France and Croatia will slug it out against each other in the final of the FIFA World Cup as the two sides will look to claim the title of champions. The tournament has lived up to its bill with only two sides remaining now. Croatia have actually made it till the final with their ‘dark horses’ tag, and have a chance to go the distance. They shall start as underdogs though, but rightly so as they are up against Dider Deschamps’ well drilled French side who have individual quality in abundance. Here are some features that could decide the match from a tactical perspective.
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The physical aspect:
Croatia have played 360 minutes of football in comparison to France’s 270 during the knockout stages. While there was probably sufficient rest between the games, there shall be consequences of having played an entire 90 minutes extra than their opponents in France. Croatia are blessed with a lot of players who are capable of running a lot, with the likes of Mandzukic, Perisic, Rakitic, Modric and Brozovic in their ranks. But it would be safe to assume that Croatia will not exhibit a high intense press beyond the opening stages of the game.
The biggest downside to their having played the extra minutes is the fact that they go up against the best physical side in the tournament. France have athletic, physical players amongst their squad who can impose themselves on the opposition while also being blessed with technical finesse. Add this to the fact that they are deadly in transitions and are solid defensively, Croatia would do better than try and press France high, only to be opened up in transitions after being bypassed in their high press.
How both teams might setup against each other:
I have continually held the view that none of the teams in the tournament, beyond the round of 16 stage are intent on keeping possession. This theme shall continue today as well with both France and Croatia better equipped to sacrifice possession and attack better when they win the ball back. There are slight differences, with France more intent on holding their position in their own half before they can break out using Mbappe after evading the opposition press via the likes of Pogba and Griezmann. Croatia on the other hand, have more focus in the centre and try to create an element of chaos to break out quickly. This works in their favour as they have an extremely press resistant player in Modric while they have Ivan Rakitic to effect quick switches in play. They focus on the flanks to create their attacks, even more so than France themselves.
The game shall boil down to Croatia’s ability to win the second balls and hold it until their team moves up the filed in response to France’s ability to counterpress and win second balls themselves. This is down to the fact that neither side will look to dominate possession. It is paramount to both sides that they do not fall behind first as the other would exploit them in transitions if they leave spaces in behind when moving up the pitch.
France have the upper hand in my view as they are defensively very stubborn to break down while they have the tools to nullify Croatia and the individual quality to score against them. Croatia exhibit a 4-4-2-0 press with Modric moving up alongside Mandzukic to close the central channels and force the opponent wide. Both Rebic and Perisic are excellent at tracking back and providing defensive cover. Rakitic and Brozovic hold the centre. This can work well against France, who show an affinity to build down their right side involving Pogba, Pavard and Griezmann. France however can look to make switches in play to the left and stretch Croatia. Number of switches from Pogba down the right halfspace to Lucas/Matuidi on the other side can be expected as a recurring theme in the game.
Pogba switching to the left hand side to Lucas has been a common theme in France’s possession play
Stifling Croatia- how will France defend and counterpress:
Croatia’s build up has been sub-par in the knockout stages. They have looked better when they reclaim second balls and break out down the flanks in numbers. Their second half against England was good with lots of possession and good counterpressing. Despite that, they found the breakthrough via a cross to the back post, creating little from open play. The other chances that they had in that half were all chances from chaotic situations or turnovers.
Luka Modric plays a big role in Croatia’s press resistance and counters. Stifling him would be the key for France. It works in Deschamps’ favour that Blaise Matuidi plays on the same side that can pit him against Modric and we can expect a man marking orientation in this regard from Matuidi on Modric. Ivan Rakitic has been involved in switching play to the right, another recurring theme in Croatia’s buildup. Paul Pogba will need to replicate his defensive performance against Fellaini in the semifinals today too, being pitted against one of the best players in the tournament in the form of Rakitic.
The counterpressing from France has been great in recent games, they shall look to do the same by pressing high in the halfspaces if the ball is lost. Kante provides cover in the centre while Pogba, Mbappe and Griezmann can all access the ball carrier
Deschamps will stick to the same plan as against Belgium by having Giroud shadow Brozovic when Croatia build play. Griezmann can take on Modric in and around the half way line while Matuidi will provide cover below him against Modric. Pogba, as stated above will be tasked with tracking Rakitic and providing cover for their defense.
What can Croatia do to overcome France:
For all of France’s advantages and quality, their possession play has been found wanting many a time with redundant advancement of the ball and lots of crossing. Croatia can aim to stifle France and force their play down the left side where they are not at advantage, away from Pogba in second phase. Preventing Griezmann to get hold of the ball in their own half should be their focus. A 4-4-2-0 block that can block off inside passes is well within Croatia’s limits, their primary defensive shape too when defending spaces. Blocking off any routes to Griezmann would take away the natural flow of France’s attack and make them easier to defend against. Lovren and Vida are capable of defending crosses into the box.
Croatia can look to cede space in the flanks and block central channels so that France cannot access Griezmann in the centre when they have the ball
Beating France’s counterpress would be difficult, but in a one off knockout game, anything is possible if a single goal is scored. Modric is capable of relieving himself of any sort of pressure while they have Perisic and Rebic to run the flanks despite any amount of defending. The below graphic illustrates what Dalic might expect from his players and arguably outline their approach to this game.
The final promises to be an engrossing encounter tactically. The match might be decided by a single goal unless Croatia score early and force France to attack them. A number of quality individuals from both sides, with both sides’ midfielders in Modric-Rakitic and Kante-Pogba. It promises to be a tale of either a golden generation winning their title or the dark horses going all the way in winning the title as underdogs.
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