For the most part of the game, Croatia was happy to control the match tactically. They didn’t do so by possessing the ball comfortably, but by facing Argentina generally without the ball and not letting any chances to be created on the opponent side thanks to their great defensive organisation.
To read more about Argentina v Croatia match and truly understand the match dynamics, head over to The Half Space. The author explains in depth how the teams stood on the pitch and their offensive/defensive organization.
About the author:
Kristóf Bakos, Football fan and analyst from Hungary. Opponent Analyst at ASR Gázgyár between 2016-17. Currently a free agent. Co-Owner of @thehalf_space.
Sometimes you lose a game, because you are unlucky, and sometimes because you are inept. That is the short story of a long hard fought battle Croatia and Portugal played in last 16 match at EURO. Having 17 shots and not a single one on goal, might be unlucky in some cases. It might also mean that one of the sides basically didn’t know what it was doing. Or whatever it was trying, was trying the wrong things. As the stakes are huge in knock out stage both teams came on the pitch determined not to get caught in possession allowing easy chances. They were both disciplined in defence and applied little to no pressure on opposition defence line. Initially, in possession, Croatia was looking for long balls from defensive line to Ivan Perisic who seemed a good target for such approach with his 1,87 m against 15 centimetres lower Southampton right back Cedric.
However, this didn’t work well as Perisic was quickly crowded out by Portugal defence or there were not enough Croatia players to pick up the flick-ons and profit from this mismatch. Combined with these high balls to Perisic, Croatia was using every other possible occasion to channel the play down either wing as you can see in their 1st half offensive zone passing.
However, as they were still quite cautious not to get hit on counter, full backs Srna
and Strinic didn’t go far enough to create overload in wide areas so Portugal dealt with them easily. Below you can see a good example of Portugal defence as the left winger Andre Gomes closes down Srna allowing Raphael to worry only about Brozovic Adrien Silva can position himself to pressure either Brozovic or Modric while Rakitic ‘s run is already under attention of William. Defensive line, in fact whole Portugal, is positioned as in defending schoolbook and they indeed played team defence throughout the game.
Below shot shows huge space in centre midfield as Rakitic pushes forward out of the picture. Space vacated by him isn’t used as both, Modric and Badelj, were firmly anchored on centre line since Croatia is channelling their play through the wings. This way they lose natural 3 on 2 advantage in this area and, as they are too cautious to commit full backs forward, they don’t create any sort of overload in spaces they actually want to attack. Whole Croatia idea of offense was playing into hands of Portugal. Even when they managed to put some crosses in, and they were only eight (two successful), Fernando Santos cleverly replaced agile Ricardo Carvalho with slower but stronger and taller centre back Jose Fonte. Combined with Pepe, those two dealt with everything Croatia could offer in first half.
Portugal was all to happy to defend and was fairly successful doing so. While Croatia had to change something as they had the ball but nowhere near danger zones, Portugal had to wait and react. And indeed Croatia came out of dressing room more eager to do something. For the beginning they started employing much higher pressing. Thing we have seen in the game against Spain that gave them few chances through balls recovered higher up the pitch and that cost them the goal after poorly executed pressing on Spain defensive line.
Additionally, Srna and Strinic pushed forward while Perisic went more central, although still in left wing slot. Despite this more aggressive approach, Croatia still remained true to their long diagonal balls from Corluka or Modric for wingers to get into dangerous position. Not surprisingly, in second half they had the same number of long passes as in the first half when they tried it 26 times. This says that despite more aggressive full backs the main game plan that produced only three low quality shots didn’t really change. You can see below how Croatia is still unwilling to use most dangerous zones of pitch.
What changed was number of crosses that Croatia doubled in the second half. The result was again the same and lot of low quality shots were made resulting with more frustration.
However, really significant change came from Portugal. As Croatia went for more dubious quality pressing, suddenly spaces opened for Portugal. Their passing went more direct, in a way as a result of higher pressing that made for rushed clearances. However, as this pressing often wasn’t executed well, it offered better quick long passes. Noticing this, Fernando Santos made two crucial decisions. He put in 18 year old Renato Sanches and changed his shape from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 with wide wingers Nani and Qaresma. While Sanches was disrupting Croatian game with his physical presence wide wingers occupied vacated spaces of Croatian full backs that pushed up.
The second half situation is really best illustrated by comparison of Portugal offensive passes during 90 minutes of the game. You can see that in first part of the game Portugal was focused mainly down the flank where Cristiano Ronaldo was dropping deeper. Even those passes that came from right were largely aiming at him. However, the second half debunks the idea of Portugal as only one man team.
