Vying for a place in the upcoming UEFA European Championship 2020 next Summer, both teams required three points to make that happen. Slovakia had to do something no other country has done before, beat Croatia away from home in a European Qualifier. Slovakia with only two wins in ten games needed to capitalise on recent good form and overturn a Croatian side missing some key personnel.

Although having not had good control of the game or many chances for that matter, Slovakia found themselves 1-0 up by half time. Thanks to the creative zeal from the playmaker Stanislav Labotka, a chance to cross was engineered and then converted by 19-year-old Róbert Boženík to give an unexpected 1-0 lead to the visitors. Goals and red cards change game plans, and that is exactly what happened.

Croatia came with a new lease of life in the second half, however not with urgency to be direct but with a bit more poise and patience. Finally, a breakthrough was reached as Nicola Vlašić scores from open play after 56 minutes to make it 1-1. Four minutes later, Croatian centre-forward Bruno Petković heads home from a Luka Modrić corner kick to make it 2-1 to the hosts. 66 minutes in and Slovakia were reduced to 10 men with the dismissal of Róbert Mak for a second bookable offence. The fourth and final goal of the game came through some clever invention down the right flank of the Slovakian defence.

Ivan Perišić volley finds the side netting from a short cut back cross from Borna Barišić. Croatia round the game up with a comfortable 3-1 victory to top Group E and qualify for next Summer’s Euro 2020. Slovakia need not only three points in their final game against Azerbaijan, but also a better goal difference and a draw in the upcoming game between Wales and Hungary to still have a chance of finishing second in the group.

The match analysis below will tell the story of the game from a tactical analysis standpoint. I digress into the style of both teams and how they matched up. Also, how Croatia’s use of the double-pivot in midfield controlled the game and why Slovakia were subject to long direct passes in attack.

Lineups

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Zlatko Dalic may have had a selection headache as he tallied up his absentees. The Regular veteran centre-back pairing Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida missed out through suspension while five miss through injury, among them the Barcelona play-maker Ivan Rakitić and Hoffenheim target man Andrej Kramarić. It was the first start for new centre-back pairing in this campaign for Croatian duo Duje Ćaleta-Car and Dino Perić. Although Ćaleta-Car picked up a yellow card after six minutes, the 23-year-old seemed to handle his new role and first start as centre-back with poise and confidence in and out of possession.

Still transitioning through a change of era with recent retirees: Martin Škrtel, Tomáš Hubočan and Adam Nemec Pavel Hapal’s is still blooding new players through the Slovakia fort team. 19-year-old centre-forward Róbert Boženík led the line from the front and found his second goal of the qualifying campaign. Still, with four wider squad players unavailable, Slovakia fielded perhaps their strongest XI.

Croatia’s double-pivot control the game

Here we look at the role of the double-pivot in Croatia’s 4-2-3-1 formation and how they affected the game. The first few minutes of the match both teams were tentative and cagey, opting for long balls away from pressure. Soon after you see the confident and reassuring gesture from Luka Modrić, both palms facing down signalling to his compatriot centre-backs to be relaxed and composed in possession. It was Croatia who controlled the game at the early stages with patient and low-risk build-up play.

Modrić and Brozović acting as double-pivots commanded the play from their deep start in midfield. Against Slovakia’s 4-4-2 defensive organisation Modrić and Brozovićs’ movement was critical in creating gaps and overloads for the waiting centre-backs to step into advanced positions. This allows the centre-back in possession to start attacks unmarked in Slovakia’s final third. Keeping in mind helping to force Slovakia’s retreat is the Croatia full-backs pinning the wide Slovakian midfielders back into their third. Meaning the CDM or centre back can step into wide spaces without immediate pressure.

euro-2020-qualifier-croatia-v-slovakia-tactical-analysis-tacticsIn the above image, we see a moment of vertical positioning between the two CDM’s. In this moment allows CB Perić to take up a prominent attacking position in half-space and come through unmarked.

