FIFA World Cup 2022: Why Croatia’s quarter-final meeting with “terrifying favourites” Brazil is shaping up to be an even affair – tactical preview
As World Cups go, this will undoubtedly be one that many will remember for reasons both on and off the field. Off it, there has been controversy and conversations over human rights and other ethical issues, whilst on it, there have been shocks aplenty as many big hitters have been sent home earlier than many thought or expected.
With the last eight now on the horizon, two sides who will be thankful to have so far avoided an upset are Croatia and Brazil, and both will now surely have their sights set on going all the way. They meet in the first of the quarter-final games at Education City Stadium on Friday, and this tactical analysis will preview all of the action, with information on potential lineups, how the teams set up in attack, defence and during transitions and a predicted outcome for the encounter. The analysis will also look back at the previous performances of the two sides, seeing where they have looked vulnerable and where their opponents can hurt them once the game gets underway.
Croatia have not reported any new injury concerns following their penalty shootout win against Japan, so are expected to field roughly the same team that started their round of 16 encounter with the East Asian side. The star midfield trio of Luka Modrić, Mateo Kovačić and Marcelo Brozović are all expected to start, as well as central defensive duo Dejan Lovren and Joško Gvardiol, and the only new face in the side could be left-back Borna Sosa, who missed the last match with illness but could return in time to take over from Rangers’ Borna Barišić.
Brazil, meanwhile, continue to be without on-loan Sevilla left-back Alex Telles and Arsenal striker Gabriel Jesus, who will both miss the rest of the tournament, whilst Alex Sandro is another doubt, having missed their win against South Korea in the last round with a hip injury. As a result, Danilo may continue in that role against Croatia, whilst head coach Tite also has some decisions to make over the makeup of his midfield, depending on whether he wants defensive protection or creativity at the top of the field.
Croatia’s attacking play has largely been very similar throughout their time in Qatar, with their tactics tending to revolve around building attacks and finding their key offensive threats as quickly as possible once the chances to do so arrive.
Whilst the midfielder and forwards have obviously been central to that way of playing, the two centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Joško Gvardiol have also played their part in getting up the field and looking to play the ball into advanced areas of the pitch. As this graphic shows, a high percentage of Lovren’s touches of the ball have come around the midway line and inside the opposing side’s half, and it is the same story with Gvardiol on the other side of the field.
Therefore, it is clear that, when Croatia are in possession and advancing up the field, they rely on the support of their defenders to enable them to keep the pressure on their opponents, and doing so is why they have been able to find results and reach this stage despite performances sometimes lacking overall quality.
The reason that Croatia want their centre-backs to get into advanced areas is because of their excellent passing ranges, with both Lovren and Gvardiol capable of moving the ball across long distances and keeping their opponents on the back foot. In this case, against South Korea, the ball has come out to former Southampton and Liverpool defender Lovren and he has already noticed Ivan Perišić on the edge of the goal area, with the red arrow indicating his angled pass towards the Tottenham Hotspur player.
The key thing to note here is the way that Lovren doesn’t hesitate once he sees the opportunity to play the ball forwards, and it is that quality that has contributed to Croatia posing such a threat when they get into the opposing goal area. Their finishing has at times been lacking, but the build-up play and ability to spot these opportunities cannot be underestimated, and that is one thing that fans can expect to see a lot of when Croatia get into Brazil’s half of the field.
It is also common to see Croatia utilise the wide spaces when they get into the final third, with their aim again being to maintain momentum and to try and create gaps in the middle that they can exploit. Canada provided Croatia with the perfect opportunity to practice this way of playing, as they often pushed their wing-backs too far forward and struggled to track back once Croatia gained possession, leading to situations like this coming about, with three Croatian players looking to work the ball behind the back three and into an area where they could shoot at goal.
However, the key thing to mention here is that Croatia have passing options available to them, meaning that Canada will find it difficult to close both off and prevent their opponents from breaking through them, as moving to either wing would leave the other player wide open and staying where they are would give Kovačić the option of sending the ball either side of them. In the end, Canada chose to remain compact and Kovačić passed to Andrej Kramarić instead of Perišić, as the red arrow illustrates, and, although it didn’t lead to a goal this time, there have been plenty of occasions when Croatia have been in the same situations and have profited.
In transitions, Croatia generally have a very easy way of moving the ball around the field, with them having arguably one of the best midfield combinations at the World Cup in the shape of Kovačić, Luka Modrić and Marcelo Brozović.
