Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Over the course of this captivating World Cup, only Spain have favoured the left flank more than Croatia. But if the Vatreni are to spring an upset, and emulate La Roja‘s first-time triumph in 2010, a change of tack is needed. The path Zlatko Dalic chooses will ultimately decide his nation’s fate: the right fork may lead to glory, but the left will surely invite the wrath of Kylian Mbappé.
No player at this tournament has attempted more dribbles than Mbappé, the current leading favourite for the Golden Ball bauble. And Dalic would be wise not to gift the teenager space into which he can speed.
That is not to say Croatia won’t continue to press high, and seek to dominate possession in the opposition half. Space in behind their defensive line will, almost certainly, be there for the taking. But the positioning of left-back Ivan Strinic, up to now a perennial overlapper, will have to change.
Ivan Perisic is arguably the Vatreni‘s best forward; the Inter Milan man is the focal point of much of his side’s attacks for a reason. Predominantly right-footed, his drifts inside to assume second-striker positions are amplified by Strinic’s forward bursts. Combinations between the two, and Ivan Rakitic, often result in deadly switches-of-play to the right, where Ante Rebic, Sime Vrsaljko and Luka Modric all await.
But such well-worn patterns of play, to which Strinic is central, risk placing the inside-right channel at Mbappé’s mercy. And centre-back Domagoj Vida, who struggled against Raheem Sterling’s similar sprints in the semi-final, is not likely to cope.
Expect, then, to see Strinic play a far more reserved role on Sunday, tucked in beside Vida. If he starts, that is: the knock the AC Milan man suffered against England may hand a start to the more defensive Josip Pivaric instead. Regardless, neither Pivaric nor Strinic is likely to give Mbappé and Didier Deschamps what they want.
Plus ca change
Deschamps, meanwhile, is unlikely to deviate from the plan France’s manager has persevered with since the second game against Peru. France, unlike Croatia, will not press high, preferring instead to employ a compact mid-block. Billed as a 4-2-3-1, Deschamps’ system more resembles a 4-4-2, as both forwards, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann, drop goal-side of the opposition midfield when their side is out of possession.
Blaise Matuidi’s role on the left-flank is key to this system’s efficacy. The Juventus midfielder tucks in alongside N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba, giving Mbappé the licence to stay high and wide on the opposite side. In Mbappé, Pogba therefore has a perfect target for his counterattack-crafting long passes.
In Kanté, France may boast the statistically strongest holding midfielder in the world over the past three seasons. No player, Brazil’s Casemiro aside, comes close to touching the Chelsea midfielder’s tallies for tackles and interceptions over that period.
But against three Croatian passers of such quality — Modric, Rakitic, and holder Marcelo Brozovic — Kanté will need Matuidi’s assistance more than ever. Pogba, too, will dearly need to repeat his recent disciplined showings, if Rakitic’s influence is to be quelled.
Kanté and Matuidi, meanwhile, are likely to take turns keeping tabs on Modric’s characteristic drifts to the right touchline. And it is here that Croatia can, theoretically, put France to the sword.
Vrsaljko, the Atletico Madrid full-back, has arguably been his side’s most effective attacking outlet at this World Cup. Decisive against Denmark, Russia and England, the right-back may find himself untracked again thanks to Matuidi’s narrow deployment. And if he manages to draw Matuidi out wide, in a similar manner to Peru’s Luis Advincula, Modric may find space to thread the eye of a needle.
Vrsaljko’s crosses, too, may prove a threat to France’s until-now resolute backline. Aside from the madcap game against Argentina, Les Bleus‘ only concession of the tournament came in the opener against Australia; when Samuel Umtiti conceded a penalty by inexplicably handling a right-wing cross.
Croatia are third in the aerial duels per game stakes at this World Cup, with both Mandzukic and Perisic representing potent penalty-box threats. Raphael Varane, arguably the world’s best central defender at the moment, will need to be at his vigilant best.
Ante Rebic, although a frustratingly headless performer at times, may also help to decide the contest for Croatia from his high-and-wide right-wing position; but in a counter-intuitive manner. The overlaps of French left-back Lucas Hernandez, which proved so effective against Argentina, will likely not be possible here. With Hernandez restrained, and nothing coming from the left in an attacking sense, the onus to progress France forward may rest entirely on Mbappé’s young shoulders.
If Croatia can somehow score first, then, it’s very difficult to see this underpowered French attack — far less than the sum of its parts — redressing the balance. No Frenchman registers in the top 50 of chance-creators at this World Cup. And Deschamps’ side have only scored five goals from open play, including Benjamin Pavard’s one-in-a-million strike against a wide-open Argentina, and an own-goal winner against Australia.
Faced with defence-minded opposition who require guile to crack, France have been appalling in the final-third. Games against Australia, Peru and Uruguay have seen Deschamps’ side struggle to trouble the expected-goals column. In both of the last two rounds, against Uruguay and Belgium, set-piece openers have allowed France to sit off and focus on their strengths: defence and Mbappé’s pace.
If Croatia nullify the second and crack the first, it’s hard to see past them. But those are big ifs. A protracted stalemate is far more likely, and France’s set-piece prowess may prove decisive. Remember: Croatia have conceded from a dead-ball in each of the last three rounds. The margins will be tight, and the Vatreni may even have to face into a fourth consecutive bout of extra-time.
Expected fatigue did not materialise against England, but it may give France the edge here; particularly given the favourites’ additional day of recovery time. Failing that, we could be looking at Croatia’s third penalty shootout of the competition. And lightning surely couldn’t strike thrice, right?
France, meanwhile, will be hoping to avoid the Portuguese bolt from the blue of two years ago; when Kanté was, crucially, absent. Suspended for the Euro 2016 quarter-final against Iceland, Kanté was omitted by Deschamps from then on, forcing Pogba into a crab-like role in front of his defence alongside Matuidi.
The former water-carrier, six years in the job now, didn’t know his best team then. And he was still trying to work it out at the beginning of this tournament, too. The 4-3-3 shape that flopped against Australia, with three rotating speedsters up top, has long been abandoned.
But now, with the balance offered by Matuidi, the terror inspired by Mbappé, and an embarrassment of world-class defensive riches at his disposal, the 49-year-old is once again on the cusp of glory. Whether or not his side can cope with the favourites tag this time is anyone’s guess. We will soon find out.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112