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In this moment with we see CDM’s Modrić and Brozović splitting and moving into the wide half-spaces in contrast to Slovakia’s compact shape centrally. This frequency and range of movement from the CDM’s and the CB’s were too much for Slovakia to communicate and readjust, subsequently allowing the double pivot of Croatia to control the game quite comfortably.

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The heat map’s presenting a very unorthodox range of movement for both players in a double-pivot function. Their influence, however, ultimately was the foundations of the effective Croatia attack.
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Croatia’s pass map, only accounting for combinations of three or more passes.

In the above graphic, we see the statistical data of Croatia’s passing map and frequency. Accounting for combinations of three or more passes only and each player’s average position in possession. As we can see from the thicker arrowed black lines passing is concentrated quite centrally on Modrić and Brozović. Considering the thinner lines between CB’s & forwards, This helps us understand better Croatia’s intentions and style of play. Modrić and Brozović were outstanding and helped the young new CB’s Ćaleta-Car and Perić settle in quite well.

Croatia’s attacking organisation

As we established the role and the effect of the double-pivot in Croatia’s midfield it is important to highlight the other key aspects in their attack. Croatia’s full-back served an important function as high mainstay wingers in attack. Left-back Borna Barišić and right-back Tin Jedvaj had an important role supporting wide attacks, creating overloads and delivering crosses into the box. More so in the first half, Croatia played for a lot of crosses to target players in the box than in the second half however in the second half the full-backs were crucial to the short combination play in Slovakia’s final third. As for the four attacking players upfront, having deeper outlets in the CB’s and wide outlets with high FB’s this allowed the four attacking players, B. Petković [CF], N. Vlašić [CAM], A. Rebić [RM] and I. Perišić [LM] to rotate effectively between the centre and half-spaces. Even after conceding in the first half Croatia did not change their style as they kept a very patient but high tempo football.

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Croatia enjoying far superior ball possession and territory with low turn-overs allowed them to play their best-attacking football

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Here we see both of Croatia’s full-backs occupying high wide positions in Slovakia’s final third. This ultimately forced Slovakia to withdraw a fifth player to the backline to block attacking threats. As a trade-off this allowed Croatia to play more comfortably and change the point of attack in the final third quite well.

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In this image, we see Brozović movement allows CB Perić to come through and start an attack in Slovakia’s final third.
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Briefly, after a short passing exchange from Perić, Brozović identifies Slovakia are weaker on their left flank and begins to transfer possession to the onrushing Modrić to continue.
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Modrić plays a pass wide to Jedvaj who looks to deliver a cross at the optimum moment before being closed down. As we can see a three versus three scenarios in the box, this was a sufficient and prominent attacking moment however Petković failed to convert from a good cross on this attempt.
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Croatia’s first & second half statistical analysis for crosses. Showing a change of approach to in the second half to create chances from more central and wide combination plays into goal scoring positions rather than primarily crossing.

Another and no less important key trait worth mentioning, Croatia’s courage on the ball. Croatia do not fear to receive and play combinations in tight spaces. Instead of opting for long back passes for restarts, Croatia would frequently play short passes forward in the narrowest of spaces. Passes with the slightest touch into space they would look to turn and play another pass forward to meet a penetrating run. This helped develop a lot of promising attacks as well as moments that soon lead to goals.

Slovakia’s direct diagonal attack

Whether they were transitioning to attack from defensive organisation or they had a moment of build-up play, Slovakia would opt mostly for long diagonal passes from deep to the opposite wide-midfielder. As a result, this leads to a high number of turnovers for Slovakia. Although in the early stages it seemed it might serve to help stave off Croatia attacks if they retained possession. Slovakia failed to make these moments count when they needed to, and Croatia seemed to transition to attack quite comfortably. As a result, leaving Slovakia quite stretched at times and without an efficient strategy.

