THE 2018 World Cup runners-up, Croatia, will be looking for a repeat this year as they aim to claw their way out of Group F and onto the podium once more.
It’s difficult to keep expectations in check considering their success in Russia, followed up with the convincing Nations League campaign and World Cup qualifiers.
This is a fresh team; a team that’s been blessed with a healthy mixture of experience and youth.
But also a team that’s still very much a dark horse in the tournament despite their silver medal status from 2018.
Predicted starting XI
As for the starting lineup itself, this is where it gets tricky for both us to predict and Dalić to choose.
The goalkeeper position is arguably one of the weakest links of this otherwise impressive squad.
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Both Dominik Livakovic and Ivica Ivusic potential starters but certainly not their strongest weapon.
When it comes to the backline, the youth tandem of Gvardiol and Sutalo seems the way to go given Croatia’s possession-based style of play.
Both defenders are strong on the ball and will aid the team’s build-up phase greatly.
When it comes to the full-backs, Borna Sosa is expected to be a regular with Borna Barisic as an alternative on the bench. Josip Juranovic should be the regular and Josip Stanisic start on the bench.
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We don’t need to spend too long on the incredible trident of Brozovic, Modric and Kovacic but one potential worry for Dalic heading into the tournament is his pivot’s fitness.
Brozovic’s injury puts the whole system in jeopardy and while he may still recover in time for the event, it remains to be seen how Dalic decides to tackle his absence, should it come to that.
There are a couple of options available with Kristijan Jakic probably being the likeliest to fill Inter star’s boots.
However, the defensive midfielder position is definitely among Croatia’s weak links as the quality plummets with Brozović out of the picture.
Finally, we have the forward line. Croatia’s firepower is impressive but the lack of a clear No9 in the squad is a reason for concern.
Andrej Kramaric is the roaming, false 9 type of striker while someone like Ante Budimir offers a more traditional blueprint for the position.
A similar thing can be said for the right-wing position as all of Mario Pasalic, Nikola Vlasic and Lovro Majer have their unique traits but also change the system with their inclusions.
The only constant is, therefore, Perisic on the left. The veteran is among Croatia’s most important players and will surely continue to have a prominent role in Qatar as well.
Croatia are a formidable force in possession of the ball.
Dalić has already confirmed Croatia are likely to stick with their 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 formation, depending on the personnel available and chosen.
Croatia are likely to stick with their 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation
Take this sequence as a great example of exactly that. In this example, we see them overload the middle of the pitch.
During a game Croatia will overload the midfield
It’s not uncommon for Modrić to drop deep and then deploy either a line-breaking pass into space or simply a lofted ball over the top, both of which complement the runners Croatia have in their arsenal. The example here is a perfect demonstration of such a scenario.
Dalić may not be a master tactician but he needn’t be when he’s got such incredible talent at his disposal.
The following example shows us that perfectly.
Croatia base their attacks from out wide
Most of Croatia’s attacking sequences do end up in a delivery from out wide. In attack, Croatia are a force to be reckoned with.
Despite stats revealing their high success in final-third recoveries, Croatia are not a high-pressing side.
Dalić’s troops will sit back in a deep and compact block, often assuming a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 or a 4-4-2 shape, depending on whether they’re more aggressive or conservative.
Croatia sit deep in a compact block
This shape aims to optimise their coverage off the ball while also congesting the danger zones on the pitch.
If Croatia decide to push up and disrupt the build-up without aggressively pressing, they will usually instruct one of the midfielders to position himself next to the striker, creating a make-shift 4-4-2 structure.
We can actually see a very similar scenario in the following example.
When Croatia high-press they move to a makeshift 4-4-2
This man-marking approach does come with its pros and cons, of course. When executed well, it yields great results in terms of ball recovery, as we’ll soon see.
However, it’s also highly risky.
Very rarely do they actually go all the way to the final third or even the opposition’s box but as already explained, when they do, they’re often very effective.
Just like in almost any phase of the game, midfielders are key to Croatia’s transition tactics. Both Modrić and Kovačić are excellent carriers of the ball.
Midfield is key to Croatia’s transitions – with Modric and Kovacic being excelling ball carriers
It’s not uncommon to see Croatia start their transitions by winning the ball in the middle third of the pitch, where they are undeniably most aggressive.
Moving onto defensive transition tactics, it all comes from coordinated action in the middle third.
Within seconds of losing the ball, Croatia aggressively hunt possession back
Croatia will often hunt for the ball relentlessly in the first couple of seconds of losing possession.
Even though they aren’t lacking firepower, there are question marks that can be raised for both their striker and right-wing positions.
As things currently stand, we don’t know who Dalic is going to pick as his starting no.9 once the World Cup rolls in.
In our predicted XI section, we decided to go with Kramaric but to call him a striker may be a bit of a stretch.
The best of Croatia’s squad undoubtedly lies in their midfield line. This is where their individual quality can break any game and tip the tides in their favour.
If everyone was fit and firing, there would be no doubt about the starting trident of Brozovic, Modric and Kovacic.
However, they’re not all fit. At least not as of yet. Having sustained an unlucky injury just before the World Cup, Brozovic is still on the mend.
Between Livakovic and Ivusic, the choice may not be crystal clear and this has been an ongoing debate in Croatian media for a long time now.
When it comes to the centre-backs, going with Gvardiol and Sutalo makes the most sense given Croatia’s system and style of play.
About the full-backs, Sosa and Juranovic could both get a nod ahead of their respective counterparts simply due to their more offensive nature.
Was there ever any doubt? Even at the ‘tender’ age of 37, Modric is still Croatia’s best and most influential player. The captain will be looking to bow out of the national team with a bang and what better way to do it than to have one last go at the big trophy?
Modric the player needs little to no introduction. He’s an all-action midfielder who glides across the pitch as if he was 17, not 37.
His attacking, progression and retaining capacity are off the charts and we can see he regularly tops almost all the on-the-ball metrics as well.
There aren’t many other players at this World Cup who can go toe-to-toe with the Croatian maestro as he’s basically the best at what he does. And he does it all. Well, almost.
The Real Madrid superstar might not be the best and most active defender in the tournament but that doesn’t mean he’s a liability out of possession.
Despite being 37, Modric still has an impressive engine and it’s his experience and footballing IQ that makes him a competent defender too, more so than his physical attributes.
How far Croatia can and will go largely depends on the form of this little man. And judging by his season so far, both for club and country, Modric is as good as he ever was.
The 2018 silver medalists are back for more in Qatar. It’s very difficult to predict how far they will go because they could just as easily reach the final again as they are to somehow implode halfway through the tournament.
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Given their potential opponents and the quality of group-stage opposition, reaching the quarter-finals and going beyond that is possible and desirable for Vatreni.
However, if Brozovic recovers in time, Modric retains his top form and Dalic’s troops get lady luck on their side again, the quarters are the very minimum they should achieve.
For even more detailed analysis of all 32 teams in the FIFA World Cup 2022, download your copy of the November Total Football Analysis magazine here