With this almost certainly being this Croatian golden generation’s last World Cup, it was no surprise that Zlatko Dalic’s side opted for a controlled possession-based approach, which took them to just 90 minutes away from World Cup glory in Moscow just four years prior. But this is not the same team of four years ago such influential and integral players from that hyper-successful team, such as Ivan Rakitic and wondrously clinical Mario Mandzukic are no longer part of the Croatian national team. Two of what was once, their most dangerous attacking threats to opposition are no more.
Morocco started the contest in a rigged in a 4-1-4-1 out of possession in order to match the Croatia midfield with Nordin Amrabat blocking passing lanes into Andrej Kramaric who naturally drops into the false 9 position. Luka Modric began operating by dropping in between centre-backs to operate as the six. Which lead to early difficulties of the Croatian’s building up from the back and keeping the ball reflected in having a lower than expected 59% possession in the first period.
Both sides early on in the tie were looking to create progressive passages of play, with both teams opting for a similar in-possession set up as far as formation. But with Amrabat happy to operate as the pivot on the half turn while Modric looked to face up the opposition.Embed from Getty Images
It was also a tactic early from the Morocco side to, on specific triggers, aggressively press the Croatian side in packs of three, specifically the front three in order to overpower the potentially compromised athleticism of the Croatians. With Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic not having much game time due to injury and Modric’s ripe age of 38.
Although a distinct discrepancy in tempo did develop as the first half progressed, with Morocco looking to play quickly and more direct with Croatia understandably opting for of the control approach that they opt to maintain the control of games. The lack of ball progression from the Croatian side was epitomised with the only shot on the Moroccan goal within the first 20 minutes being a speculative (albeit not too far away) left footed shot from around 30 yards from Ivan Perisic.
As the game progress and the former finalists were looking to gain more of a foothold in the final third Modric began to slowly take up positions further up the pitch and his side going to more of a two-man pivot with Brozovic and giving Kovacic more of a license to go forward.Embed from Getty Images
The right-side of the Moroccan’s understandably gave Croatia a lot of problems with Hakim Ziyech drifting inside to aid with build up further up the pitch allowing PSG’s Ashreyf Hakimi to make those surging, powerful runs up and the right flank.
One difficulty that Croatia had in the first half specifically was despite the midfield continuing to stretch the Moroccan defence with superbly accurate forward passes to Nikola Vlasic due to the seemingly lack of athleticism in the Croatian team they struggled to provide support in promising positions. Despite arguably having the better of the first 45 minutes the best and only chance came from the Croatian side when Yassine Bounou firstly punched the ball away from a dangerous cross destined for Kramaric. However, his clearance only went as far as Perisic centrally around who expertly shifted the ball to the overlapping run of Borna Sosa who slid the ball to an incoming Vlasic but was thwarted at close range again by Bounou.
Although there was eventually some action to end the first half with a cluster of shots, first from Vlasic which was subsequently blocked on the edge of the box and then the rebound fortuitously fell to an unmarked Luka Modric on the edge of the box. But his left-footed strike was taken uncomposed and saw itself clear the cross bar by some distance. Bounou also found himself called into action early into the second with a brilliant punching save to clear the ball in the six-yard box after an under hit Modric in-swinging corner was flicked on by Perisic.Embed from Getty Images
The apparent game plan of the Croatians to keep control of the game and withstand the high intensity of the Moroccans and essentially dare the Moroccan coach to make the most of his bench in order to maintain that level once the hour mark struck an obvious drop occurred as they dropped into more of a mid to deep block in order to close the spaces for forwards passes. As this occurred the more experienced side started to really take charge of the tie. Pinning their opponents continuously in their final third as they tired. Leaving the Moroccans only means of attack to counterattack quickly which in turn took places like Ziyech out of the game as he’s a player who wants the ball to feet in the final third not to sprint the length of the pitch.
There were a few firsts amongst the Croatian side despite its perceived age, Lovro Majer made his world cup debut as a second half substitute in an attempt to give more dynamism to the midfield, along with 20-year-old Josko Gvardiol who displayed a centre-back performance well beyond his years, alongside the vastly experienced and extremely accomplished former Liverpool and Champions league winner 34-year-old Dejan Lovren. Now playing his football for Zenit Saint-Petersburg, making his 74th appearance for his country and playing in his 3rd World Cup.Embed from Getty Images
The fear of losing did seemingly overcome wanting to win for both sides in the end. In a group which will be difficult for all teams to escape from it may have turned out to be a very valuable point especially with Canada succumbing to defeat against Belgium. But with Belgium next for the Croatian’s they will be desperate for an improved result in order to place their destiny in the own hands in their final game against Canada.