Despite arguments that 4-3-3 might be a better fit given the players at their disposal, Croatia’s default formation has long been 4-2-3-1 – with the odd foray into a 4-4-2 midfield diamond. Manager Zlatko Dalic made a significant change immediately after taking over (a mere two days before the deciding group game in the qualifiers against Ukraine), moving Luka Modric to the No 10 position, a role the Real Madrid player has rarely occupied since his early days. The Modric-Rakitic conundrum was a stumbling block for Dalic’s predecessors, who struggled to harness both stars’ playmaking skills coherently; the new coach opted for this solution and it paid off both in Kiev and in the play-offs against Greece.
Croatia had grown increasingly dependent on Modric over the years. He had previously organised play from as deep as the edge of his own box, carrying out a lot of defensive work too. Whoever played in front of him – generally Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic or Mateo Kovacic – rarely provided killer passes in the final third and Croatia chiefly attacked through the flanks, which was odd for a team packed with midfield talent.
Now, playing much higher up, Modric has much less time and space on the ball and his passing statistics are nowhere near as impressive as they used to be. But the benefits may outweigh the drawbacks: Dalic hopes his intelligence and movement will bring the team more incision in front of goal. Rakitic now has to play deeper, engaging in more defensive challenges and hopefully shuttling passes forward. It also means that there is no room in midfield for either Brozovic or Kovacic. Instead Dalic needs someone who can provide a little bit more balance and, while he does not have a true holding midfielder, Fiorentina’s Milan Badelj fits the mould more closely than anyone.
Monaco’s Danijel Subasic is a certain starter in goal, with Sime Vrsaljko and, probably, Ivan Strinic in the full-back positions. Domagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren and Vedran Corluka will compete for the two centre-back spots. Corluka used to hold an advantage by way of seniority but he has been injured a lot lately, with an accompanying decline in his aerial power and speed. Although Croatia are unlikely to play a high line, the other two seem a safer bet at the moment.
The right side of the attack is usually busier than the left, with Vrsaljko advancing very high up and the winger – be it Andrej Kramaric, Mario Mandzukic or someone else – cutting inside. Modric will also appear there as Croatia look to overload that particular zone of the pitch. The left-back has long been regarded as a weak spot and many opponents have looked to exploit it. While it is certainly true that Croatia lack a top-class player for the position, it is also a question of needing to provide more defensive cover for Ivan Perisic. The Inter Milan player switches from running into half-space to more conventional wing play, while contributing little in the other direction and often leaving the team-mate behind him exposed.
Despite some weaker performances in recent games and the challenge posed by younger players like Ante Rebic and Marko Pjaca, Perisic is likely to keep his place in the side. Kramaric and Mandzukic are likely to swap positions in attack, meaning the centre-forward position is either occupied by a robust striker (Mandzukic) or a more flexible kind of attacker (Kramaric). Nikola Kalinic is the next in line to play up front.
However their attack lines up, Croatia’s starting XI has an average age of nearly 30 and they will be one of the oldest teams at the World Cup.
Probable starting XI
Vrsaljko, Vida, Lovren, Strinic
Kramaric, Modric, Perisic
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the 2018 World Cup?
With his versatility and tendency to exploit space between the lines, Andrej Kramaric gives Croatia an unpredictable dimension they have lacked for a long time. He could be crucial to their attacking success.
Which player is likely to disappoint?
Dejan Lovren has never been trusted in Croatia, failing to work particularly well with any of his centre-back partners in the national team. Now he is likely to replace the injury-hampered Corluka in the starting XI, and looks likely to be the usual suspect.
What is the realistic aim for Croatia at the World Cup and why?
“Anything is possible in the knockout rounds” has been the mantra of every Croatia team since the nation’s ascent to the big stage. Indeed, Croatia can beat anyone on a good day; they can, however, also lose to just about anyone. And even though they have not made it that far again since 1998, reaching the last 16 is the minimum expectation for the most talented generation the country has produced in the two decades since.