If you look at above diagram you will notice two things. Most obvious shift of point of attack to the right. This is due to more attacking play of both Croatian fullbacks, but also as targeting the weakest link in Croatia, Lazio reserve Ivan Strinic. The other important change compared to 1st half is the nature of passes. Suddenly there are a lot more of direct long balls into central and wide areas. This, however is due to Croatia poor pressing and great reaction from Fernando Santos who changes shape and uses whatever Croatia was giving him.
In the end, the goal came after Strinic was caught in possession deep in the Portugal half and again the man of the match, Renato Sanches, pops up to run whole length of field before passing to Nani on the edge of the box.
To conclude, the key to the game was Croatia and it’s stubbornness to (poorly) use the wings abandoning the centre of the pitch despite the obvious talent there. As an effect of this, Portugal coach makes change in shape and uses strong Renato Sanches to disrupt that little movement of ball in the middle that Croatia made. Also, Cristiano Ronaldo finally playing disciplined game for the team. As a last words… No doubt this was adaptive Fernando Santos’ winning over stubborn one dimensional Ante Cacic.
Every now and then there is a match of football played somewhere that you should tape only to show it to any doubters of beautiful game. You have teams that are expected to win each time they get on the field and then you have Croatia. They are capable to dominate the game and lose it in last five minutes (Czech Republic, anyone?). Very next match against Spain they go on and field a reserve side and win against the most dominant team of a decade. They don’t only represent the best tradition of erratic Yugoslavian football genius, they surpass it.
Before the kick off it seemed that last round match decided little. Both teams were through, Croatia sided weakened team and Spain was one goal up after only seven minutes. However, by the end of the game the whole outlook of group, and tournament dare I say, changed.
It all began as expected. Croatia without Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Marcelo Brozovic and Domagoj Vida, was unable to cope defensively against robust Spain. High pressing they employed only contributed to disjointed lines and acres of space Spain is so fond of exploiting.
Take a look above you will see several individual tactical errors Croatia made prior to conceding. First, Rakitic is pressing Ramos, and fails. As ball arrives to Iniesta, Rog decides to press again and makes wrong decision as he is late. Now, since Rakitic pressed Ramos, Bousquets remains alone in circle. Now look how wide is Croatia left winger Pjaca and you see the unopposed space Busquets can take the ball to. That is where the goal chance was made possible. Rest is down to what Spain does best – moving into space. It would be much less dangerous if Croatia paid more attention to the most dangerous part of the field – the middle, instead of being occupied with Juanfran who is out of the picture and couldn’t significantly influence the play at that moment.
From then on it seemed like a downhill ride from a Balkan nation as they had a lot of trouble organizing any sound attack. Only Fiorentina’s Milan Badelj was dropping down to connect the defence with midfield and as result Croatia was unable to take the ball in opposition half in any organized manner due to Spain pressing.
Above you can see why Croatia had problems taking the ball out of their own half. Badelj is dropping back but he is marked by Fabregas and Rog (in circle) is completely isolated not helping at all with ball circulation as Spain presses high.
Additionally, It seemed every time Spain got the ball over to Croatia half, they had time and space to turn towards the goal or to shift the ball to one of their free players. In a word, Croatia was unable to cope with frequent changes of positions Spain does and was very prone to through ball. It seemed very easy for them to break the midfield line once they broke through the initial pressing in their own half for whole first period. After all, that is how they scored.
Now take a look at above picture and note where are all Croatia players looking. They are all occupied with Morata who receives the ball and all nine players are looking at him. Not only they aren’t paying attention to other players, they aren’t paying attention where they stand. Srna, right back, has left Nolito alone. Pjaca, the right winger, has left Alaba alone and whole right flank is exposed while potentialy Iniesta and Busquets can get to back pass.
Result of this chaotic defending is that Spain was able to connect quite a few balls from centre field to wings that were dispatched back to centre. Nolito failed to convert one of those chances only a minute after they scored but they had plenty of occasions to push through whatever ball they liked.
Above you see typical situation where David Silva receives the ball, has time to turn and pick the best option. Morata fails to control and only minute later they get punished for this as Croatia scores.
Now, while Croatia was quite poor on defence at the time, that was a result of high pressing of Rakitic and Kalinic who weren’t followed well by midfield four as seen when Spain scored. However, it is precisely this high pressing that gave Croatia most of their chances. They could have equalized as once Ramos was caught in possession and the other time De Gea’s poor touch led to a great chip from Rakitic which ended on the bar.
Finally, Rog swept one deflected ball unopposed, passed it to Ivan Perisic who managed to send in a great cross from left which Kalinic was able to convert. Apart from robbed balls and occasional deep cross from Srna, Croatia posed little threat to Spain and they were fairly confident they could score more. However, things changed a lot in the second half.
Whatever was said in Croatia dressing room worked wonders. First thing noted was Rog who started dropping deeper to help Milan Badelj getting the ball into final third. Then Perisic was finally transferred back to his preferred left flank and most importantly, the biggest weakness, the defensive shape, improved a lot.
