So, while Korea was taking care of business versus Haiti, our next opponents (Croatia) were doing battle with their archrivals Serbia in World Cup qualifying. Croatia ended up drawing that match 1-1 with Serbia, ending Serbian hopes of Brazil, while keeping Croatian hopes alive. Korean fans will be familiar with our opponents given that we played them not long ago, and that most of their players ply their trade in the big leagues (and at the big clubs) in Europe.
First off a disclaimer. The vast majority of this analysis may not provide much insight into the team we will see next Tuesday. Due to the distance between Serbia (where the qualifier was played) and Korea, and due to the fact this is a friendly, Croatia has released almost half their squad back to their club teams. So, the line up and players that feature for Croatia will be very different. Nevertheless, I’ve decided that the tactics that Croatian manager Igor Stimac will likely be similar. So . . .
Croatian Starting XI vs Serbia
Croatia fielded their best XI versus Serbia in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Their XI was: Pletikosa, Srna, Corluka, Simunic, Lovrens, Vukojevic, Modric, Olic, Rakitic, Mandzukic, and Eduardo.
*Note: of the starting XI, only Lovren, Rakitic, Srna, and Eduardo will make the trip to Korea.
1st Half – Scoreline Croatia 0 Serbia 0
In the first half with the score at 0-0, Croatia looked to play their normal game, which is based on short passes with Modric at the center of everything. Modric is loosely given a free role in the center of pitch, with Rakitic dropping deeper on the left to cover for him. Bayern frontman, Mario Mandzukic, moved more to the left into the space Rakitic vacated, giving Croatia a loose 4-3-3 look.
Initially, Croatia didn’t change much in terms of their shape (from their offensive one), keeping a rough 4-3-3 shape. Most likely Croatia figured that they could cope with Serbia’s attacking pressure without committing all their resources to defense, allowing the attacking three to stay higher and counter. For the most part, Croatia’s strategy worked as Serbia struggled to create many clear cut chances despite controlling the tempo of the match. As the half went on and Serbia continued to put on the pressure, Olic started dropping deeper defensively, giving Croatia a more common 4-4-2 look.
2nd Half Scoreline Croatia 1 Serbia 0
After Croatia scored the opener following an individual error by Serbia, and a cool finish from Mandzukic, Stimac almost immediately changed the shape of the team to a more defensive shape. Bringing off Ivica Olic, and replacing him with Ivan Perisic. While Perisic has plenty of attacking ability, he is a more natural wide midfielder at this point. Olic is a more natural forward. Croatia proceeded to take a more defensive 4-4-2 formation for the most part in an attempt to see out Serbia’s pressure. The move both succeeded and failed depending on how you want to look at it. It succeeded in that Croatia managed to secure a draw and a point (and knock Serbia out), and failed in that Croatia conceded a goal.
A tale of two halves for Serbia. In the first half they were clearly the dominant side, with the Croatian attack barely getting a sniff of the ball. The key? Pressure. While Croatia was content to allow Serbia time in their own half, Serbia generally pressed Croatia all over the pitch. Modric didn’t have the time to really pick out dangerous passes, and the attackers who dropped deeper, initially Rakitic and later Olic, didn’t have the time to get forward and support Mandzukic and Eduardo. On their own, Mandzukic and Eduardo were generally easily contained by the Serbian centerbacks and deeper midfielders.
On the attack, Serbia found their best chances from the fullbacks. As mentioned earlier, The wide Croatian attackers were less willing to drop deep and pick up Ivanovic on the right and Kolorov on the left, leaving them freer to get forward. Ivanovic in particular had plenty of time, but being a centerback by trade, he wasn’t able to do too much.
The turning point came at the half, although Serbia looked to be tiring from their constant pressure late in the first half. In the side, really Modric is the only player who is very good with the ball at his feet, and even then he had some trouble getting accurate passes together. With Croatia unable to play their normal game, they struggled to get a plan B going. Modric is a good passer, he doesn’t have the necessary range to deliver accurate long balls over the top, something that could be seen last season at Madrid when Mourinho attempted to use him as a direct replacement for Xabi Alonso. As a result Croatia failed to make much of an offensive impact. Once Serbia started tiring and standing off more, Croatia grew more into the game, and was at least able to get some possession in Serbia’s half.
Possible Lessons for Korea
It’s difficult to draw too much from this match given the massive changes that will occur in the Croatian side. Particularly the absence of Luka Modric. Without him, Croatia will likely look a fairly different side as their isn’t another player who is at his level. And, as such, tactically Croatia will likely look quite different as well. I’m not too familiar with the players that Croatia is bringing (most play in Ukraine, Croatia, or Russia), but I’d guess that they’ll likely line up in a rough 4-4-2, similar to Croatia’s second half look.
However, there are a couple points that Korea can likely take to heart. The main one being pressure. Hong’s teams usually press some, but Korea may want to take a closer look at really exerting pressure in the Croatian half. Croatia won’t likely have many good dribblers who can get out of close situations, so that could be a way to help neutralize any Croatian attacks before they get going. The other point is width. If Croatia does adopt a more 4-4-2 shape this point may not be as useful, but Korea should look to it’s fullbacks to provide some additional threat. Lee Yong is a useful defender, but getting the more forward thinking Kim Chang-Soo on the right could give more benefit if he can combine with Lee Chung-Yong.
The final thing for Korea, is that they will need to be mindful of likely starting forward Eduardo. With 29 goals, Eduardo is Croatia’s highest scorer in the side (even when including the likes of Olic and Mandzukic). I’ve said in the past that Hong-Kim’s biggest weakness is pace and the occasional defensive lapse. Those two things are what Eduardo can expose the most. Croatian captain Darijo Srna will also need to be kept an eye on. Capable of playing as a wide midfielder or fullback, Srna has a quality right foot, and played an inch perfect through ball for Mandzukic’s goal. With Son Heung-Min likely to start on the left wing, the fullback, whether that’s Park Joo-Ho or Yoon Suk-Young will need to mindful not to leave too much space behind.