World Cup 2018: How Croatia can get the best out of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic - but England could still be too much

In his latest column for The Independent, Frank de Boer looks at how Croatia must go back to how they used Modric and Rakitic against Argentina after struggling against Russia

Frank de Boer
Tuesday 10 July 2018 12:36 BST
Ashley Young wants to keep England's expectations grounded ahead of semi-final

So much of what happens in Wednesday night’s semi-final will be dependent on how Croatia’s midfield line-up, rather than how England’s does. I fully expect Gareth Southgate to not change his midfield to deal with the threat of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, but more Zlatko Dalic to change his to utilise them fully.

For me, Croatia must go with Marcelo Brozovic from the start to allow Croatia’s two star players to have a greater influence further up the pitch, where they are most dangerous. In the last game against Russia they played Andrej Kramaric in the No 10 spot which pushed back Modric and Rakitic back on the toes of the centre backs, meaning they had fewer chances to assist or score.

However, when Brozovic starts in the holding role, as he did against Denmark and Argentina, it allows Modric and Rakitic to play a further 10 metres up the pitch. They are two of the most complete players of their generation and Croatia need them playing in the right areas to effect the game in the right ways.

Modric and Rakitic can both defend, attack and score goals, which is very rare, and with Brozovic, they have three midfielders who can protect the defence and keep the ball. Should Kramaric play, they lose that security and it would allow the likes of Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling to find space in behind them as they rotate between deep and more advanced positions.

Even though they play for two big rivals in Spain – Barcelona and Real Madrid – it is no surprise for me that Modric and Rakitic complement themselves so well. They will get on so well off the pitch like, for example, me and Philip Cocu did even when we were at Ajax and PSV. It will be a big issue in Spain but in Croatia it will not.

Rakitic and Modric must be played further up the pitch against England (AFP/Getty Images)
Rakitic and Modric must be played further up the pitch against England (AFP/Getty Images) (AFP)

The player I can most compare them to that I played with is Xavi. He was more defensive but like Rakitic and Modric, he always knew the right position to be in. He was the first one to play so easily in small spaces and regardless of who was around him always found the right solution. They are a little bit more dynamic and score more goals but they have similar styles.

For me the most interesting thing from this game, from a coach’s point of view, is how Croatia will press against England’s 3-4-3/3-5-2 system when they don’t have the ball. I am curious to see how they solve the problem of stopping John Stones, Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker passing out from the back. Will they press three strikers on them – one man each? If they don’t then England will dominate the game.

Croatia must put pressure on England's passes out from defence (REUTERS)
Croatia must put pressure on England's passes out from defence (REUTERS) (Reuters)

I like how Colombia dealt with England’s defence. They played three up front and gave them a lot of problems when they tried to play between the lines. Without that pressure, it’s very easy for a back three to distribute the ball.

This is why I don’t think Southgate will change his line-up from the Sweden game, and why I don’t think he needs to. I would continue to just play their own game, with Jordan Henderson as the only holding midfielder, with Eric Dier on the bench still.

Alli and Lingard will find gaps to hurt Croatia and Sterling will keep doing what he has been with clever runs to stretch the defenders to give Harry Kane more space to shoot.

I think England are the favourites to reach the final and it will be more a case of Croatia needing to stop them, rather than the other way around.

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