Nigeria faced off against Croatia in the second game of Group D, after group favourites Argentina and debutants Iceland the other two members of the group had earlier played a 1-1 draw, it was clear that the winner of this match would gain the advantage in this tricky group.
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NIGERIA: (4-2-3-1) Uzoho / Shehu – Ekong – Balogun – Idowu / Ndidi – Etebo – Mikel / Moses – Iwobi – Ighalo
Coach: Gernot Rohr
CROATIA: (4-2-3-1) Subasic / Vrsaljko – Lovren – Vida – Strinic/ Rakitic – Modric – Kramaric / Mandzukic – Perisic – Rebic
Coach: Zlatko Dalic
CROATIA’S GAME PLAN:
Croatia started the game in their 4 – 2 – 3 – 1 formation with Rakitic and Modric acting as the two sixes. Nigeria were reticent to engage in high pressing of any sort and generally began challenging Croatia’s build up in and around the half way line. During the first phase of the build-up, the Super Eagles would let Subasic pass to the centre backs, veteran Obi Mikel would step up alongside Ighalo to discourage passes into the two sixes thereby transforming the team’s shape into a 4-4-2. To find space, Rakitic or Modric or sometimes both would drop outside Nigeria’s block to receive from the centre backs, their proximity to the centre backs discouraged the Nigerian players from following, and in the moments when Ighalo tried to press, he was not supported by his team and so could not really affect the play.
Having both sixes outside the opposition shape meant that Croatia had few bodies with which to play through Nigeria, and s they did something else: they played around and over the block. Croatia’s most productive attacks came from long balls from Modric or Rakitic towards Mandzukic who focused on getting knock downs for his oncoming teammates to get shots away.
Croatia’s #passmap courtesy of @11tegen11. The pass map shows the relatively deep positioning of Croatia’s 6’sand the central positioning of the front three, which makes considering their emphasis on using Mandzukic for knock downs, necessitating the wingers to be more central to benefit from them.
Alternatively, they would seek to manipulate Nigeria’s man marking on the flanks to create space in the opposite half-space; they usually started this on the right hand side, slowly circulating before passing towards Vrsaljko to trigger Iwobi to press, the right back would then pass the ball back to Modric in the right half-space, Kramaric would then move over bringing Ndidi with him and creating a gap in the left half space that could be exploited by Perisic vacating the wing and inverting due to Moses’ fixation on marking Strinic with no regard for horizontal compactness.
Moment showing Nigeria’s 4-4-2 formation and their lack of horizontal compactness on account of Moses’ fixation with defending his flank thereby leaving Kramaric free to attack the left half-space. The image also shows Modric dropping to outnumber Nigeria’s front two, allowing Lovren to dribbling forward and exploit the resulting space
Modric or sometimes even Lovren could then pass diagonally into that space, but Croatia rarely sought to utilize these moments and when they did, the Nigerian midfield were quick to recover and either foul the ball carrier or regain possession; Etebo was very impressive in this regard.
NIGERIA’S GAME PLAN:
Nigeria for their part set up in an attacking 4-2-3-1 with Ndidi and Etebo playing as a double pivot and Mikel just ahead of them with Moses and Iwobi and the right and left wingers respectively and Ighalo as the centre forward. Like Croatia, Nigeria were relatively conservative in their attacking attempts, with Etebo and Ndidi circulating comfortably amongst themselves and to the fullbacks, when they decided to push forward, they generally funneled their attacks down the flanks. On the right, they depended strongly on Moses’ dribbling abilities to get into offensive areas but much didn’t come from it due to persistent fouling and ball losses due to inadequate support structures around the ball carrier, forcing him to dribbling into dead ends.
On the left hand side, the dynamics were different as Mikel frequently came over to combine with Iwobi and the left back Idowu was more adventurous than Shehu on the right. This led to some nice combination moves with Iwobi cutting inside to overload the half-space. In the end, this happened on too few occasions to make any sort of difference.
Nigeria’s #passmap courtesy of @11tegen11. The pass map shows Nigeria’s relatively conservative possession game and the different dynamics between Moses on the right and Iwobi on the left, with the Arsenal player playing in an inverted role while the Chelsea man hugged the touchline.
In the end, the game was decided by two set pieces, a stroke of luck and a moment of madness with Ekong conceding the penalty that sealed the game as a contest. Both teams set up in similar fashion, with a strong emphasis on building attacks out wide and with direct balls to their respective centre forwards; Croatia executed their game plan better than Nigeria with a better second ball structure than the Super Eagles. The technical quality of both teams also played a part with some Nigerian attacks breaking down as a result of poor passes. The result leaves Nigerian hopes of qualification to the knockout stages hanging by a thread with the super Eagles needing positive results against both Iceland and Argentina to have any hope of qualification. If Nigeria can fix their offensive issues with a better structure to support the wide player in possession, then they might just have a chance.
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