What makes these three players so important is that they each know what the others are thinking at every moment of the match, with the result being that there is always constant movement and rotation between them as they ensure that all roles are covered. It is common to see them form these triangular structures during games as they look to offer support and balance to their side, helping to keep the ball moving around the field and into areas where they feel that their teammates will have an advantage and can create a goalscoring opportunity.
The trio have been front and centre for so long in recent Croatian football memory, with Modrić, in particular, being their poster boy for a long time, and, if they are to have any hope of progressing to the semi-finals for a second consecutive World Cup, then they will need all three of these players to be on top form on Friday.
However, when they lose the ball, their tendency to push forward and play on the front foot can catch them out, with the defenders often tracking back but the midfielders not always following suit.
The result is that situations like this can occur, when a vast amount of space opens up between the two lines, allowing their opponents to play the ball through the thirds and put pressure on the back line. In this case, it is Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne who has found his way into this space, and his vast range of passing means that Croatia now have to be doubly aware of the options that he will have available to him.
What let Croatia off when they got into these situations against Belgium was the fact that the latter were poor when converting their opportunities. However, a more clinical team like Brazil will not let them off as easily, so they will need to be more aware of their shape when out of possession in order to prevent their fellow quarter-finalists from having easy chances to break them down.
When they are able to set up their defensive shape, Croatia are generally well-organised, with their back four looking to remain compact and to make it as difficult as possible for their opponents to break them down, and this is one reason that, whilst goals have been a problem for them, they have only conceded twice in their four tournament matches to date.
One of their main focuses is to ensure that the gaps between individual players are kept as even as possible, meaning that the opposing attackers have no avenues to attack through. However, they don’t just look to sit back and instead mix that with pressing from the front, as individual players move out of line to close the ball down whenever it enters their vicinity, just as Sosa is doing here when Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech has possession on the nearside of the pitch.
Once Ziyech has moved the ball towards a teammate, Sosa retreats back into the defensive line and allows another player to move forwards, and that process continues until the danger is over. Using both ways of defending simultaneously has proven to be a very effective way of keeping opponents out, with a lot of teams playing this way, and getting the details of it right will be essential if Croatia are to have any chance of limiting Brazil’s threat.
What will concern Zlatko Dalić is how vulnerable his team are when they don’t have the same amount of time to set up this way, with this situation showing the two full-backs out of possession after pushing up the field to support an attack. However, now, De Bruyne has the ball and has Dries Mertens ahead of him, with Celtic’s Josip Juranović trying to get back but not able to in time.
This is a situation not too dissimilar to the one highlighted in the first section of this analysis when Croatia were attacking and had options on either side of the pitch, so they would have known about the dangers of leaving these spaces open. On this occasion, they were let off by Belgium lacking composure in the final third, as Mertens blazed his effort over the bar, but, again, a more clinical side like Brazil will not make the same mistake.
Like Croatia, Brazil also focus on using the wings when building their attacks, but their shape generally resembles a 4-3-3, meaning that their full-backs don’t need to push forward in quite the same way.
This situation shows how they look to get numbers forward when in possession, with Richarlison leading the line and Raphinha and Vinícius Jr. providing the width on either side of him (Neymar has more often than not taken up a playmaker role behind them).
The key thing to mention with this is how far apart the three forward players are from each other, with them stretching across the entirety of the pitch and covering a high percentage of it. The reason that this has been effective is that it forces the opposing defensive line to spread out and leave spaces open in the middle, which is where the likes of Neymar and Richarlison have been able to find space and get on the end of deliveries into the goal area.
If, however, the defenders don’t move towards the wings, as South Korea have chosen not to here, then Brazil can instead use their wide attackers to move the ball behind the opposing lines, and that is another thing that has been common to see, with Raphinha and Vinícius Jr. both creating and scoring goals during their four games so far at the tournament.
It is not only the central players who make runs through the middle though, because Brazil have also tried to bring their wide players inside the field as much as possible to create numerical overloads in the half-spaces, again making it as difficult as possible for their opponents to keep them out. In this case, against Serbia, Raphinha has noticed that there is an opportunity to expose a gap between the Serbian midfielders and their back five.
This is where another of Brazil’s key tactics is introduced, as they have shown themselves to be good at linking up different areas of the pitch when moving the ball around inside the final third. In this case, once Raphinha cuts inside, he passes to his teammate and then moves forward to receive the return ball, with Serbia unable to prevent the Barcelona forward from having a shot on goal. Therefore, even when it seems like teams have a strong defensive structure in place, Brazil have found a way to carve them open, and that is one of the reasons that they are considered by many to be potential winners of this year’s tournament.
