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Analysis: Brozovic introduction proves catalyst for Croatian success

Written by: Srinivasan

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The host nation did not wilt under pressure but were eventually eliminated on penalties by an impressive Vatreni side.

One would have thought that the current record for the loudest stadium in the world would have been broken, when Mario Fernandes scored a priceless extra-time equalizer for Russia in their quarterfinal clash against increasingly genuine contenders Croatia in Sochi.

However, this joy turned to despair as the dream run ended in a penalty shootout where Fernandes and Fedor Smolov missed their spot-kicks sending Zlatko Dalic's side to a meeting with England. As with any football match, a few things did stand out.

The target man-attacking winger combination works for both sides

If there is anything that this World Cup has taught the footballing world, it's that a good old-fashioned target man is still very much a relevant role in the modern game. Germany were found guilty of not giving importance to this type of player since the retirement of the great Miroslav Klose and Spain did not know how to get the very best out of their predatory target man in Diego Costa. 

For Russia and Croatia however, the target man is essential to their respective systems. Artem Dzyuba and Mario Mandzukic are extremely hard-workers and their ability to bring the quicker attackers into play is what makes them so vital for both Stanislav Cherchesov and Zlatko Dalic.

Watch: Russia 2-2 Croatia (3- 4 penalties)

In this game, Dzyuba and Mandzukic were instrumental in bringing Denis Cheryshev and Andre Kramaric and Ante Rebic into dangerous areas in front of the centre-backs. The heatmaps of the two giant forwards indicate how they had their backs towards the opposition centre-halves and won key headers to bring the attacking wingers into play. 

They were also fluid as they seamless drifted into wider positions to allow the attacking midfielders to move centrally and make runs into the box as in the case of Andrej Kramaric's equalizer in the first half. In modern day football, where players have new roles such as the false #9 and the inside forward, it is indeed refreshing to know that the old school forward still has a role to play. 



Brozovic's introduction drives Modric forward

Zlatko Dalic started the game with the two tempo-setters in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic as the pivot in a fluid 4-2-3-1 system. However, despite the creative potential from the middle of the park, it led to either Rakitic or Modric needing to perform defensive duties, hence restricting them from causing real damage in the final third.

This was true especially for Modric, who likes to make driving runs from his usual central midfield position. But, in this game, the lack of a defensive midfield option meant that he sat back more often than he would have liked, while Rakitic made forward runs. 

Dalic saw how this affected his team's attacking potential and brought on Marcelo Brozovic for Ivan Perisic. Croatia moved to a 4-1-4-1 system, the one that had dismantled Argentina in the group stages. This changed the dynamic of Croatia's attack as Modric had license to move forward freely. The attacking five of Mandzukic, Ante Rebic, Kramaric, Modric and Rakitic posed a far greater threat than in the first half post this change by Dalic. Despite not yielding any goals in regulation time, it was the change that Croatia needed to unleash their full attacking prowess. 

3. Russian football has turned a corner

Russian football fans have not had much to cheer about since the good old days of Euro 2008, when the team smashed all expectations to make it to the semi-finals of the tournament. That Russian team was brimming with young exciting players and attacking potential.

Fast forward to the World Cup in Brazil and subsequently Euro 2016, where what the fans saw was a creaking unit that was devoid of any flair. Fabio Capello and Leonid Slutsky oversaw a team that refused to move forward and were in danger of being embarrased in front of their home fans when the World Cup moved to Russia. 

However, the Russian team that has taken to the pitch in this World Cup is one that has defied all odds to show the world that they are a competitive, hard-working unit who refused to let the more technically superior teams bully them.

In addition, they have unearthed a fresh bunch of players like Aleksandr Golovin, Daler Kuziaev, Roman Zobnin, the Miranchuk brothers and Ilya Kutapov, who are arguably Russia's future. Despite the defensive errors that led to the Croatian goals, the team's resolve in both situations was a result of sheer hard-work and motivation. 

Stanislav Cherchesov must be given due credit for the way he has managed to oversee this radical transformation of the team in just under two years. Needless to say, this may be the tipping point for Russian football to become a competitive force in the international arena. 

 

Published: Sun Jul 08, 2018 02:38 PM IST

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