England begin their delayed Euro 2021 campaign with a rematch of the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia. Gareth Southgate’s men lost that match in heart-breaking fashion with Mario Mandzukic scoring in extra time, despite England going 1-0 up.
Jason Burt spoke to former Croatia manager Slaven Bilic about the threats posed by his old team – and who the new danger men could be.
What formation will Croatia play?
There is what I call a ‘standardisation’ of the team. It’s not just because the manager, Zlatko Dalic, is the same. The fact is that in smaller countries you don’t produce that many players. But it can be good because your national team becomes like a club – they know each other better and better and that also goes with the system.
Croatia play 4-3-3 (4-1-4-1 out of possession) or 4-2-3-1 and now there is a debate as to how they are going to play against England. They have not done great in the last couple of years but there has been a change of a generation. We had to replace Neven Subatic, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic – very important players.
So the manager has to make a decision and, either way, he is going to have a headache. Dalic is a good manager and he knows there are pluses and minuses for any system. If you are pushing me I think he will go 4-3-3 because if you go back to the World Cup in 2018 and games like the one against Argentina [in the group stages when Croatia won 3-0] we didn’t have the ball all the time, and we used this system, which became 4-1-4-1 when defending. In history we have played best in that way.
Where are Croatia strongest?
In midfield. Everything is related around our midfield. In my opinion when we play the three – Marcelo Brozovic, Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic – only France compare. They are that good. They are complete. They have everything.
Everybody rates Kovacic in Croatia but nobody is really happy with how he has played for the national team, including himself. We are still waiting for Kova to have the performances he has had at Chelsea where, before he was injured, he was on top of his game. Now everyone believes this is the tournament where he will show his full potential and quality because he has everything.
England have a different kind of midfield. You have top players who have enthusiasm, pace, who are fresh and unafraid and will take people on – like Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, Declan Rice, Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham. But did they ever play together? They don’t have that experience.
Sometimes that is good. They play for top clubs week-in, week-out but, also, sometimes in a European Championships or World Cup you have 10 minutes when you need someone to influence the game, to slow it down or manage the situation and I am sure we are much more crafty in that. For example, Mount is unbelievable but at Chelsea he has Jorginho or Kante or Kovacic with him and he plays free football knowing that those guys will sort it out.
Euro 2021 – Group D – Croatia full squad
Is Luka Modric still the main man?
By far. He’s the talisman. Every club or country has a key player but there are a few players who are more than that – like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi – on and off the pitch. Modric is in that category.
He’s going to be 36 in September and you don’t see it. He was always professional but in the last few years he has been even more so with the way he trains, the way he looks after himself. He is unbelievable. He’s the only player who Real Madrid has given a contract to at the age of 35. It wasn’t like a gesture to thank him because they can be ruthless. It was because they needed him and that says everything about him.
So where are Croatia vulnerable?
At the moment England are better in attack and that will put pressure on our defence. There is Harry Kane and there are so many great young players around him. England are missing Harry Maguire and there is a similar situation with Croatia and Dejan Lovren, who is also injured. Both of those are more than players for their countries. They are leaders, very vocal. They influence and organise. Both teams don’t look the same without them.
We have quality players, Duje Caleta-Car, who plays for Marseille will play but Lovren is more than a player. Same with Maguire. Unfortunately, also, we are conceding a lot of goals from set-pieces which is strange as we are not a small team.
The other concern is that if we play with the three players I mentioned in midfield they very rarely burst into the box. It means the striker is sometimes isolated. But on the other hand they control the game like nobody else can.
Dejan Lovren missed Croatia's warm-up games
What are the alternatives?
One of the reasons why they are thinking of going to 4-2-3-1 and leaving Kovacic out of the team is because of Nikola Vlasic who Ronald Koeman bought from Hadjuk Split when he was the Everton manager. Then Koeman went and Sam Allardyce ignored Vlasic. So he went to CSKA in Moscow and was voted player of the year in Russia – which is not easy.
Vlasic is the one offensively who is powerful around the box – he’s very explosive and has a good strike. He’s a typical Croatian player. A number 10 but more like a second striker – he’s looking for goal rather than play-making. He’s a finisher.
Then there is Andrej Kramaric who was also in England, at Leicester, and can play as that second striker. He’s scoring 20 goals a season in Germany for a few seasons now and is a top player. He’s also not doing it for Bayern or Dortmund but for Hoffenheim. Kramaric a very popular player in Croatia but to play him the manager will have to change things. So maybe he can be the Plan B. Kramaric would be great off the bench.
What could be the key to the game?
Mentality. Remember the World Cup semi-final? In the first-half England dominated, were 1-0 up and it should have been 2-0. But as soon as we scored an equaliser it was game over for you. There was nobody on the pitch who said: ‘Wait, wait, we have time’. It was gone.
In 2018 only two Croatia players who started the semi-final did not play under me and I left in 2012. So the core of the team has cried, laughed, celebrated, gone through all of the emotions together and of course that is going to help them. Let’s say after half an hour it’s 1-0 to England, we can go ‘Come on guys, we have been here before.’ So it helps. Is it crucial? Not necessarily. It’s good to be young and have that freedom but it’s also good to have that know-how and experience.
Of course England are favourites and we also see it that way. We have not been playing great but I know that when the big games come – and it doesn’t get much bigger than this one – we have know-how, quality, brains and courage.