As the 2014 World Cup in Brazil drew closer, Croatia were a team that clearly had a lot of talent and may even have been capable of a surprise lengthy run in the tournament. In reality, though, Croatia played okay, although still not quite their best form, which never truly came to the forefront in any of the three group games they played.
One of the more talented players in the Croatia team is midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who ideally likes to be a creator and do his best work in the final third of the pitch. Much like teammate Luka Modric, Rakitic has dropped to a deeper role recently, but both players are intelligent creators who can make the difference in the opposition’s half for any team.
The Croatia team should have been constructed around these two key players ahead of the World Cup, but instead, they filled two positions that limited their creative instincts and shackled them somewhat. This was especially true when it comes to Rakitic, with Modric able to burst forward at times — as he does for Real Madrid — but Rakitic was almost playing a defensive midfielder role in what was a complete waste of talent.
During the tournament, Croatia played a 4-2-3-1 on most occasions but struggled to fill the position behind the striker. Modric, Sammir and Mateo Kovacic all had spells in the position at varying times, although Rakitic never got that chance for some reason. The Croatia coach, Niko Kovac, should have at least tried freeing Rakitic up to play that position — he was wasted where he was playing and having very little impact on games.
A 4-3-3 could even have been used, with a player like Ognjen Vukojevic as the holding midfielder, which would then allow Modric and Rakitic a little more freedom to roam. At the end of the day, they’re the two best and most creative players; you have to put them into positions to affect the game for you in the right areas, and directly in front of your own back-four was not it.
Not getting the best out of Modric and Rakitic meant that the team never performed to their best, without two of their better players able to influence the game in the way that they can. Croatia had a striker who was more than capable of firing the goals to help them to advance from the group in Mario Mandzukic, but the service to him was poor most of the time; meanwhile, Modric and Rakitic were toiling away doing defensive duties and covering for the attacking players.
Coincidentally, in the final group game against Mexico, as Croatia were losing heavily and certain for elimination, Rakitic burst forward and received the ball on the edge of the Mexico 18-yard box; he then intelligently back heeled the ball into the path of Ivan Perisic who went on to score.
It was all too late, of course, but it was a poignant reminder of what could have been. Rakitic could have been that creative spark in the final third, but unfortunately, he was never allowed to get out of his own half a lot of the time. As such, Rakitic, one of the team’s best players, was a nonentity in the three games, and now, the rest of the Croatia team will be able to relate to that very well as the World Cup progresses.