FIFA World Cup 2018 Final, France vs Croatia: The check-in counter of the Zagreb airport wasn’t quite where Zlatko Dalic would have imagined meeting his players for the first time. In a way, the unusual setting now looks fitting, for there has been nothing normal about Croatia’s road to the World Cup final.
Dalic took over a team that was in chaos. They had suffered a humiliating defeat to Finland, which had left Croatia teetering on the ledge and their star player, Luka Modric, was facing a perjury trial. The 51-year-old with no prior experience of coaching a major team suddenly found himself thrown into the deep end and he admitted having ‘no idea’ to solve the problem.
He’s had that look plastered on his face even today, barely able to believe how Croatia have been slaloming past the opponents without actually playing their A game. But with a lot of improvisation and a little bit of luck, Dalic has brought Croatia’s golden generation closer than ever to World Cup glory. His success, though, isn’t just getting Croatia to the final. The bigger achievement, rather, has been to make Modric and Ivan Rakitic click as it is this combination that hand held the rest of the team this far. Modric is relentless off the ball and reliable on it. Put him in a Mumbai local in the peak hours and he will still find space. He has a touch so soft, so imperceptible that watching him is extremely easy on the eye. Rakitic, the Robin to Croatia’s Batman, has the unique ability to cover the entire field of play without ever sprinting or sweating. They are the touch artistes who pilot a Croatian game that is oriented to the wings. No plain sailing But it’s not been plain sailing. They have been brilliant for their clubs. In the checkered Croatian jerseys, something snaps. No other coach apart from Slaven Bilic has been able to make them tick, until Dalic unravelled the puzzle, or at least seems to.
For their club side, the playmakers are assisted by positionally secure defence-minded midfielders, and a formation that allows them more cover. At Real Madrid, Modric is the key man in a midfield three. Brazil’s Carlos Casemiro polices the back line, doing much of the defensive screening, which gives Modric the freedom to move forward, or just sit up and play passes out wide.
Rakitic gets similar protection at Barcelona, where he plays along side Sergio Busquets, a defensive midfielder so good tactically that he is more dangerous off the ball, than on it. With Busquets covering him and Andres Iniesta tucking inside from the left, Rakitic has had the liberty to move around without worrying about leaving open spaces.
They have been lacking this kind of support with the national team. Dalic, like most of his predecessors, fell into the trap of choosing the obvious option when he lined up Croatia in a 4-2-3-1 formation in their opening match against Nigeria, with Modric and Rakitic playing as double pivots. Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic played on the flanks, Mario Mandzukic up front and Andrej Kramaric behind him as a Number 10.
The formation made Croatia look pedestrian — Rakitic and Modric were forced to sit back as they tried to find space between Nigeria’s forward and midfield lines. This meant they were often playing very deep, leaving a big gap between them and the front four, who were forced to retreat closer to their own half, which allowed the quick Nigerian defence to compress the space.
And since both are neither defence-minded (although Modric can throw in a effective tackle or two) nor ball winners, Croatia’s back-four were often exposed. If not for a selfish Victor Moses or an imprudent John Obi Mikel, Nigeria could’ve taken advantage of a dysfunctional Croatia.
After an hour of scrappy play, Dalic stumbled upon the solution. He brought on Marcelo Brozovic for an ineffective Kramaric, and suddenly the Croatian jigsaw fell into place.
The presence of Brozovic, a defensive midfielder, allowed Modric and Rakitic to venture higher — the Real Madrid star played behind Mandzukic, which allowed him to link play more naturally, while Rakitic moved slightly left to combine with Perisic. The impact was visible, as Croatia strolled to a comfortable win.
They stuck to this system against Argentina, where Croatia dictated the tempo of play. This combination proved decisive against Russia in the quarterfinals and the last-four match against England, where Brozovic covered more ground than anyone else on the pitch.
Just how important Modric and Rakitic are to Croatia can be judged from the fact that they have created almost half of the goals, have run more than any other player in the World Cup (Modric – 63km, Rakitic – 62.9km) and been the calming influences in the shootouts.
But in France, they face an opposition like none before. While the world has been blinded by Kylian Mbappe’s pace, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante have, in the background, wielded influence in the midfield like no other pair in this tournament.
France’s Les Indestructibles have been dominating the midfield and controlling play so well that it looks almost impossible to beat them.
The fact that all the attention has been on Mbappe’s theatrics is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to France. Pogba has a tendency to overdo things when the focus is solely on him. But in Russia, he seems to have come of age.
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The only time the Manchester United midfielder has been flashy this World Cup is when he flew down a barber from London to the team’s base-camp in Moscow after the 2-1 win over Australia. He got rid off his blonde-streaked Mohawk for a much simpler crew cut. If the idea behind that was to blend in and stay anonymous, it has worked just fine.
Among his French teammates, Pogba has made 31 key passes — ones that lead to shots on goal — which is the second most, been among the top dribblers, and made maximum number of individual runs into the attacking third. He has been able to create space for himself, and his teammates, while the range of his direct passes have allowed Mbappe to get into the groove.
The way France have played, it may give an impression that Didier Deschamps has designed a system to get the best out of Mbappe, but in effect it is centred around Pogba’s strengths. Kante, most of all, has played a critical role in that. They call him the Duracell bunny and Pogba joked Kante had ‘15 lungs’. His work-rate give these hyperboles a semblance of realism.
Kante has retrieved more than any other player in this World Cup and is only behind Modric and Rakitic in terms of distance run. He’s chased down Pogba’s passes and hared down in support of Mbappe. France will bank on Pogba’s power and Kante’s stamina to keep a lid on the creative flair of Modric and Rakitic. The outcome of the final, one can assume, will depend a lot on which midfield pair among the two wins this battle: the French are physical and direct; Croatians, delicate and preferring to build up from wide areas.
Deschamps’s side has not lost even once when Pogba and Kante have played together. But Dalic will hope he can stumble upon a solution the one last time, like he has throughout the tournament.