While it was Spain vs Italy that caught the imagination in the first round of Group C fixtures, the evening match between the Republic of Ireland and Croatia was also a fascinating watch.
Croatia’s 3-1 win was a deserved scoreline in a match that had two contrasting styles within similar 4-4-1-1 systems. In a sense, it was as good an example as any that a formation in association football is entirely neutral. It is the use of the players within the system, and how you use them, that defines a set-up that appears positive or otherwise.
Ireland played as they typically do under Trapattoni. The central midfield partnership of Andrews and Whelan stayed tight in front of their defence when they had to, while their full-backs chipped balls towards Doyle up front to hold the ball up and bring others in to play.
Croatia showed their class, using a variety angles in their approach in attack. In particular, Croatia’s quality of distribution from their wide midfielders and full-backs made the difference, with the advancing full-backs having a contribution – even if it was indirectly – to the goals.
The importance of the full-back
When two 4-4-2 based formations meet on the pitch, it is typically the full-back positions that are free of markers. It is so often the case that full-backs are the players with the time and space to look up and potentially dictate a match. It is no surprise to see the modern full-back have such an important role with teams going forward.
The difference in approach among Ireland’s O’Shea and Ward with Srna and Strinic, was marked.
It took only the second minute of the match for Croatia to take advantage in the match. Croatia’s forward Mandzukic scored with a free header from a corner kick, but the corner was a set-piece which resulted from Croatia’s left-back Strinic getting to the bye-line at the very start of the match. Offering the overlap to the generally right-footed Perisic from the outset set the tone for Croatia’s attacking style.
It is perhaps in their nature not to get forward as much, but it is certainly a characteristic of Trapattoni’s Ireland team that his full-backs didn’t offer McGeady and Duff an overlap. Ireland’s general approach in the game was for either Whelan or Andrews to get on the ball, spread the play to their respective flanks (Whelan passing left, to Ward; Andrews right to O’Shea), then for the full-back to chip the ball forward for Doyle to hold on to. Doyle’s physique and industry caused his marker Corluka problems for the duration of the time that Doyle was on the pitch.
Croatia conceded a number of free kicks in channels, which were Ireland’s best opportunities to score. It was indeed Corluka who conceded the free kick and who was marking St Ledger at the far post for Ireland’s equaliser at 1-1. In open play, Ireland were at their best with Doyle looking to combine with Keane and McGeady (who was conservative and poor overall) with loose balls after the initial long pass towards Doyle. It was not necessarily beautiful football, but it was Ireland’s best opportunity of finding their attacking players with the ball high up the pitch, without having to risk their full-backs getting forward.
However, in the middle of all of this full-back/forward play was Modric, who controlled the tempo for most of the match.
Modric was not particularly incisive in the first quarter of the match, but he was always an available option to pass to. With his midfield partner Vukojevic being marked by the deep-lying Keane, the onus was on Modric to keep his country’s possession of the ball. Modric was getting time to play in front of the Ireland midfield, because the default position for the opposing midfielders Whelan and Andrews was to sit off and protect the Ireland back four.
Modric was most definitely playing his Spurs role, in a very similar 4-4-1-1 formation. Modric would look good in any system, but he has made the central midfield role in a 4-4-1-1 his own because of his vision and control. Modric knows when to spread play wide or when to take the ball forward and be more vertical in his approach (by taking the ball forward himself and pinging passes through to the forwards). His almost peerless close control means that it is difficult to press him, which allows him the space to make the decision needed.
With the score still at 1-1 late in the first half, and with Ireland sitting so deep, the temptation for Croatia was to run with the ball inwards. The lack of space immediately in front of Ireland’s penalty box meant that Croatia then had to look sideways, but Croatia’s positivity was reinforced by the near-permanent option of the overlap on the outside. Croatia’s second goal came from a loose ball to Jelavic after another corner kick, but it was Srna’s ability in getting forward that won the corner in the first place, just as it was with Strinic at the start of the match.
The start of the second half carried on in the same vein as the first, with Croatia killing the game off straightaway. Modric assisted in the spreading of play from Srna to Strinic, who laid the ball off to Perisic, who crossed for Mandzukic to score. It was a patient build-up with the ball having changed flanks at least a couple of times before the cross went in.
After the third goal, Modric was less intent in vertical penetration. He concentrated on bringing the full-backs into play as a means of keeping possession. Croatia’s tempo dropped noticeably as the match wore on, possibly as a psychological reaction to protecting a two-goal margin, probably as a result of Ireland now having to chase the result.
Ireland created a few chances towards the end of the match from set pieces, but there was never any real convincing play that dominated Croatia. It will take good fortune and some fantastic individual displays for Ireland to escape the group, with fixtures against Italy and Spain to follow.
Croatia looked like a fluent, balanced team going forward. It will be interesting to see how the cope against stronger sides: if they cannot penetrate from the flanks then there is too much of a creative burden on Modric, who is too deep to successfully operate as the lone playmaker. Mandzukic fully deserved the two goals he scored, but he will have a hugely important role in assisting the midfield as the tournament progresses.
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