Croatia are a team stuck in the middle—physically, tactically and in overall proficiency. They aren't fast. They grind and plod their way to victories. They're often caught with holes deep in midfield against elite competition. The side lacks any real width.
Still, there may be enough savvy in the core of the team to get the Croats out of Group A and into the Round of 16. And looking at this roster, that's where this team belongs: right in the center of the pack.
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Rostov), Oliver Zelenika (Lokomotiva Zagreb), Danijel Subašić (Monaco)
Defenders: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar), Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Šime Vrsaljko (Genoa), Vedran Ćorluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Igor Bubnjić (Udinese), Danijel Pranjić (Panathinaikos), Gordon Schildenfeld (Panathinaikos), Ivan Strinić (Dnipro), Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kiev)
Midfielders: Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitić (Sevilla), Ognjen Vukojević (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Perišić (Wolfsburg), Mario Pašalić (Hajduk Split), Mateo Kovačić (Inter), Sammir (Getafe), Milan Badelj (HSV), Ivo Iličević (HSV), Marcelo Brozović (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivan Močinić (Rijeka),
Forwards: Mario Mandžukić (FC Bayern), Ivica Olić (Wolfsburg), Nikica Jelavić (Hull City), Eduardo (Shakhtar), Ante Rebić (Fiorentina), Duje Čop (Dinamo Zagreb)
Ivan Rakitić, Central Midfielder
Croatia's defensive shortcomings are legion and well-documented, but if there's one man who can paper over the cracks, it's Ivan Rakitić. For two weeks during the group stage, he'll have to be a pure destroyer of the highest caliber to ensure Croatia gets to the knockout stage. That means playing as more of a stopper, patrolling in front of his defense than stepping up into double teams. And when he does step upfield, it'll be to clog passing lanes and prevent players from turning and running at his defense.
Luka Modrić, Central Midfielder
Modrić, Croatia's best player, is known at club Real Madrid for his playmaking from behind his squad's number 10, and he'll have the same role for his country during the World Cup. He'll likely at the base of their three-man midfield next to Ivan Rakitić, and leave a lot of the quick string-pulling duties to Mateo Kovačić. Modrić will be used as an outlet for his defense, in a deeper facilitating role than that of an advanced creative midfielder.
What the Vatreni lack in width and team speed, they make up for with shifty combination play outside the 18-yard box and a collective willingness to get stuck in across the field.
The short passing combinations are keyed by Luka Modrić, who joins them in the team's best attacking moments from deep. So going forward, Croatia looks like this:
(Ignore the striker, center backs and goalkeeper for now.)
Croatia depend on their full backs for width, and Niko Kovač, like most modern coaches, is gambling on his full backs going forward. They often push dangerously high up the pitch, while their wingers pinch in as second strikers whenever the ball goes to the opposite wing.
For instance, if the ball is on the right in Croatia's right attacking third, the team will look like this:
If the ball's on the left:
This leaves Srna and Pranjić to play early balls, more often cuts back to the top of the 18 rather than floating crosses into the far post. But because they push up so high, Croatian turnovers in the wide areas are disastrous, and can often lead to counters from opposing teams.
Now Modrić is a fine, deep-lying creative midfielder. But because of the risks Kovač takes with his wingers, he's often sacrificed, and has to hang back away from goal at the base of the midfield triangle to provide defensive cover. And while Modrić does throw himself into tackles—the whole team will, it's ugly fun at times—the midfield shielding of Croatia's back line is still suspect.
Sometimes, Rakitić gets sucked out wide to clean up a mess Croatia's wingers either can't or won't, leaving Modrić alone in front of his back four. Cozy pockets open up in the middle of the pitch, holes that Brazil, Cameroon, and Mexico would have no trouble exploiting.
They should counter the counter threats by playing more pragmatically, sitting Modrić, Rakitić, and Kovačic deeper in midfield, and reigning in Srna and Pranjič. This probably won't be enough to best Brazil, but Cameroon's leaky defense will likely have trouble coping with Croatia's front three at times, especially if the Cameroonians overextend themselves in Manaus. The third match against Mexico looks like it'll decide who goes gets through the group stage. El Tri have experienced a bit of a resurgence of late, and on tired legs, both teams may have to grind out crucial points—just the way Croatia like it.
All times Eastern
June 12, 4 p.m.: Brazil vs. Croatia at Arena de Sao Paulo
June 18, 6 p.m. : Cameroon vs. Croatia at Arena Amazonia
June 23, 4 p.m.: Croatia vs. Mexico at Arena Pernambuco
Top image by Jim Cooke; photos via Getty