FIFA World Cup 2018™ Final Preview: France vs Croatia
France will take on Croatia in the World Cup final on Sunday. It is France’s third final
in history, after they took the crown on home soil in 1998 and finished second in 2006,
losing to Italy on penalties. Croatia were semi-finalists in 1998, finishing third after
beating the Netherlands 2-1 in the third place place-off, having been denied a place in the
final by France and two goals from Lilian Thuram. Since ’98, Croatia have never gone
further than the group stages, and did not qualify for 2010. France have the pedigree
and the history, but no one, least of all Didier Deschamps, will underestimate Zlatko
France will line up a lop-sided 4-2-3-1, probably with Blaise Matuidi, but possibly Corentin
Tolisso, playing on the left hand side of the attacking midfield three. In defence,
France will look like a 4-3-3, danger man Kylian Mbappe trying to hang out slightly
on the right, and Matuidi dropping and tucking in to provide solidity in midfield. France’s
full backs push high, especially Benjamin Pavard on the right, while N’Golo Kante
does his usual, significant covering work. In transition, Paul Pogba is the key man,
carrying the ball and releasing France will long, raking passes; his defensive work should
not be underestimated either, as shown against Belgium when he managed to shut down Maroune
Fellaini, and still provide a significant attacking outlet.
[PIC 1 and 2]
Croatia under Dalic have played some form of 4-2-3-1, but there are two variants. In
the quarters, Dalic played Andre Kramaric off Mario Madzukic, with a midfield double
pivot of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. In other games, though, Dalic’s side have looked
more like a 4-3-3 against teams where greater defensive solidity is required in midfield.
By bringing in Marcelo Brozovic, star men Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric have greater
cover, and this gives Croatia better balance, though it makes it harder for them to link
the attack through the centre. Croatia like to keep the ball, working it horizontally
through the defence or midfield, looking for the moment when either the wide attackers
or full backs are in space. They then transition quickly wide, and look to create crossing
opportunities, or for the wide players to run inside to shoot.
[PIC 3 and 4]
France and Croatia will therefore likely line up as two variants of 4-2-3-1 slash 4-3-3
– Dalic will almost certainly go with the formation used against England in the semi-final,
as he needs to ensure that France cannot easily play through Croatia’s middle; and Deschamps
has shown that, since dropping Ousmane Dembele for Olivier Giroud after the opening game,
he has found the team he wants to use, and Giroud has made himself indispensable.
[PIC 5 and 6]
France need to defend the wings and attack the centre. Kylian Mbappe has been exceptional
this tournament, but France’s left hand side is a lot more solid as Mbappe likes to
drift in to space to create an outlet, rather than track rigorously back and assist Pavard.
Croatia will also look to push their full backs high, partly because pressing Mbappe
when he receives the ball facing his own goal forces him to pass backwards or inside rather
than turn and run, and partly because Croatia’s full backs support the wide players and are
key to their attack. France cannot allow this, and need to keep the solid 4-3-3 and encourage
Mbappe to help Pavard out on the right, as Matuidi will assist Hernandez on the left.
This can cut off Croatia’s full backs, while retaining a solid middle, and prevent Dalic’s
side having their easiest means of progressing the ball.
[PIC 7 and 8]
France are best when counter-attacking, or attacking quickly and directly from the back,
against sides whose defensive structure through the middle is poor. France can look a little
ponderous in slow build-up play, and suffered against Denmark and Australia, who sat deep
and compact. Deschamps’s side need to exploit Croatia’s willingness to get men forwards,
and Rakitic’s and Modric’s tendency to push up and slightly outwards to create passing
options for Perisic and Rebic – this should leave room to play through the middle, and
Paul Pogba could have a field day against a loose Croatian midfield. His efforts in
containing Rakitic will also be key, defensively, but if the Manchester United midfielder can
carry the ball into open space and find passing lanes through a disjointed Croatian midfield,
France can profit.
[PIC 9 and 10]
Croatia will create chances, but they need to defend well, especially against France’s
verticality through midfield. Croatia pressed England well, but while this unsettled the
English ball-playing defenders and caused goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to go long often,
the gap between Modric and Rakitic as one, higher midfield line, and Brozovic behind
them, meant that England could pounce on second balls. The pace of Raheem Sterling on the
break forced the Croatian defence and Brozovic to drop deep to cover, which caused the gap.
They cannot afford to do the same against France. Giroud is a probably better hold-up
player than Harry Kane, and Mbappe poses the same, if not a greater, broken field running
threat than Sterling. If Croatia press, they need to do so as a team and squeeze the gaps;
if they drop off, Croatia will find it easier to stop France, but less easy to win the ball
higher up and transition quickly into attack.
[PIC 11 and 12]
Croatia’s wide players, especially Perisic, have provided their main attacking outlet.
Rebic, who can be abrasive and might be targeted by France to rile him up, and Perisic swap
flanks during the game, and either play wide and look for crosses, or cut inside. They
look to drift out to create space for themselves, to be found by long, diagonal passes from
the Croatian midfield, and the full backs push to support. If Croatia can counter, especially
on France’s right when Pavard is pushed high, and Mbappe is not covering back, then
Perisic can have some joy. Pogba or N’Golo Kante will need to drop back to assist and
prevent Croatia from working their overloads in the wide and half spaces, which could leave
room for Rakitic or Modric to push up into space around the edge of the box. This, plus
Rebic’s ability to drift inside and Mario Mandzukic’s all-round quality, mean that
France can ill afford to be exposed here. They need to work collectively, or Croatia
will find gaps.
[PIC 13 and 14]
France will start as favourites, and certainly have the quality to win their second World
Cup, but no one will underestimate the quality Croatia possess, especially in their front
six. France’s defensive ability and shape will be the key – should they maintain this,
and deny Croatia chances, they should be able to create enough of their own on the counter
to score. But if Croatia can nullify this threat and tighten up through the middle,
they have the attacking ability to test Hugo Lloris. Whether he, or Luka Modric, lifts
the World Cup on Sunday, both sides have impressed this tournament and are worthy finalists.
It should be a fitting end to a wonderful tournament.