The day is here. The culmination of a month-long fair wherein the world’s 32 best footballing nations kick a ball around is the World Cup final, and it is finally upon us. France and Croatia will battle it out at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, but there is no way one can pick out a clear favourite of the two European teams.
Exploring the tactical designs of both teams, we try to find out who has got the edge heading into Sunday's big game, however small that is. Pogba or Modric, Griezmann or Perisic, Lloris or Subasic – there is very little to set either team apart from the other, hence a fascinating battle of wits, styles and world-class players lies in wait.
How the teams will line up?
Sweeping personnel changes are highly unlikely because of the magnitude of the occasion, hence both France and Croatia are likely to field the same XIs as they did in the semi-finals. France favour a defensive, transition-based style while Croatia depend more on width. Croatia’s Ivan Strinic , who hobbled off last time out, is a doubt but count out the Croatians at your own peril.
The Vatreni have played the most minutes at this World Cup but are still hungry for more. That said, Strinic’s injury in the semi-final might be a huge concern for manager Zlatko Dalic because the left-back will be up against the exciting Kylian Mbappe, France’s dangerman.
The Mbappe X-factor and France’s lop-sidedness
Mbappe is one hat-trick away from bagging this World Cup’s Golden Boot and possibly the Golden Ball as well. Scoring a World Cup final hat-trick is easier said than done, but Mbappe is nevertheless France’s biggest attacking threat.
The 19-year-old is the only player in this France team with minimal defensive duties and that is primarily responsible for Les Bleus’ lop-sided structure. France are defensively stable, which can be attributed to their 4-2-3-1 shape which morphs into a 4-3-3 off the ball. In both cases, Mbappe on the right flank occupies a higher position than his teammate on the opposite flank – Blaise Matuidi – allowing Les Bleus to be strong in defending counter-attacking situations while being lightning quick at their own counters.
That lop-sidedness, coupled with Mbappe’s individual brilliance, is one of the reasons why Didier Deschamps’ team have made the final. However, Croatia hardly play one particular template, hence it remains to be seen how France impose their style on the Vatreni.
Croatia’s hybrid system and three cultured midfielders
Croatia are a big threat in the air. There is a clear emphasis on playing long balls and why not? In Mario Mandzukic, the Vatreni have an aerial beast. Crossing has been Croatia’s favoured mode of chance creation at this World Cup but that isn’t the only way they play.
Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic form a Croatian midfield trio that ranks among the best in the world. Therefore, Croatia can seamlessly switch from playing direct, long-ball football one minute to controlled, possession football another minute during a match – a hugely underrated facet of Dalic’s team.
Modric and Rakitic have also been among this World Cup’s top three outfielders delivering successful long balls, another pointer to Croatia’s variety in style. The Vatreni’s versatility is something that will certainly test France’s resolve.
On paper, Croatia have a midfield superiority over France, but that is where the intelligence and movement of Antoine Griezmann will play a significant role in deciding who prevails in the middle, often the biggest key to winning a football match.
Griezmann and his dropping movements
Griezmann generally plays off central striker Olivier Giroud as a No 10 but his is a role that isn’t confined to a particular zone. The Atletico Madrid forward is afforded a free role by Deschamps, who clearly values his importance to France’s style of play. Once again, a lot will depend on Griezmann’s ability to link the play in possession and transition for France to have any chance of winning the final.
Croatia’s midfield has players who are experts at keeping possession, recycling the ball and advancing it, all the while bypassing the opposition midfield. Modric, Rakitic and Brozovic will be up against France’s dynamic trio of N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Matuidi – an even 3-vs-3 battle but one where Griezmann’s knack for dropping deep will put France at an advantage.
Griezmann’s dropping movements should allow France to outnumber Croatia’s midfield 4-vs-3 and facilitate dangerous ball progression. In that context, it is the Atletico man who could end up having the biggest influence on the final, rather than Mbappe or Modric. Croatia, though, have another outlet to attack if the centre is clogged – the flanks.
Croatia’s wide focus
Sime Vrsaljko was excellent in Croatia’s win over England, taking full advantage of the space offered to him out wide to swing in dangerous crosses, one of which led to Ivan Perisic’s equaliser. Like France, Croatia also have a lop-sidedness about themselves but in wide defence instead of wide midfield.
Left-back Strinic is more conservative in his positioning – understandable since Perisic in front of him is heavily attack-oriented – while Vrsaljko on the other flank plays in a more advanced position. If Croatia can consistently find Vrsaljko in space on the right wing, the Atletico Madrid man may prove to be a big threat with his pin-point crossing going with the aerial ability of Mandzukic and the tenacity of Ante Rebic to create opportunities out of second balls.
That, however, is not quite straightforward because France’s two centrebacks – Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti – are very good in the air, while in front of them sits Kante, the elite ball winner and disruptor of play who has hardly put a foot wrong in Russia.
There is a lot at stake in Sunday’s final but almost nothing to separate the two teams. Both France and Croatia are strong in their own way, and there isn’t one way to stop either team. There is a reason why World Cup finals are so captivating. The 2018 edition promises to stay true to that trend.
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Updated Date: Jul 15, 2018 11:58:41 IST