Their transitions, however, have shown a few issues with regards to their team selections, as not having the right combination of players can lead to them either not having the ability to find their forward players or lacking protection once they lose the ball.
The first point was best highlighted in the game against Switzerland when they named Manchester United duo Fred and Casemiro in their starting lineup. However, whilst both are good players to have on the field, neither is an attack-minded player and instead, both sat back and didn’t look to push too far up the field. They did have West Ham United’s Lucas Paquetá on the pitch as well, but he struggled to move balls into the front three on his own, so Brazil as a team had the appearance of being disjointed.
In the second half, they looked to amend this by withdrawing Fred and introducing Newcastle United’s Bruno Guimarães, who has shown a good range of passing and an ability to find teammates from deeper areas during his time on Tyneside. His arrival, coupled with Switzerland’s decision to sit back more after the break, meant that Brazil were able to transfer the ball into the path of Vinícius Jr. on more occasions (he had been quiet beforehand), bringing him into the game, and the fact that Casemiro’s late winner came when he got into space between Switzerland’s lines and received a pass showed how this change of tactics was key to Brazil’s transitions containing more precision.
The ease with which they were able to change their way of playing means that they are adaptable and have players who suit different match situations, and that is another reason that they are seen by many as potential winners.
When they lose the ball and need to move back into their own third, Brazil’s immediate focus is on marking individual opponents and limiting the options that the attackers have available to them. In this case, Cameroon winger Moumi Ngamaleu has possession on the far side of the field and is looking to send it into the middle for a teammate to get on the end of. However, he has been put under pressure by PSG’s Marquinhos, who has gone across to close him down, whilst striker Vincent Aboubakar, who is the only passing option available, is being closed down by Éder Militão.
Therefore, he now can’t move the ball into the middle and instead has to play it backwards, which lessens the threat and gives Brazil time to get the rest of their team back to set up in the shape that has been highlighted previously.
When Croatia are looking to counterattack, they will need to ensure that they keep moving the ball around at speed, otherwise, they too will be unable to turn promising situations into shots on goal.
When Brazil have time to set their defensive shape up, they, like Croatia, focus on making themselves hard to beat and on keeping the ball as far away from their goal area as possible, and the fact that they have only conceded two goals indicates that they are tough to beat when they have players back inside their own third.
This situation shows their defensive line, and the first thing to note is how compact they are, with the four defenders never far away from each other. They don’t have much interest in pushing out to the wings and pressing the ball, which is where they differ from their quarter-final opponents, but instead focus on forcing the attackers to move the ball across the pitch in their efforts to find a way through.
Their opponents, as a result, are often forced to take shots from a long way out, which lessens the accuracy of their efforts. Against South Korea, this worked to perfection on a number of occasions, with Wolves forward Hwang Hee-chan sending the ball over the bar once it came to him here. It is worth noting that the East Asian side did score their only goal of the game from long range, which will give Croatia hope that, even if they are forced to shoot from these kinds of distances, they can still find the back of the net, but it does give them something to keep in mind as they prepare their game plan before Friday.
What Brazil do need to watch is that they can be easily opened up when teams take the ball into the wide channels before transferring it into the middle, and Switzerland found this out in the first half of their group game before they opted to sit back. In this case, left-back Ricardo Rodriguez has found Augsburg winger Ruben Vargas in the middle from the near side of the pitch, and the angle from which his pass has entered the goal area has made Brazil unsure of themselves and unable to react to it.
On this occasion, Vargas was unable to sort his feet out and the opportunity wasn’t converted, but the fact that it came about with such ease shows that this is a weakness in Brazil’s overall defensive play, and it is something that Croatia can definitely exploit when the two sides meet.
This preview has largely focused on the individual tactics that both Croatia and Brazil use in attack, defence and during transitions, and has looked at how each can open up the other and take control of the game. There is no doubt that both teams have a strong chance of winning this encounter and progressing to the last four, but only if they get the details of their game plan right, as both teams are capable of capitalising on individual mistakes.
As a potential outcome, it seems more likely that Brazil will progress, simply because they have looked strong during the tournament so far and have been growing as the games have gone by. What could let Croatia down is that like it or not, their key players are ageing and won’t really be in the game for much longer, whereas Brazil have a young side that is continually developing and showing no signs of slowing down. Therefore, Croatia will likely have to take off some of their star names during the game, whereas Brazil may not have to, and that might give them the edge in this contest.