Mexico vs. Germany
Juan Carlos Osorio had a plan, Joachim Low didn’t.
Mexico had wanted to hit Germany with counter-attacks and designed every minute detail to maximize that tactic before the game. They started in the 4-2-3-1 and switched to a 4-4-2 in the defensive phase. Like Nigeria, they also put two bodies in front of Germany’s central midfielders, Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira, when they had the ball. But in contrast to Nigeria – who had to settle for Croatian center backs to carry the ball forward so that they could block Rakitic and Modric – Mexico encouraged Germany’s central defenders, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, to advance the possession. They wanted the Germans to move into the attacking positions and transition into the offensive phase so that they would, in turn, find space in the counter-attack at the other end. Had Mexico’s players pressured Hummels and Boateng during the build-up, Marvin Plattenhardt and Joshua Kimmich wouldn’t have pushed so high to provide width. They would have stayed close to their center backs so that they could diffuse the pressure. Mexico didn’t want to confront them so early when Germany had the ball. They wanted Plattenhardt and Kimmich to move up so that their wingers, Miguel Layun and Hirving Lozano, could attack Hummels and Boateng in a 1 vs. 1 situation. Mexico set their confrontation line about five to ten yards outside of the penalty box. Their defensive pressure escalated once the ball moved past that line.
Javier Hernandez was Mexico’s lone striker, but he was never their attacking option. They always wanted to find Layun, Lozano, and Carlos Vela in the counter-attack. Hernandez was often the bait or the lure to confuse Germany’s defenders. When Mexico counter-attacked, Vela was the creative outlet and provided the through pass for Layun and Lozano. They would run from the outside. Hernandez almost always ran away from the ball to at least drag a defender away with him. He was always Vela’s last passing option. Layun and Lozano were quick and could surge past any defender, Hernandez couldn’t. Had they aimed to use Hernandez as the primary attacker, Hummels and Boateng would have been able to delay him long enough until the reinforcement arrived.
Mexico might have sat back and waited for the counter-attack opportunities, but they didn’t intend to settle for a draw. They took a lot of risks even when they defended. The set-up of Mexico defense in the set-pieces showed that attitude; when they could find the opportunity, they would only have one or at most two extra player to provide defensive cover in a corner or a free-kick even when the Germans had a height advantage. Again, Hernandez would move back so that they could leave Vela, Layun, and Lozano upfront to counter-attack. Hummels and Boateng were brilliant in most of their one-on-one plays against the Mexican attackers, but they were overwhelmed when Mexico kept pounding on them.
Germany had a significant problem in the game. They lost the control of the transition:
They lost the ability to dominate those 50-50 duels. They were always slow to hit those loose balls. You may blame Kroos and Khedira for the leaky midfield defense, but winning the transition isn’t an individual effort. Pressing and attacking the loose ball is a collective effort. Everyone needs to work when you press. Germany didn’t merely lack a defensive midfielder; they lacked a defensive attitude.
That lack of defensive awareness was made worse but their inability to finish an offensive play. Germany couldn’t manipulate a tight defense like Spain, Brazil, or Argentina. They need speed and space to attack. On the right side, Thomas Muller and Timo Werner always used positional exchanges to penetrate Mexico’s defense. But as Mexico contended to sit deep, they couldn’t generate an area big enough to get through. As Mexico got used to their movements, Germany couldn’t find the pass quick and precise enough to open up the defense. On the left side, Mesut Ozil and Julian Draxler always wanted to combine with quick, one-touch passes to attack. But they weren’t Andres Iniesta and Isco. They also needed some space to operate. Draxler is an inverted winger and strongly right-footed. He always wanted to turn inside to shoot, but he always found himself facing a wall of Mexico defenders. Germany’s plays often broke down outside of the penalty box. As they didn’t hit those loose balls quick enough, Mexico could always find their attackers up front.
