After their historic World Cup campaign and the international retirements of a couple of key figures, we look at how this Croatia side has adapted a year on from their 2018 heroics. This tactical analysis will also take a look as to whether Wales have shown any signs of promise under Ryan Giggs despite the 2-1 loss on the day.
Fresh off scoring 22 goals in all competitions for his club side Hoffenheim, Andrej Kramaric steps into the shoes left behind by Mario Mandzukic following his retirement from the national team by leading the line-up front for Croatia. Likewise, Dominik Livakovic continues to increase his growing reputation in European football by replacing the veteran Danijel Subasic in goal.
Ryan Giggs fielded a side varied in age and experience, mixing current mainstays such as Gareth Bale and Ben Davies with up-and-coming youngsters in Daniel James, Harry Wilson, and teenager Matthew Smith.
Midfield rotation gives Croatia the edge
From the very onset of the game, it was clear that Croatia’s central midfield set out in a very fluid structure with plenty of rotation between the trio. When in possession of the ball, the trio would interchange between positions and structures in order to manipulate the deep Wales block.
As Wales were prepared to sit deep behind the halfway line and fall into a rigid 4-5-1 formation off the ball, Croatia had to find a way to disturb and distort their opposition. To achieve this, Real Madrid player Luka Modric and Mateo Kovačić in particular, were excellent at mirroring and complimenting each other’s movements in order to take advantage of the Welsh man-marking orientation.
The front three of Kramaric, Perisic and Josip Brekalo also played a vital role in manipulating the space available in the final third. Unlike many modern wingers, Perisic and Brekalo remained loyal to the touchline and were positioned so as to stretch the Welsh defence. This pinned the opposition fullbacks and meant what little support there was for the Dragon’s midfield press was minimised. This also gave Kramaric the license to move in and out of the centre-backs, even entirely dropping off them at times in order to create a situational numerical overload in midfield to further upset the Welsh block.
Tactical Analysis – Stale Wales and stale possession
The Croatian movement also highlighted just how static the Welsh midfield were in comparison to their Eastern European opposition. Apart from the occasional move from Joe Allen to drop in between the centre-backs, Smith and Will Vaulks didn’t make enough effort to create space for themselves within the Croatian block. Because of this, Wales’ centre-backs were often left frustrated on the ball for a lack of options and forced into playing ambitious, longer passes which more often than not resulted in a turnover of possession. It was from a turnover such as this, that led to Croatia‘s opening goal.
The above image illustrates the situation before Wales lost the ball in the buildup to going 1-0 down. James Lawrence on the ball has no easy route forward to pass the ball to as Allen has dropped into the backline. Smith and Vaulks are too far away and too easily covered. This forces Lawrence to attempt a hopeful long ball forward which stretches the Welsh side upon the turnover and creates gaps for the forward runs of Kramaric and Ivan Perisic to exploit. The spaces created in behind the inexperienced Connor Roberts, at right-back for Wales, seemed to be a particular target for the home side’s counters.
Using tactical analysis, we can see the static positioning and lack of movement from the Welsh midfield did very little to disrupt Croatia’s defensive lines. This also had the effect of slowing down the Welsh possession to a snail’s pace which doesn’t help to create the space that allows their wingers, Bale and James, to use their pace to hurt the opposition.
A distinct lack of Plan B from Wales
What was most concerning from a Wales standpoint was their almost complete and utter lack of reaction during the game after going 2-0 down early in the second half. Before David Brooks’ introduction for Smith, the only tactical alterations from the away side came through switching Bale and Wilson’s positions around; and to little effect.
Giggs’ game plan from the start was to allow the Croatians onto them and up the field so as to create the space for Wilson, James and Gareth Bale to exploit on the counter however this tactic only enjoyed moderate success throughout the match. The issues, however, grew as the game went on and Croatia continued to dominate possession and control the momentum and even when they were 2-0 down, the Welsh side refused to put the opposition under pressure.
It took until the halfway through the second half for Giggs to be forced into the drastic action of making several like-for-like substitutions. These changes did little to change the dynamic of the game and despite Brooks’ deflected goal, later on, Croatia never looked in danger of leaving the game with anything less than a victory. Outside of their counter-attacks, Wales proved themselves to be entirely incapable of creating quality goal=scoring chances.
Despite the retirements of Mandzukic and Subasic, Zlatko Dalic has shown that his Croatia side still have plenty of quality to maintain their current performance levels. Armed with plenty of up and coming talents, the Vatrenti are still an international side to be feared.
The same simply cannot be said for their opponents in this game. Wales under Giggs, exciting creative talents like Wilson, Brooks, and James look near entirely toothless and you dread to think how this team would ever possibly manage if Bale wasn’t around. It is the opinion of this writer that unless drastic changes are made, it won’t be long before the Manchester United legend is shown the door.
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