After the half time marking from Croatia became much stricter and they weren’t dragged out of position as it was the case in first half of the game.
Croatia is set up much deeper as Rakitic and Kalinic press only when they really have the chance to get to ball or force opposition to clear it aimlessly. Spain is still able to get the the ball forward but they are limited to rushed long shots or crosses that don’t connect. To be fair they manage to pull one good chance as David Silva breaks on the right and sends low cross for Morata who misses the goal.
Del Bosque recognizes Croatia is more compact in defence and sends in strong and tall Aduriz to profit from crosses, however, it doesn’t work. As the game progresses Croatia builds confidence and the real changer was penalty that Monaco goalkeeper saves. From then on Spain is more and more frustrated and in the end Croatia gets the winner as Inter winger Ivan Perisic quickly breaks down the right and scores on near post to grab the Man of the Match award.
Few things made the game, apart the goals of course. Once Croatia got level, they got the opportunity to stay deeper waiting for a break and that change in half time really brought them the chance to win as time went on and Spain became frustrated. Changes Del Bosque made weren’t enough to break Croatia in second half and psychological aspect of the game which might have been just the decisive factor.
It all started well for Spain and according to expectations. They had the game where they wanted and due a wobbly Croatia defending, they had to believe it was only the time they score second time. However, Croatia managed to level and a bit of doubt went in. Maybe not at the moment, but certainly after the half time as Croatia started to play more disciplined game. Breaking point came as they were unable to convert the gifted penalty and were essentially unable to threaten the opposition goal as they are used.
On the other hand, Croatia had a lot to prove, they had luck and overconfident Spain on their side as well. The result however proves Spain isn’t invincible under right circumstances and pushes Croatia into the line of favourites for the tournament. After all, they managed to win even if they played without the best player Luka Modric and half a dozen other first team players.
It wasn’t only flares and other pyro thrown on the pitch that stunned the football world when in 85th minute Croatian fans interrupted the game between Czech Republic in Saint-Ettiene. Legends as Gary Lineker, Thierry Henry, and the likes along all the TV stations were mesmerized why would Croats want to interrupt the match their team was winning while playing maybe the best football we have seen so far in France? Why would they risk UEFA’s punishment that might go as far as suspending Croatia from further competition?
Well, the story is long and those who are a bit deeper into international football might remember flares at San Siro during Euro Qualifiers in November 2014. Croatia was then ordered to play in empty stadiums for a few matches. However, that didn’t prevent incident as swastika appeared on the pitch during the game against Italy (again) despite only officials were at Poljud stadium in Split. Now, why would some parts of Croatian supporter groups go this route really?
Knowing UEFA’s stance on pyro and Nazi symbology, there was a long discussion among Croatian media if the swastika was really an expression of political attitude or just a way to force UEFA to ban Croatia from big tournaments. Well, there is a part of Hajduk Split ultras, Torcida, that call themselves “Hajduk Jugend”. One of most influential part of Dinamo Zagreb ultras, Bad Blue Boys, call themselves “Norci”, meaning “Crazy”. However, it is also the plural of a surname of a convicted war criminal from Croatia, Mirko Norac, who in 1991 ordered the massacre of 19 ethnic Serbian civilians while killing one woman himself. Coincidence? You decide.
To make it a bit more complicated, at the end of the play-off match for Brasil World Cup that Croatia played, in November 2013 against Iceland, in Zagreb there was another incident. Joe Šimunić, mostly known as the only player ever who received three yellow cards in one match, led the choir of about 10 thousand people screaming a Croatian fascist salute used during 2nd World War. Times when Croatian qvisling government has killed tens of thousands non Croats and those opposed to fascist government. He was banned by international football governing bodies for 10 matches which effectively ended his international career as he retired just before World Cup that he would have otherwise participate in summer 2014.
Could you imagine doing this in Germany saying “Sieg Heil”?
Nobody from Croatian Football Federation had a word to say against Šimunić. Currently he is in France with national team as a coach. That doesn’t really surprise as the president of Croatian FA, world renowned striker and Golden Ball at France ’98 World Cup, Davor Šuker happilly took pictures beside the tomb of Ante Pavelić, the head of Croatian fascist state during the 2nd World War.
A curious reader might ask himself why would ultras who write swastikas want to oppose the national team which is governed by a person that takes pictures at the grave of fascist leader… Well, read on.
The fascist choirs, like the one that in 2013 was led by Joe Šimunić can be heard at every match of Croatian national team since Croatian independence in 1991. A quarter of century nobody said anything. Players never objected, FA never objected, TV commentators never heard them, and same behaved the politicians as well as the police.