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Slovakia, with half the comparative ball possession, played more than double the amount of long passes compared to Croatia

Below we will take a look at perhaps the best moment in Slovakia’s long direct strategy.

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CB, Vavro plays a long diagonal ball to meet the run on LM, R. Mak. Mak’s first touch is a lay-off to the supporting CAM, Lobotka. Lobotka then plays a thru ball into Mak’s continued run.

 

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Mak plays a low cross to meet the run of the CF, Boženík who although made connection failed to conjure a threatening touch to evade the goalkeeper.

In the second half when Slovakia were reduced to 10 men, this, of course, changed their attacking strategy. Subsequently having to call on all nine outfielders to serve in the defensive phase, Slovakia did not have an attacking outlet to aim for in moments when they transitioned to attack. Had Mak of not been dismissed from the game very early in the second half it’s hard to say whether it would have changed the outcome. Although Croatia seemed to be cruising, Slovakia might have been able to target the spaces in behind the young journeying attack-minded centre-backs. They may only now consider it a chance missed.

Slovakia’s retreat invites the danger

Even with 11 players on the field, Slovakia seemed to have an ineffective mid-block as they failed to nullify the Croatia attacks from the front. Yes, we know the level of ability and invention from Croatia’s build-up play deserves its plaudits. However, upon reflection, Slovakia coaching staff might be thinking what if? Had Slovakia’s front line of defence applied pressure in the space between the Croatia centre-backs and midfield, then we might have had a different outcome.

Slovakia’s front two stood in front of the deeper-lying midfielders of Croatia, meaning they could not press due to the risk of being bypassed. In any case, that is what happened; however, in retrospect, there is a case to be made for a more effective strategy. One strategy that can be used, is to apply a third player to the front line of a teams defence. Allowing a greater chance to block the team in possession from switching the play once they are in wide areas and blocking short passes through the gaps into midfield. Considering all of Croatia’s good attack, it will be back to the drawing board as a lesson to learn for the Slovakian coaching staff.

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Moments after turning over possession, opting not to press Slovakia begin their retreat to apply a mid-block inside their half.
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Slovakia players continue to retreat without indication that they may want to dictate the Croatia attack.
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10 seconds after Croatia win possession Slovakia still defer to press, not even taking up a prominent shape to dictate the Croatia attack to one side for isolation. It is now Brozović in possession has passing options for penetration also to teammates in space.

Out of possession, Slovakia lacked intensity both in defensive organisation and transition. From so much of the good attacking play from Croatia that has been spoken for, it is one major factor that reduces teams to low intensity in their pressing. Subsequently, Slovakia defaulted to very deep zonal marking which although not effective as for the most part, is understandable. As the front two players in the Slovakia defence were caught in 1v2 situations against. Lessons are mostly what the visitors will take away as from this game. Croatia still proving a tough task on home soil.

Conclusion

The 2018 FIFA World Cup Runners-up celebrate as they qualify for next Summer’s 2020 European Championship. Croatia will look an exciting contender when they lineout next Summer. Although their qualifying campaign has some blemishes, Croatia may take them as light lessons as they book their place in next Summer’s tournament.

Slovakia may find an easier challenge to get three points in their next game against Azerbaijan; however, their qualification destiny now is out of their hands. Pavel Hapal and his staff will most certainly look to better defensive tactics going forward, particularly when playing such tough sides away from home. Croatia seemed very confident and masterful in attack, even going a goal behind first. The identity and the principles may have tweaked but never changed for the hosts. The challenge in any team setting up against is not only to understand and neutralise their attacking system by shape. Croatia also have very skilful ball carriers who seem to change the point of attack so often without a pass. Along with the teams’ courage to commit defenders into the opponents, half to attack and create success will make them a tough test for any team in the 2020 Euros.

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Ian O'Neill

Passionate about all things football: tactics, data & coaching.
Writing to educate, entertain & inform.
Ian O'Neill