Written by Allen “Outraged” Strk
It’s no secret that it was a tale of two performances that took place during the latest fixtures for Croatia. The lethargic play against Bulgaria was quickly washed away by the thrilling play against Azerbaijan. It’s odd to see a team drastically change in performance in a matter of a few days against a fairly equal opponent. Azerbaijan had only lost 2-1 to Bulgaria in September. It was a fairly even matchup according to UEFA’s website. Both teams were split in possession and created an even number of chances.
Was the daunting atmosphere in Sofia effective in limiting Croatia’s attacking style? We saw them struggle against Serbia in the last qualifiers in front of a hostile environment. Did the incredible crowd in Osijek give them an extra spark in playing with more pace? Crowds can play a factor into game, but the players and coaching tactics are still the main factors in deciding a result.
The lineup changes from the 1-0 win against Bulgaria were from the wings as expected. Ivica Olić was largely ineffective and failed to influence the game in any way. Ivan Perišić was rusty in missing two clear chances on goal. The duo that was influential for many of Croatia’s goals in the World Cup were the most disappointing players from Friday. How does that exactly happen, after their performances against Brazil and Cameroon?
It was evident that neither of those teams are great defensively. Brazil was caught on the counter attack on many occasions against Croatia allowing too much space on the outside. Marcelo allowed Perišić to cross the ball without much pressure. Dani Alves was caught out of position on numerous occasions on the other side in attempting to mark Olić. It was clear that Brazil didn’t have much respect for Croatia and were looking to score as many goals as possible. If only they had a competent central forward playing in that game, Croatia could have done far more damage. Unfortunately, we know Nikica Jelavić was forced to start and was largely ineffective. Hopefully that will be the last time that I ever mention him.
Next, if you look at the Cameroon game, it was clear that team wasn’t organized at all. Perišić had all the room to roam free on both wings while Olić found openings as well. Bulgaria wasn’t going to allow Croatia to beat them on the counter attack nor on crosses. Similar to how Mexico played in the first half, they would have been content with a tie. Eventually we saw Bulgaria open up and look to create opportunities after allowing a goal, but you rarely saw their backs push up to help in attack. They were content on staying disciplined in defense.
Olic isn’t good enough at this point to find openings against disciplined defensive teams. His touch has always been below average and is notorious for losing possession far too often. We can all praise his relentless work ethic, but at 35 years old, that begins to deteriorate. Why he started and actually played the full 90 minutes baffled me. I’ve backed Niko Kovač during his unsteady tenure as manager. His usage of Olić made no sense, when players like Mateo Kovačić, Andrej Kramarić or even Alen Halilović could have provided the spark that they needed to score a much needed second goal.
Now enter Kovačić and Kramarić for Monday’s game. You can see the ball movement being more fluid and players finding space to operate. On one occasion, Kramarić chested down a goal kick and turned a defender in effortless fashion. His shot went well wide, but you can see how technically sound he is. You wouldn’t get that from someone like Olić. He made a strong run towards his goal and clicked well with the midfield. You never saw him hesitate either, as he was looking to score whenever possible. It’s only a matter of time before some major club decides to invest in him.
Another positive change was utilizing Ivan Rakitić as an attacking midfielder. Many people have been pleading Kovač to use him in that role. While he wasted two very good chances, he was still influential throughout the game. He found openings to Darijo Srna and Danijel Pranjić consistently on the wings. His set piece delivery was outstanding once again. The upgrade of using Rakitić over Srna on free kicks couldn’t be more evident. According to Aleksandar Holiga on Twitter, Kovač actually used a diamond formation in the midfield. When you have so many talented central midfielders that is the perfect formation to utilize. What’s the point of forcing players into wingers, when Srna and Pranjić push up on numerous occasions?
Now many of you are probably rolling your eyes about Pranjić being mentioned as a full-time starter. I’m not clamoring for it, but it’s clear that Kovač prefers him. Regardless if he starts or Ivan Strinić, Croatian left backs are notorious for pushing up to get involved. Some tend to forget Strinić was the one who delivered that looping cross over Giorgio Chiellini to find Mario Mandžukić for the crucial tying goal in their matchup at Euro 2012. He’s capable of pushing up as well; besides being a more composed left back.
Why does it have to be an objective to include wingers in the starting lineup? Now I may be contradicting myself, since I advocated Perišić and Halilović as a duo on the wings last week. It has become apparent that Kovač isn’t going to include Halilović in a competitive manner any longer. He didn’t come on against Bulgaria or start against Azerbaijan. If Halilović isn’t ready to start, then it may be time to include a diamond formation similar to how they did it in Euro 2012. Mandžukić and Kramarić (or Ante Rebić) may be the duo that can be effective by receiving service from a diamond midfield and attacking backs. A diamond midfield could allow Croatia to not have to use a true holding midfielder, while still being able to efficiently track back defensively.
The jury is still out on what Croatia can do with their actual set lineup. Many of the top European teams are figuring out how to utilize their personnel. It has led to the likes of Spain, Germany and Holland suffering losses early on in qualifying. We should feel somewhat fortunate that Croatia hasn’t conceded a goal yet and have managed to earn all nine points. The obvious big test will clearly come next month in Milan. What is promising is that players like Kramarić are starting to develop into key figures on the national team. It will be up to him, Rebić and others to continue to develop to help the national team evolve rather than continue to rely on players like Olić to play in major games. From this past weekend of seeing what has transpired, which includes Rebić’s outstanding performance against England’s under-21 team, the youth in Croatia’s attack force seems ready to play in a more prominent role.