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Are Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic Good Enough to Overcome Croatia’s Tactics?

The team is three games away from winning the World Cup, but despite a roster full of Champions League–caliber players, their inefficient offense has left a lot to be desired. Will it even matter?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A couple of weeks ago, Croatia seemed like a challenger to international soccer’s hierarchy.

After dispatching Nigeria 2-0 in a thorough, but unconvincing, victory in their group opener, Croatia traveled to Nizhny Novgorod to take on the 2014 World Cup runners-up Argentina. La Albiceleste struggled in their first match, earning only a draw with Iceland after a now-infamous missed penalty from Lionel Messi. The Argentines needed a win against Croatia to put them in a position to match their championship aspirations, and instead, they got ran off the field.

Following a scoreless first period that saw Croatia on the back foot, the European upstarts came into the second firing on all cylinders. First it was Ante Rebic, who made up for a squandered opportunity in the first half when he capitalized on keeper Willy Caballero’s catastrophic mistake in the 53rd minute, and slapped a high volley from 12 yards right back over Caballero’s head. In the 80th minute, as Argentina continued to push forward, it was Real Madrid’s midfield engine, Luka Modric, who put the game away when he collected a pass some 30 yards from goal, shimmied past a defender, and curled the ball beyond a once-again helpless Caballero.

Eleven minutes later, as the Argentines all but seemed to give up, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic followed up a rebound and tapped the ball into an empty net for the game’s third and final goal.

Croatia secured their first trip to the round of 16 since 1998 with the win, and they won the group a week later when they topped Iceland, 2-1, with a mostly reserve lineup. With seven goals scored and just one conceded to go along with three wins from three, the Croatians looked as good as anyone heading into the knockout stages. And after an ugly shootout victory over Denmark in the round of 16, the team is just three games away from making history.

There have been 20 World Cups, but only eight winners. Over the past two decades, the globalization of soccer has made historically weak teams mediocre and mediocre ones formidable, but Spain in 2010 and France in 1998 are the only first-time winners since 1978. Per FiveThirtyEight’s projections, Croatia have the best chance of any team remaining to expand that club to nine. With Modric and Rakitic leading the way, they have the talent and they’ve achieved the results, but it still seems like something is missing.

In 1990, Croatia formed a national team independent of Yugoslavia, as the country later declared and then won its sovereignty from the Socialist Federal Republic. In 1998, they entered their first World Cup, reaching the semifinals, taking a 1-0 lead on hosts and eventual champions France before bowing out, 2-1, and besting the Netherlands by the same score in the third-place match. The result was better than any Yugoslavia had accomplished in its illustrious soccer history, dating back to the first World Cup in 1930. In the following years, Croatia reached five of six European championships and three of the next four World Cups before this summer, but they never made it past the quarterfinals in Europe and never beyond the group stage at the World Cup. A win against Russia would put Croatia back into the semifinals for the first time since the country’s first appearance at the tournament.

Heading into Friday’s quarterfinals, FiveThirtyEight’s projections give just a 34 percent chance of a first-time winner, but thanks to the break of the draw—three of the four former champs sit on the same side of the bracket—there’s a strong chance the tournament could feature a team making its finals debut. Belgium and Russia both reached the semifinals at some point in their history, while Sweden finished second on home soil in 1958. And though the Belgians have as much attacking talent as anyone in the tournament, a date with favorites Brazil could spell the end of their World Cup. With a path to the final running through Russia in the quarterfinals on Saturday, and the winner of Sweden and England in the semifinals next week, no would-be first-time champion has an easier path to glory than Croatia.

If the World Cup were conducted entirely on paper, it wouldn’t feel out of place to discuss Croatia’s midfield with the kind of language generally reserved for conversations about nuclear weaponry. A central duo consisting of Modric and Rakitic should provide enough offensive firepower to destroy the planet twice over. An attack spearheaded by Juventus’s Mario Mandzukic should serve as the trigger, and a defense anchored by Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren and Atlético Madrid’s Sime Vrsaljko should act as the safety protocols, protecting them from harm. In practice, the results have matched the talent, but the performances have not.

Croatia have won all four games they’ve played this summer. They’ve scored eight goals and only allowed two. But only once—against a calamitously shaky Argentina squad that inexplicably used three center backs and spurned any sort of rational defensive philosophy—did they look the part of championship contender.

Part of that has to do with strategy. Despite having two of the most skilled midfielders in the world, manager Zlatko Dalic has the Croats building from the wings, using Vrsaljko and Rebic to cross the ball to the 6-foot-3 Mandzukic from the right, and Ivan Perisic and Ivan Strinic to do the same to the left. As a result, Croatia are getting chances inside the box, but headers aren’t as dangerous as chances built through the middle, where Croatia’s two best players, Modric and Rakitic, reside.

In the three games they shared the field with Mandzukic, Rakitic and Modric combined for just 14 completed passes to the target man, with just one—a connection from the corner from Rakitic against Nigeria—coming in or near the box. The numbers don’t look any prettier when the focus is expanded. The La Liga stars have completed just six passes inside the penalty area in four games, and are averaging just under 23 combined completed passes per game in the attacking third. (For context, in Portugal’s round of 16 loss to Uruguay, the unspectacular duo of William Carvalho and Adrien Silva combined for 40.) Most of those passes end up on the wings, either to switch the field or to lay the ball off to a streaking winger. With the pair averaging only 4.25 combined chances created per game through the round of 16, it’s difficult to think Dalic’s plan of attack is the right one. Neither Modric nor Rakitic has logged an assist this summer, and outside of that Argentina tie, neither has scored from open play.

Through 90 minutes against Denmark in the round of 16, Croatia completed just six passes inside the penalty area. Croatia’s squad has some off-field issues, be it related to the investigation into suspected perjury levied against Modric stemming from accusations he delivered false testimony in a criminal trial against the director of his old club, Dinamo Zagreb, or the dismissal of AC Milan’s Nikola Kalinic from this summer’s squad, officially listed as the result of injury, and later reported to be a banishment for refusing to play late in Croatia’s opener against Nigeria. But this team is still talented enough to challenge the world’s elite.

Before Kalinic’s removal, 16 of the 23 players Dalic selected this summer played in one of Europe’s top leagues last season, with 12 having spent time at one of the 30 wealthiest clubs in the world. Even if they continue to force-feed every attack from the outside in, they should be favored against the hosts, and have a fighting chance to top England.

Croatia’s road to success seems like it should be simple: get Rakitic and Modric on the ball and let them make difficult passes. Instead, they’ve built from the flanks. Their wingers have used their outsize influence to some success, and asking Mandzukic to bully center backs on the end of crosses can produce a prosperous offense. With just three games remaining, it still might work. If it doesn’t, Croatia might never get a better chance to win it all again.