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EURO 2020: Croatia – tactical analysis

The 2018 World Cup was the greatest tournament in Croatian football history, as they finished as runners-up to France – an outcome that very few people would have predicted at the beginning of that tournament. That team was packed with some world-class players at their peak, and it is therefore only natural that there has been something of a decline since then, and the Vatreni arrive at these Euros with a lot more uncertainty in their ranks.

Croatia have been drawn in Group D for Euro 2020, alongside England, Scotland and the Czech Republic. Their recent form has been concerning – Croatia only won one game in the most recent UEFA Nations League, albeit having been drawn in a tough group alongside France, Portugal and Sweden, and while they are faring better in their qualification group for the 2022 World Cup, they did begin that campaign with a surprise loss to Slovenia. The transition from that 2018 squad has been tricky, with Ivan Rakitić,  Mario Mandžukić, and Danijel Subašić having retired from international football, and the likes of Luka Modrić, Ivan Perišić, Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida all entering the last phase of their careers as well. There are some promising young players who could spark a new generation, but this is definitely a time of transition for this Croatian side.

Group D is likely to be a tricky assignment for Croatia – England are always strong, and have some truly elite players available, with the added advantage of playing their group games at home at Wembley, while both Scotland and the Czech Republic have done well in recent matches. It is not a foregone conclusion that Croatia will qualify from their group, even with the safety net of the four best third-placed teams qualifying for the round of 16 along with the top two in each group.

This article in the form of tactical analysis covers Croatia’s tactics and also includes a scout report on their squad.

THE SQUAD

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

Here’s the full squad list:

Goalkeepers:

Lovre Kalinić
Dominik Livaković
Simon Sluga

Defenders:

Borna Barišić
Domagoj Bradarić
Duje Ćaleta-Car
Joško Gvardiol
Josip Juranović
Dejan Lovren
Domagoj Vida
Šime Vrsaljko
Mile Škorić

Midfielders:

Milan Badelj
Marcelo Brozović
Luka Ivanušec
Mateo Kovačić
Luka Modrić (c)
Mario Pašalić
Nikola Vlašić

Forwards:

Ante Budimir
Josip Brekalo
Andrej Kramarić
Mislav Oršić
Ivan Perišić
Bruno Petković
Ante Rebić

Tactically, the coach Zlatko Dalić switches between the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3 formations, depending on the opposition, with an emphasis on retaining possession and controlling the game. Dalić’s favoured set-ups also allow the full-backs to get involved in the attack and provide better coverage higher up the field. Croatia are generally quite attacking, and often overcommit many players in advanced areas to overload the box. That advanced positioning, though, affects their defensive performance, and they struggle in transitions. Due to their tendency to build up from the back and involve the goalkeeper, they have issues against teams that press high and can be susceptible to giving up possession in dangerous areas.

It is expected that he will rely on the 4-3-3 for this tournament, based on the players in this squad, with one defensive midfielder sitting and two attack-minded players either side of him, who can join the forward line and overload the box in possession.

Dominik Livaković will be the starting goalkeeper, playing an important role not only defensively but in ball progression too. His contribution to the build-up is often underestimated, but the backline does involve him in retaining possession and uses him as an additional passing option. He contributes with both short passes and long balls into the opposition half equally well, and will have an important role against high-pressing sides, as his accurate direct passing will help Croatia bypass this press.

Borna Barišić of Rangers will be the left-back, and he is expected to be one of the most active players on the pitch, both offensively and defensively. His crossing ability will be one of Croatia’s key attacking weapons, while there is still a little doubt around his availability due to an injury picked up recently. On the opposite side, Šime Vrsaljko is likely to hold on to his starting spot, despite an extremely frustrating season with Atletico Madrid, for whom he barely played. Despite this, the 29-year-old is quite experienced at the highest level, and he will likely play a more reserved and defensive role than Barišić.

The ex-Liverpool defender Lovren and Vida will reprise their successful partnership at centre-back, and while their defensive quality is known, they will also play a big role in possession, as both players are comfortable on the ball and will initiate Croatia’s build-up from the back.

Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozović will be the holding midfielder, coming off a superb season for the Serie A champions. He will quite literally be the pivot of this team, setting the tempo for the side, providing ball progression and also guarding against transitions. The two players on either side of him will be Modrić and Mateo Kovačić. Despite having turned 35, Modrić continues to deliver high-quality performances for Real Madrid, and having announced his international retirement after this tournament, he will be looking to provide a final flourish for this Croatian side. Kovačić has also been quite good for Chelsea this season, especially under Thomas Tuchel, and his ability to break the lines and progress the ball through his dribbling will be a vital component of Croatia’s attacking strategy. Croatia’s midfield is definitely the strongest component of their side, and all three of these players will be vital for Vatreni to have any hope of progressing deep at this tournament.

