You say what?
Croatia controlled the ball for 68% of the match, kept Iceland without a shot on goal AND played the last 40 minutes of the match with an extra man- and the game ended 0-0?
So what went wrong?
It’s quite simple. As most Croatian fans around the world blame lack of heart, desire and will power in Croatia’s latest scoreless blunder in Reykjavik, they need to know that none of that has anything to do with it. It comes down to two things:
1. Croatia can’t bust the bunker. “It’s not you, it’s me.” Two years ago, Croatia couldn’t bust the world famous Greek bunker in 180 minutes of play. The scoreless efforts led to the Vatreni finishing second behind Greece; eventually defeating Turkey in a two-legged playoff to reach Euro 2012. But did we give Greece too much credit defensively or overrate Croatia’s offensive prowess?
After the Iceland match, the answer has become obvious to me. The Croatian offense is non-existent. But let’s only focus on the second half Friday night for sake of argument. Iceland’s Olafur Ingi Skulason picked up a straight red card in the 50th minute of play for fouling Ivan Perišić on a break away. That gave Croatia over 40 minutes to score an all important away goal while having a man advantage. Here comes a barrage of Croatian goals, right?
Iceland sat back as the 2nd half ticked away and you could start to see that they would be ecstatic with a 0-0 final. But with the home side bunkering down in their own box, making it nearly impossible to score from the front, Croatia opted to continue to go down the wings while failing to be aggressive through long-range shots. Substitute Ivica Olić only went to his left from the right wing, predictably running into the Icelandic defense every time. And with the box stuffed, Ivan Perišić and Ivan Rakitić should have been given proper chances to score from outside the box. And when that didn’t work, central defender Josip Šimunić should have been sacrificed for Niko Kranjčar or another attacker (Leon Benko) in the 75th minute for a full blown attack against 10-man Iceland instead of taking off Mario Mandžukić.
Manager Niko Kovač could afford to take off a defender for extra attack that late in the game with Iceland only playing with 10 men. At that point you can expect a goal from Croatia with that much firepower on the pitch, but then again, why has this anemic offense been struggling to score goals for over 12 months?
2. No speed, no urgency. The reason Greece, Iceland and Georgia etc can easily bunker against Croatia in recent games is because Croatian attackers never run straight at defenses. When is the last time you saw Luka Modrić or Ivan Rakitić run straight at a defender down the middle of the field? It just doesn’t happen. Instead, the central midfielders hold up the ball and pass it off to the wings, where most plays originate. From the wings, the ball is crossed into the middle where Mario Mandžukić is expected to do his thing. If that doesn’t happen, the ball is kicked back in the middle of the field and the play resets.
But that’s not how this system should be implemented. The reason you want players to run through the middle and take on defenders is to draw a double team where a through-ball can be made or an open winger can be given the ball to make a run at goal. Modrić has always sat too deep with the Croatian national team. Without a true defensive midfielder behind him, he will never be utilized correctly. He needs to be active, running at the opposition the entire match and dishing to his wings while the backs overlap when necessary.
But none of this ever happens because Croatia doesn’t play with speed or a sense of urgency. They like to keep possession at midfield but do nothing with it. Counter-attacks are slow and restarts begin like they are winning the game by three goals. That’s the reason Croatia can play against big boys Spain, Italy and England. Croatia doesn’t control possession in those games, so when they do have the ball, they are moving forward with pace. But nowadays it seems like they get stage fright approaching the penalty box. Weak shots towards goal, obvious passes to the wings and sky-high crosses into the box, which are easily defended.
(If you watched the 2nd half of Ukraine vs. France Friday, you know what I’m talking about. Even when up 1-0, Ukraine didn’t stop their attack and pressed France hard, which eventually led to another goal. They played with fearless speed and it paid off. Our boys should take note.)
Mario Mandžukić is a great striker, especially in the air, there’s no debate about that. But at the same time, he’s no god. His Bayern Munich teammates put the ball on is nose every time he scores, and although he makes it look easy, it’s not. Hopefully his Croatian compatriots don’t think they can just lob up a ball into Mario’s airspace and expect him to do something with it. Because that’s what it looked like Friday night.
This Croatian team needs to become quicker and more diversified in their play, not only in their must win game at Maksimir Tuesday, but in Brazil next summer…if they qualify. Because if they don’t, it’s going to be a long and depressing summer for their fans, with or without them at the World Cup.