thriving on chaos in their opponents’ link-up play.
There were many lessons from those two games: some of them pointed out the good things in Kovac’s tactics and the way the team played, but some of them also revealed serious problems.
It was strange that a team featuring two top class central midfielders, playmakers who are among the best in the World—Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s new signing Ivan Rakitic—struggles to maintain ball possession and plays mainly on the counter and attacks through flanks. This was not what most people thought it would be when Croatia manager revealed his plan to build a team around that creative core, but without a defensive specialist, a ‘destroyer’ as a safety net behind their back.
Instead, both Modric and Rakitic stayed deep, playing as two defensive midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation. They had too many defensive tasks and couldn’t create enough. Neither of the two solutions Kovac used in front of them in the first two matches, Internazionale’s Mateo Kovacic and Getafe’s Sammir, proved a particularly good solution for the position between the lines in that system.
Still, there was arguably some sense, however little, in playing like that against Brazil and Cameroon. Both Modric and Rakitic played many accurate long passes, speeding up attacking transition which had always been a big problem for this side. As the decider against Mexico approached, however, many analysts warned that Rakitic was being misused and that he should assume a more attacking role, as he mostly had been playing as an attacking midfielder for Sevilla this past season. Many expected that was the decisive change Kovac was about to make for Mexico.
When the lineups for that game were announced, it appeared that was exactly what he had decided to do. It looked like Danijel Pranjic was supposed to play alongside Modric in the 4-2-3-1 cum 4-1-4-1, with Rakitic in front of them and behind the striker. Pranjic plays that position for his club, Panathinaikos, and he also played it in his heyday, when he was at Bayern Munic (2009-2012).
But that wasn’t what Kovac had in mind.
Rakitic played as a defensive midfielder once again, this time even deeper as he dropped back to tuck in between the central defenders on many occasions during the game. Croatia closed Mexico’s flanks, but that meant their full-backs were rather conservative and rarely opened up spaces in the opponent’s half. There was little overlapping with wingers, who stayed too far, mainly looking to exert pressure on Mexico’s wingbacks.
As a result, there was far too much space between Croatia’s lines. Most of the time, the defence stood some 60 metres away from the attack and Croatia’s formation was broken. What should have been 4-1-4-1 looked more like 4-1-2-3. Modric and Pranjic didn’t have the space or the time to create chances and Rakitic was too far from the action, mostly concerned with defensive duties.
It simply didn’t work.
Kovac reacted by introducing Mateo Kovacic, switching back to 4-2-3-1 and taking to a riskier approach on the flanks, but then a whole lot of new space on the left opened up for Mexico. They scored two of their goals from set pieces, but could have just as well got them from open play. El Tri looked much better organized and the run of play completely turned on their side in the second half. They even had a clear penalty denied by the referee.
Now Niko Kovac, hailed almost as a saviour ahead of the tournament, is facing a torrent of criticism from the local media. What had been viewed as a breath of fresh air and new ideas has again become just a lack of coaching experience.
Most of the resentment is aimed at his refusal to play with a true holding midfielder and his use of Ivan Rakitic so far from the goal—and rightly so.
Even if everyone had always known Croatia had serious weaknesses and weak links (goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa had a terrible tournament; Danijel Pranjic was a disaster at left-back, just to name two), the real problem turned out to be something else. Under Kovac, Croatia failed to capitalise on their biggest strength: their famed playmaker duo, Modric and Rakitic.
And that, of course, is largely the manager’s fault.