In the third round of The UEFA Nations League, Croatia hosted Sweden, and both of them aspired to their first win in the third group and get their first three points in the group led by Portugal and France.
Croatia managed to achieve its hard-fought first victory over Sweden in an exciting match full of tactical events.
Croatia played most of the game in a 4-3-2-1 formation. Dominik Livaković was the goalkeeper behind the four-line defence, consisting of Dejan Lovren, Duje Ćaleta-Car, and full-backs are Dario Melnjak and Flip Uremović. The midfielders were Mateo Kovačić, Marcelo Brozović, Nikola Vlašić and the Real Madrid man Luka Modrić. The attackers were both Ivan Perišić from Inter Milan and Josip Brekalo.
On the other hand, Sweden played in a 4-4-2 formation throughout the match. Robin Olsen was the goalkeeper supported by Mikael Lustig, Pontus Jansson, Victor Lindelöf (Manchester United) and Ludwig Augustinsson. The midfielders were Kristoffer Olsson, Dijan Kulusevski, Albin Ekdal, Filip Forsberg led by the attacking duo Marcus Berg and Alexander Isak.
Croatia’s defensive problems
When Croatia’s players are in defence, they form a 4-4-2 with their lines closely aligned, but they were not good at the level of pressure. That appears from the PPDA report from the match which shows 18.1 passes without pressure or interference per an attack.
The lack of pressure in their half with the intensity necessary to do so was a factor and an important reason in Sweden’s attacks, and increased the risk they posed. We can see below how the Croatian players were lined up properly, but didn’t put pressure on the player in possession, and the Swedish players didn’t control the edge of their box well enough.
Here is another example of this case. Croatian players are lining up well, but without pressure or monitoring of the two players in the dangerous area. We can see Forsberg and Augustinsson moving freely and smoothly in the central channels and on the edge of the box almost without pressure.
Croatia’s high pressure and offensive phases
In stark contrast to what was happening in their own half, the Croatian players were fiercer and more intense in high-pressure situations up front. This pressure in the opposition half resulted in winning the ball in dangerous areas or in forcing the goalkeeper or the defence line to keep the ball away which prevent them from building-up.
Here is shown the high pressure from the Croatian players in the final third, forcing the goalkeeper to pass the ball incorrectly, which is later acquired by Croatian players.
Croatia’s players relied a lot on the sides, particularly the left side of the field. We could see Modrić moving into the left half-space and directing the game from the left.
This is also evident in the xG report of thematch, as it becomes clear that Croatia used the left-side the most throughout the game and with the higest xG rate.
Modrić’s moves on the left side helped to keep the Croatian team in a state of attack, as his teammates would frequently pass the ball to him. But Modrić never moves alone to the left. Whenever he attacks, another player moves next to him to give him a chance to pass in more dangerous areas,
As shown in the below example, when the ball is passed to Modrić, Melnjak moves to give Modrić a chance to pass or reduce the pressure on him.
Sweden’s defence and transitions
When the Swedish players are in a state of defence, they are lining up in a 5-3-2 manner, meaning that they use five players in order to overcome the overload of the Croatian attackers, as shown below, where Sweden’s players defend with five players against four attackers from Croatia on the edge of the box.
But the Swedish players made the same mistakes as their Croatian counterparts. Their pressure was not good enough, although they lined up well, but their pressure was not severe enough.
Here, for example, the Swedish players put pressure on the Croatian players on the right side of Croatia. But with the large presence of Sweden players in this region, we see all Croatian players move with great freedom between the lines of Swedish players that are inconsistent with each other.
When they are in a state of transition from defence to attack, they spread well in the forward areas, where they are deployed in all offensive areas to confuse the defence of Croatia and create more passing opportunities for the advanced player with the ball.
Here, for example, in this case when Forsberg was leading the ball from the defensive zones to the offense, four Swedish players were deployed in all the front areas on the left, right and central channels, so that Forsberg had many passing opportunities, choosing the best ones, in order to become more dangerous for the Croatian’s goal.
Sweden’s offensive phases
Sweden’s players were constantly switching sides. They would engage players on one side with several passes and then switch play away from the pressing structures.
In this case, while the Swedish players were using the left side, Kulusevski moves to the right side of the field, preparing to receive the ball away from the Croatian pressing structures.
Here is another example of how they move away through the central channels around the box and then pass the ball to the right to escape the pressure.
Positional rotation in the final third were the key to Sweden’s offensive play in this match. Below we can see this clearly as Isak moves into the box, leaving an area in which the next player moves from the back, and thus the attack is more dangerous for the Croatian defence.
Croatia achieved its first victory in the UEFA Nations League 2020/21 when it hosted Sweden in the third round of Group C, which is shared by Portugal and France with 7 points.
This match was good preparation for the players for more harmony between the players in both teams and a good opportunity for both coaches to see new faces and give them the opportunity in the early matches.
The two teams were very close in level throughout the match, but the small details decided the match in favour of the Croatian team.