Croatia’s 2022-23 Nations League group stage campaign is now halfway done. The Vatreni currently sit third place in Group A after splitting their first three matches equally between the win, loss, and draw columns. As the tournament progresses, the squad continues to look better and better each match, and most recently escaped Copenhagen with all three points against a strong Denmark side. However, what can supporters really take from a “glorified friendly” tournament in which Croatia was demolished by Austria, yet managed to earn points against France and Denmark?
- First and foremost, this tournament is absolutely 100% not a preview of how Croatia will look at the 2022 World Cup – and the same goes for each team in the competition. Croatia, just like every other powerhouse European squad, are not throwing their A-team onto the pitch in the Nations League. It is also obvious that the interest in competing in this tournament is low amongst most established players. Due to injury, rest, and experimental purposes, Dalić has mixed members of the Vatreni’s A and B teams into the starting XI, and in some cases (vs. Denmark) has started a lineup of strictly substitutes with one solidified starter (Brozović) to anchor the squad. Croatia’s projected starting XI for the World Cup in November has not played a single minute of the tournament together on the pitch. Without the likes of Ivan Perišić, Joško Gvardiol, and Borna Sosa, all benched due to injury, it is impossible to comprehend the current state of the squad as a whole and make bold predictions for the upcoming World Cup. We know that Croatia’s A-team is dangerous and can go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world. Any lineup short of our current A-team is not worth judging this time of the year, considering that each player just concluded a 30-50 match long season just a few weeks ago. However, there is a lot to be said about some individual performances we’ve witnessed through the first three matches of this UNL campaign…
- Lots of Croatians enjoy talking about what Mario Pašalić is not, but let’s talk about what he is – a goalscorer. In the last year, Pašalić has scored game winners in crucial matches against Cyprus and Denmark and an equalizer against Spain at Euro 2020. Yes, his technical play might not pass the eye test, but his goalscoring abilities have come to life in recent months, even finishing as Serie A’s highest scoring midfielder this past season. It baffles me that Dalić is yet to experiment with Pašalić at the striker position despite countless opportunities to do so. Pašalić will not start in the midfield come November, as long as the squad is healthy, but could be a valuable asset up top alongside Kramarić or off the bench in a match in which the Vatreni need a goal. Think of him as this generation’s Ivica Olić. Not the prettiest goals, bit being in the right place at the right time is sometimes 90% of the battle.
- Depth at the centerback position is looking strong! Martin Erlić has been excellent, and Josip Šutalo looks to be the superstar talent we’ve predicted he’d be. Let’s begin with Erlić, 24 years of age and playing for Spezia in Serie A (on loan from Sassuolo). Dalić called on him to start alongside an aging Vida versus France in front of a wild Poljud atmosphere; coming off an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to Austria. This all came during his senior international debut as well. In a match where Croatia could’ve lost by five goals, Erlić held it together and showcased a superb performance in his first appearance in senior checkers. The youngster logged a 7.1 FotMob rating and won 100% of his ground duels while completing 93% of his passes. Dalić handed Erlić another start vs. Denmark only three days later, and he looked just as good against their dangerous A-team in Copenhagen. Now, let’s talk about 22 year-old future star Josip Šutalo, currently playing for Dinamo Zagreb. Šutalo was called upon to make his international debut in a start against Denmark, and held them to zero goals alongside Erlić. Šutalo, Croatia’s most impressive starter, finished the match with a ridiculous 7.6 FotMob rating and was flawless in the back. The inexperienced duo of Šutalo and Erlić formed a brick wall in the back third of the pitch that Denmark couldn’t beat. The Vatreni managed to allow only one goal in two tough games with a debutant center-back. Add Joško Gvardiol to that mix of talent, and Croatia’s future in that area of the field is looking really, really bright.
- The HNS must continue to integrate young talent into the senior roster, especially during Nations League and friendly matches. U-21 players such as Luka Sučić, Josip Stanišić, and Josip Šutalo provided instant sparks to the matches they featured in. Everyone knows that Luka Ivanušec, Kristijan Jakić, and Borna Barišić are good for bad to average performances at best, whereas Sučić’s run led to Kramarić’s penalty goal vs. France and Stanišić gave Croatia the boost they needed on the flank against Denmark. Generally, we know which players will be key for the squad in the future, so why not give them the exposure they need at a higher level? Just saying, Joško Gvardiol would have been a lot better at Euro 2020 had he seen international time on the pitch before debuting in the world’s second largest tournament.