We can expect to see Perišić and Nikola Vlašić start on the flanks. Perišić will be a direct threat on the left, staying high and wide and trying to isolate the opposition full-backs in 1v1 situations before cutting infield dangerously, while Vlašić is more likely to roam and occupy central positions. Dinamo Zagreb striker Bruno Petković will lead the line as a strong, physical presence who is good in the air as well as in terms of dribbling ability, although his finishing has been below par. The likes of Ante Rebić, Andrej Kramarić, Josip Brekalo and Ante Budimir provide quality options off the bench or even as replacements for any of the front three in the starting XI.

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

When we look at the squad’s age profile, it is clear that the majority of this squad are at their peak, and therefore this tournament could be their best chance of another strong performance to match or even exceed their exploits at the 2018 World Cup. As mentioned earlier, the majority of that squad is present here as well, three years on, with some exciting young players such as Duje Ćaleta-Car, Joško Gvardiol, Vlašić and Brekalo to supplement that experienced core.

ATTACKING PHASE

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

We have already mentioned how Croatia focus on retaining possession and trying to create goalscoring opportunities through this approach. They also emphasize wide play and crossing (84th percentile for crossing tendency), while engaging in a high number of attacking duels as well (92nd percentile). This is down to the skill of players such as Perišić, Kovačić, Modrić, Petković and Rebić, among others, in 1v1 situations and direct duels with opponents. However, there are quite a few concerning metrics here – namely, the low ranks for xG per match (12th percentile), shots per match (24th percentile), shots on target % (32nd percentile) and touches in the penalty area (28th percentile), all of which points towards a lack of cutting edge and goalscoring threat over the last year, despite their tendency to keep possession.

The team tries to progress the ball mostly down the flanks by using link-up-play and overloading the wide areas, in an effort to open up passing lanes. Whenever they reach the edge of the final third, the players move infield from the wider spaces in order to have more bodies in attack. The goalkeeper also gets involved in the build-up, as shown in the next image

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

Whenever they feel pressured and are unable to open passing lanes due to the opposition’s tight marking, they go direct. This often happens with the help of the goalkeeper, who delivers long balls directly into the opposition half, taking advantage of the team’s high positioning. Croatia also frequently attempt to switch play from one flank to the other if the opposition is blocking central progression to try and shift them out and create space.

Croatia attempt to overload the opposition half and have as many options in front of the goal as possible, as shown in the next image. The full-backs are actively involved in their attacking play, and thus, the wide players immediately get more freedom to occupy the half-spaces and provide a direct threat. 

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

The team’s reliance on the wide areas means that the full-backs are tasked with providing width and crossing, while the rest of the team try to drag players out of position and exploit the free spaces centrally. Although this does make them a little predictable in their attacking movements, they still do create chances through the sheer volume of crosses and passes from the flanks.

Croatia’s players are quite good technically and tactically, which means that their movement and positioning is usually excellent in the final third. We can see an example of the way they try to overload the flanks in the next image, and their strong technical skills also allow them to link up well and attempt quick passing moves and interchanges close to the opposition’s penalty area.

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

Barišić has averaged 8.29 crosses per 90 in his last six games for Croatia at an outstanding 39.5% accuracy. This underlines his importance to the team’s current strategy well, with Vrsaljko focusing on crossing too. The team attempts an average of 22 crosses per game, which shows how committed they are to these tactics.

DEFENSIVE PHASE

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

Croatia have been quite vulnerable defensively in recent matches, and some of this is down to their tendency to overcommit when in possession. There are definitely some encouraging signs from the data – they are excellent in the air, as seen by the high ranks for aerial duels (72nd percentile) and successful aerial duels (88th percentile), while also ranking well for defensive duels and recoveries per match (80th percentile for both). Vatreni press a little more aggressively than average (48th percentile for PPDA), while they recover the ball more frequently in their own third than in the opposition’s third of the pitch.

Croatia’s overcommitment in possession leaves them vulnerable to quick, direct attacks, with the defenders often left isolated in 1v1s due to the lack of numbers at the back, as we can see in the next example.

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

Another issue is that individual errors and mistakes are alarmingly commonplace. While the likes of Lovren and Vida are usually excellent defenders, they are also prone to making mistakes at crucial times, while both players also tend to get dragged out of position and concede space. This is true out wide as well, where the full-backs need to commit due to the lack of defensive support, causing the centre-back to step out as well and therefore leave players unmarked in dangerous positions, as the next image shows.

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

Croatia do try and recover the ball quite quickly when they do lose it, especially in the middle third of the pitch, which does help protect their defence on occasion. This is also a strategy that helps their attacking play, as the midfielders can retrieve possession and then quickly try and progress upfield through a disjointed opposition press.