Just a random match of Croatian national team
What made that possible was the silent suspension of law in Croatia right before the start of war in early ’90s that is still applicable and drags on to present. At those times, early ’90s, it was accepted that non Croats, primarily Serbs, were abused, beaten, their flats bombed, and themselves murdered. There was suspension of law on part of population of Croatia (remember beforementioned Mirko Norac), and as the country was in war, a life of a Serb was worth very little. Part of this suspension of law was executed recalling the tradition of Independent State of Croatia. You have guessed it, that was the name of fascist regime during the 2nd World War.
Now, how does all that tie down, you wonder… Neo-fascist ultras, neo-fascist, or at least, fascist tolerant society lead by such politicians and pro-fascist football association? “Dogs of war” is the answer. Once there is a breakdown of civilized behavior wild packs of dogs are let out to pillage, rape and destroy without being held responsible. There were many types of “Dogs of War” in Croatia. Some were politicians, some petty criminals, a few of them were soldiers, but they all have in common that they have pillaged one way or the other.
While some of those who defended the country during the war indeed believed in merciless fascist regime that echoed back from 2nd World War they were minority. However, they possessed brute force that was tolerated as they were used to defend the country. That lenient approach from political elites comes back to hunt them as those are today represented by ultras such as some parts of Torcida and Bad Blue Boys described before. However, they aren’t alone, a vast majority of organized supporter groups in Croatia are neo-fascist.
There is the other side of that coin mint way back in ’90s and is fundamental to understanding the flares on the pitch in Saint Ettiene. They are the “Dogs of War” who often went along with nationalism and/or fascist legacy of Croatia. Although they were using it, as it gave them the power that came with fear it represented, they were really more interested in their own well being and how to profit from war while banging the drums of it. One of those is a new and key character to understanding why are some of Croatian ultras so stubborn to get their national team out of the big tournaments.
He is a vice president of Croatian FA, and until recently, he was at the helm of most successful club in Croatia, Dinamo Zagreb, for 13 years. He would still be the top man of the club if last year he didn’t step down and changed his role to an advisor after facing the charges for tax evasion and various others misdeeds. Making secret contracts with numerous players from Dinamo Zagreb (Luka Modrć being just most renowned) where he allegedly sold them keeping the money hidden from Croatian IRS. The list of players that came from Dinamo into the national team is huge as it is the only club in country that has firm ties with the state and local government since independence and was able to scrounge every talent in the region and beyond. Allegedly all the players, such as Marcelo Brozović, Mateo Kovačić, Milan Badelj, Vedran Ćorluka, Domagoj Vida, to mention just those currently in the national first 11, have some kind of deal with the man who runs the football in Croatia. Under his helm Dinamo completely depleted the Croatian league of talent, won 12 championships in 13 years, installed the current president of the FA, Davor Šuker, and mightily annoyed anyone who doubts his success is due to shady business more than sheer ability.
Have a bit of pattience and see for yourself the man who owns the football in Croatia
Now, if there was any doubt of shade the state would have already prosecuted him or let him free, you might think. Well, not in Croatia it wouldn’t. Remember those “Dogs of War”? During that war in ’90s they were scourging the country for anything valuable (pun intended). Be it companies formerly owned by the state and then privatized, land, air, see… Anything. And there were a lot of them. Naturally, as they were “Dogs of War” they had a part in the crimes that still go on. Be it by directly being involved in disputed privatization or by rising through political elites and participating in corruption. Therefore today Zdravko Mamić, who also privatized some companies under suspicious circumstances, organizes birthday parties for current president of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar Kitarović. Among numerous prominent friends of his is also Tomislav Karamarko. A leader of biggest party in the country (Croatian Democratic Union). Previous president of that same party, Ivo Sanader, was first prime minister to end up in jail for corruption. Tomislav Karamarko, a close friend of Zdravko Mamić, whot took over got far and was a vice president of Croatian government until two days ago. Why he isn’t any more you wonder?
Well, he voted against prime minister, Tim Orešković, a man whom he installed himself as Orešković wanted the vote of confidence on Karamarko in the Parliament. You see, there are strong suspicions Karamarko’s wife is working for Hungarian oil company that bought Croatian national oil company (the deal previous prime minister Ivo Sanader was trialed and found guilty for corruption). At the same time Karamarko was lobbying in government not to further investigate the case in Hungarian overtake of national oil company. So, to avoid parliamentary discussion he put the machinery of his party in motion and they overthrew their own government . If your head isn’t spinning too much, you should know enough to make your own mind if Croatian supporters were stupid to throw those flares or not.
In any case, it is neo-fascist ultras who are fighting right wing nationalist, self proclaimed guardians of state, for doing to football what they already did to the whole society. And they have silent support from the left. Ain’t that convenient?