Germany should have sent in more crosses. You watch the game again you would find most of their dangerous chances (other than Kroos’ shots) came when they had crossed before Mexico could organize the defense. These crosses also gave Germany an extra advantage; they could prevent Mexico from transitioning into the counter-attack. Sure Germany didn’t have a bomber, but you bet their players would hit that loose ball from a cross if it landed close to the six yards boxes. Doing so would have put extra pressure on Mexico and Germany might have been able to control the tempo better than they did.
Low had thought that his once invincible German machine would come through when World Cup began. But they didn’t. His Germany isn’t as strong as he thinks, and he has little time to dig them out of this hole. World Cup is an unforgiving competition. You don’t have time to experiment or fix things. Once you get there, your team is pretty much a final product. Germany’s journey in Russia won’t be pretty.
Croatia vs. Nigeria
For now, Andrej Kramaric and Ante Rebic are Croatia’s most important players. They aren’t better than Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric. In fact, Croatia has never seen players like them since its independence from Yugoslavia, not even Zvonimir Boban nor Robert Prosinecki. When you have players like them, you want to use them wisely. That consideration is precisely why Kramaric and Rebic are so vital for them at this stage. For now, Croatia sets its tactics based on that consideration.
Against Nigeria, Croatia fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Rakitic and Modric as the double pivot. Rakitic was the initiator of their offensive phase. He dropped on the same line with the center backs to collect the ball. Rakitic always aimed to connect with Modric in the midfield. But because the Croatian captain was always marked closely, Rakitic would circulate the ball using Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida until Modric could free himself from his marker. Modric sometimes surged forward to create enough space for Andrej Kramaric to receive the ball in the midfield. Nigeria’s players responded by moving back to form a mid-block in the center. Modric would then move away from the opponent’s half to receive the ball. Croatia always tried to have Modric dictating the play.
Nigeria always wanted to have three lines of defenders in front of Rakitic and Modric. Modric is especially dangerous. He can always split the defensive line with his dribbling and passing. Nigeria would try to wall them off in the center. The two central midfielders wouldn’t take a risk to work through the packed space. They often tried to use a long pass to bypass the defensive block and find their wingbacks or wingers on the flank. The most dangerous play came when Ante Rebic, Ivan Perisic, and Kararic overloaded Nigerian right back Shehu Abdullahi.
The Croatian playmakers’ extensive passing range put Super Eagles in a difficult situation; Nigeria didn’t want to press too high but needed to put bodies in front of Raktitc and Modric at all times. Leaving them alone meant they could keep sending those long-range missiles toward the attackers. But when both of them dropped on the same line with the center backs, John Obi Mikel and Oghenekaro Etebo had to join Odion Ighalo to close them down. Doing that made their defense too passive; they had to leave Lovern and Vida open. The Croatian defenders could carry the ball forward:
They didn’t have the technique to solve the two remaining Nigerian’s defensive lines, but they also didn’t have pressure piled on them. They could try to find the best passing lane toward Mario Mandzukic. He could hold off the defenders and allowed Kramaric, Rebic, or Perisic to play off his second pass.
Nigeria had to live with those risks because the alternative scenario of leaving Rakitic and Modric attacking their center wasn’t an option. This kind of dilemma shows you how great the Croatian playmakers are: Their mere presence from the deep area prevented Nigeria from forming a compact shape. Just being there opened up the opponent’s defense.
These tactics didn’t maximize Rakitic and Modric’s immense talents, but they did the job. Croatia didn’t need them to do the heavy lifting at this stage. They didn’t want their most prized assets to be pounded by the opponent’s tackles. Croatia only needed them to create enough space for Rebic and Kramaric to attack. These considerations are the reason why Kramaric is starting as an attacking midfielder: he can do the dirty work of wrestling with the opponent’s defenders and capitalized all the chances Rakitic and Modric generated. They needed someone who could finish a chance, not creating one. The time will come when Croatia need Modric to take over those mud-fights once they go far in the competition. So for now, Rebic and Kramaric are Croatia’s most important players because they can spare their best players from wasting their energy at this initial stage of the competition. The better they perform, the longer they can shield Rakitic and Modric from the meaningless pounding, and the farther Croatia can go in Russia.