Argentina vs Croatia: Can the Albiceleste penetrate the ‘best midfield in the world’?

831 players, 32 teams and (sometimes) four games a day – after the World Cup it can be a bit overwhelming. For the next month, The Indian Express is cutting through the clutter, choosing the biggest storyline of the day every morning.

Showcase game
Argentina vs Croatia (semi-final)
12.30pm (Tuesday), Lusail Stadium

Croatia has no direct scoring opportunities. They don’t have a bold frontline capable of creating something out of nothing, nor a world-class striker. They have not shown exceptional ability to create from wide, nor have they shown any reliability from set pieces.

Yet none of their opponents at this year’s FIFA World Cup found pleasure in playing against them. Not even massive pre-tournament favorites Brazil, who were frustrated in a 1-1 draw and defeated on penalties in the quarter-final.

Brazil’s intricate attacking play is full of flair, but couldn’t hurt the Croatian engine. On the face of it, it was a heroically resilient performance. Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic made 11 saves. They isolated Casemiro in midfield and ensured the ball never reached Vinicius Jr on the left wing by pressing the left side of the defense high up the pitch, both fragments of coach Zlatko Dalic’s clever game management. But Dalic had a different take on why his party was able to get upset.

“I have said several times that Croatia has the best midfield in the world,” he said after the game. “I believe the midfield is the best part of our team, they (kept) possession and blocked our opponents.”

The effectiveness of this Croatian team depends on the performance of the midfield triangle of Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic and Luka Modric. They prevent the opponent from creating chances, but not by going deep and making heroic challenges and interventions, but simply by keeping them off the ball.

The trio struggle for possession, not to create pressure and consistent attacking threat, but simply to control the pace. Whatever the outcome, Croatia’s midfield ensures that play is played at Croatia’s pace, even against a team as talented as Brazil. Unlike most other possession-based teams, holding the ball is more of a defensive tool than an offense.

According to FIFA statistics, possession between the two teams was exactly evenly distributed in the quarterfinals. Croatia had 131 receptions between midfield and defence, as opposed to Brazil’s 111, meaning that despite Brazil creating more chances, Croatia managed to get around midfield on 20 more occasions.

The opponents can create chances through bursts of ingenuity – you’d struggle to find an outburst better than Neymar’s goal in extra time – but not through constant pressure, or outsmarting them in midfield to be finished. Croatia are comfortable playing in the middle third of the pitch for the entire match, refusing to give up possession or territory.

The midfield trio doesn’t flaunt rabid athleticism, but pure technique and balance. Brozovic plays the deepest role, combining play between defense and attack by keeping the team working through short passes, positioning himself to intercept balls that try to get around midfield. Kovacic plays a little further forward, with an appreciation for space like few others playing in his position, always on the half turn able to resist dribbling pressure and move the ball from midfield to attack.

And then there is Luka Modric. The winner of the Ballon D’or 2018 is one of the best technicians of his generation. The game seems to play out perfectly in his mind, dropping deep to receive the ball and taking the sting out of an opponent’s attack by keeping possession, advancing by beating a man or two and shooting perfect passes, allowing hitting from long range, making late runs into the box. Always active, never out of place.

Their weakness is that, despite all the control in midfield, they don’t have the individual talent to threaten forward. Instead they play the waiting game, dictating the pace, waiting for the right chance, saving energy for extra time, converting all their penalties. Eight of their last nine tournament matches have lasted longer than 90 minutes, they have lost only one: the 2018 World Cup final against France.

Next up is Argentina, who made their own midfield swap mid-tournament by dropping Enzo Fernandez in the middle of the park to exert more control, and unlike Brazil, they will match Croatia man-for-man in midfield . They have improved game after game and look more settled than they did at the start of the tournament.

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However, much of their attacking play relied on Lionel Messi for individual moments of inspiration, and he delivered. The big question is, with Croatia’s ability to frustrate their opposition through midfield, will that be enough?

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