TRANSITIONS

Croatia’s formation rarely differs in and out of possession. As mentioned, they most frequently use either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 in possession and defend with a four-man backline as well. As the next image shows, their defensive set-up remains the same.

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

When it comes to defensive transitions, the team doesn’t have the same connection between the lines and often fails to limit spaces and drop back as a unit. They often allow multiple opposition players between the lines, which later forces them to dive into risky challenges.

As mentioned previously, they have difficulties defending against long balls which is due to their high positioning. Additionally, the full-backs’ support of the team’s attacks also leaves them vulnerable down the flanks, which forces the centre-backs to move wide to cover, as mentioned earlier. All of this means that Croatia can get caught out quite often during defensive transitions, and this is definitely a problem that Dalić will need to solve if they are to progress at the Euros.

FORWARDS

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

We will look at all the attacking players called up by Croatia over the last calendar year in these charts, in an attempt to understand their most effective attacking options. The first chart, on the left, considers shots per 90 minutes along with touches in the box per 90, while the chart on the right is a comparison between goal contributions per 90 (goals + assists) and expected goal contribution per 90 (xG +xA).

Of the players in the squad, Kramarić is one of the strongest options, as he averages a good number of touches in the box as well as shots, and he is also a consistent goal threat. Mislav Oršić is another who ranks well across both charts, while the likes of Budimir, Perišić and Rebić need to improve their output.

MIDFIELDERS

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

The next chart looks at the midfielders, where we try to gauge creativity and ball progression on the left, and goal and assist contributions on the right. Kovačić has been one of the most impressive in terms of creativity, along with Brozović and Modrić, and it bodes well that this is likely to be the team’s starting midfield.

In terms of goal threat, Vlašić is the only player who has significant numbers this season, and this is down to his role as an attacking winger or midfielder for CSKA Moscow. This chart also makes it quite clear that the responsibility of scoring goals will be firmly on Croatia’s attackers, and the midfield’s role is that of providing ball progression and creativity.

DEFENDERS

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

The last comparison in our analysis looks at all the Croatian defenders to have been called up over the last calendar year. The left-sided chart considers possession-adjusted interceptions and successful defensive actions per 90, in an attempt to gauge their defensive prowess, while the chart on the right looks at their ability to progress the ball, either through passing or dribbling.

Of the players in the squad, Mile Škorić, of NK Osijek in the Croatian 1. HNL, and Gvardiol have much higher numbers than the likely starting pair of Lovren and Vida. Of course, this is as much a reflection of their respective club sides’ playing styles, but it may also indicate that these players could be ready to step in if needed.

In terms of ball progression, Barišić and Domagoj Bradarić, the two left-back options, are the most impressive in terms of progressive runs, with Gvardiol also showing his ability as a ball-playing centre-back who can also provide progression through dribbling. Lovren and Vida have both averaged around 8 progressive passes per 90 in their respective leagues this season, which shows how they will play a big part in Croatia’s build-up play.

BEST PERFORMER

Euro 2020: Croatia - tactical analysis tactics

Luka Modrić remains a top-class player, even at the age of 35, and he will have a pivotal role to play for Croatia at these Euros.

We can see his excellence in terms of passing and creativity in La Liga this season through his percentile ranks for those metrics, where he has been among the best in the league for smart passes, deep completions, passes to the penalty area and passes to the final third. He has also been an attacking threat, being around the 80th percentile for shots per 90 and touches in the box per 90, and it will be interesting to see if he is given the license to get into the box as frequently for Croatia as well.

His defensive contribution is a reflection of his age, and this is where Croatia will need to protect him and ensure that the likes of Kovačić and Brozović pick up his defensive burden. Modrić’s ability to progress the ball and create chances will play a huge role in any Croatian success this summer, and as captain of the side, he will be expected to lead from the front.

PREDICTIONS FOR THE TOURNAMENT

Croatia are definitely transitioning from the high of that 2018 World Cup campaign, and this tournament will be the last chance for a number of players of that generation to achieve something together as well. They have the ability to out-pass any team on their day, with a superb midfield unit, and pose a huge threat from the wide areas as well. However, there are significant defensive issues that will need to be tackled for them to go far at Euro 2020.

We expect them to finish second in Group D, which would see them face the runners-up of Group E in the round of 16. That is likely to be one of Sweden or Poland, and if they get past that, a quarter-final against France or Germany is likely to follow. Of course, nobody expected Croatia to reach the final of the 2018 World Cup either, so it would be foolish to write off their chances completely, but we believe that a quarter-final appearance would be the most realistic outcome for this Croatian side at Euro 2020.