In commenting how he would rather lose playing with Belgium’s attacking style than win through France’s conservative play, Eden Hazard begrudgingly described his semifinal opponents as being efficient, defending strongly, and having no weaknesses. Past his disappointment and further debates about the aesthetics of possession and attack, Hazard’s description highlights the European academy development style emphasizing systemic patterns and an efficiency of touch and possession. While that can veer into creating a robot approach that a range of figures like Arsene Wenger often contrast to the unpredictable creativity of South American strikers especially, that framework of controlling space and hitting out on transitions is no doubt effective.
Despite their contrasting numbers in possession in their respective semifinals matches (France had 36% possession against Belgium, Croatia had 56% possession against England), Croatia and France are two sides built with similar structures of pacy, counter attacking wings, a balanced midfield three, strong aerial defending - an efficient approach based on winning both attacking and defensive transitions. This idea of controlling space and gearing up for counter attacks embodies the modern European club game, and thus it’s no surprise that World Cup semifinals featured four teams from the continent.
France got to the World Cup final through bursts and sprints on the counter attack. Croatia made it through two grueling marathons of extra time and penalties. While it’s easy to give France the edge with their extra day of rest, Croatia have answered every mental and physical challenge throughout the tournament. With an emphasis on positional play and controlling space without the ball, these are four areas of the field that will define the 2018 World Cup Finals:
Deep lying midfield: Luka Modric vs. N’Golo Kante
In echoing Hazard’s sentiments, Thibault Courtois described France as being “anti-football” and said he would have rather lost to Brazil in the quarterfinals. And while Croatia and France have similar positional structures, the biggest symbolic difference between the two sides lies at the style of each team’s defensive midfielder. Modric is the tempo setting passer who has routinely almost doubled Kante’s passes completed per match this tournament. Kante is the shielder of the back four, ready to win the ball and start counter attacks.
The 5’ 8” Modric and 5’ 6” Kante have each been the heart of their side this tournament, and are the top of their respective abilities. If Croatia beats France, this will be Modric’s tournament. And while Kante won’t be the figurehead if France wins - that goes to Kylian Mbappe - he is the glue that holds France’s counter attacking style together. Whether in controlling matches through space or with the ball, an efficient style of play begins at the heart of midfield.
The pressing, transition based midfield: Ivan Rakitic & Marcelo Brozovic vs. Paul Pogba & Blaise Matuidi
While this is Modric’s moment, Rakitic has scored the deciding penalty kick against both Denmark and Russia along with his usual combination of energy, skill, and midfield control. The underrated work is nothing new for Rakitic as he plays a similar role alongside Sergio Busquets with Barcelona, tracking back, and starting, stopping, and finishing counters. Alongside him is Brozovic’s tireless running, exemplified in setting a World Cup record for most distance covered in a match during their semifinals win against England. Croatia’s midfield is balance with Modric setting the tempo, Rakitic’s late runs in transition, and Brozovic’s physicality.
Yet this isn’t a battle between one side’s pressing midfield against another’s static side, as each midfield runs, presses, and creates in transition. Pogba and Matuidi play similar roles to Rakitic and Brozovic in maintaining the structure of France’s shape, especially when defending counter attacks. Matuidi is the disciplined, box to box runner that managers rely on in big matches. And while there are always questions of what Pogba’s best role actually is, this tournament showcases uncovered what makes him so effective.
With Kante winning the ball, Pogba can play quick passes into space for Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann or Olivier Giroud. Or, he can create transitions on his own with his dribbling and drive through the middle of the field. Pogba doesn’t just alleviate pressure, but is always threatening to turn an opposition mistake into a chance just a quickly. His ability embodies what makes France as dangerous without the ball as in possession. Lastly, his height gives France defensive stability in the air as he displayed in the second half against Belgium.
The counter attacking winger vs. their fullback: Kylian Mbappe vs. Ivan Strinic, Ivan Perisic vs. Benjamin Pavard
Battling Modric for the Golden Ball is Mbappe, whose signature counter attacking runs on the right wing have become France’s main source for creativity. Croatia’s left back Strinic missed the Denmark match due to injury and was questionable for both matches against Russia and England. Needless to say, his fitness is essential as Mbappe’s signature display came against Argentina’s slow backline. Mbappe again displayed how he could cause havoc in a backline against the slower Jan Vertonghen, beating the Belgium defender with a drop of the shoulder and a burst of acceleration. As Croatia plays a back four, Mbappe will be in direct one on one confrontation with Strinic.
Perisic presents a similarly direct counter attacking problem for Croatia against Pavard. Pavard is one of the breakthrough players of the tournament with rumors of a move to Bayern Munich, and he may still have the goal of the 2018 World Cup with his strike against Argentina. Perisic receives the ball on the left wing usually cuts in onto his right foot, but is just as comfortable getting to the endline and crossing with his left. Regardless of how, a goal for either team will likely come from Mbappe or Perisic’s side.
The Target Striker vs. the Center Backs: Olivier Giroud vs. Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida & Mario Mandzukic vs. Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti
Perhaps no player on either side embodies the sacrifice and suffering to make their team work than Giroud or Mandzukic. The two target strikers are tasked with thankless roles of being the initial outlet pass from defense or midfield, receiving the ball with their back towards goal, going one versus two or three against opposition, and often relieving pressure by getting kicked or elbowed by overaggressive center backs. In addition, they’ve each also carved out a role in social media highlights for missing easy chances adds to their scrutiny while adding little analysis to their importance within their team.
Yet their role within each side isn’t necessarily to score goals, but something more holistic in making the overall attack and shape function. This makes analyzing their performance difficult as Giroud has the paradox of not having scored in this World Cup but being an absolutely essential part of France’s success. That idea also adds unorthodox layers to a center back’s job in marking the two target strikers. Instead of measuring clean sheets or goals, if Giroud or Mandzukic successfully hold up play and let their midfield into possession, that’s a tally for the striker. If a center back fouls either striker and gives the opposing team a brief rest, that’s another tally for the striker.
But Varane and Umtiti especially have been adept at handling every nuance thrown out them, and shutting out Belgium will be as impressive as any feat in this World Cup. That duo may be the difference in the finals.
Modric chastised the English media for underestimating the Croatian side, saying they should analyze his side with more humility and respect. And even as Croatia make the finals, they are outmatched on paper to a France side filled with names we recognize from the Premier League or La Liga. France’s 4-3 win against Argentina showed their attacking potential when given space, and their 1-0 win over Belgium showed their discipline. But there remains some x-factor to this Croatia side that we have yet to fully define beyond having one of the best passing midfielders in the world alongside one of the best box to box midfielders in the world. They could have lost at any point against Denmark or Russia, but they survived both.
It may have been a disappointment from a stylistic perspective that a South American side failed to make the semifinals, yet France and Croatia display the best qualities of a modern European side in regards to how 22 players on a field manipulate space without the ball. Their box to box midfielders both start, carry on, or defend counter attacks depending on situation. Their pacy wingers are always threatening a backline out of possession, able to turn defense into attack with one accurate ball. Each striker helps funnel opposition possession into the wings, blocking off passes to the middle. All the pieces just fit, there are no weaknesses, and each side has genuine world class quality. This is a finals not about debates of counter attacking versus possession, but players working within the team to create control through structure.
France is favored, but overlooking Croatia has been a mistake throughout the tournament. Each side has a player that fits the narrative of the tournament, with Modric crowning himself as the best player in the world or Mbappe cementing his prodigious attacking ability at just 19 years old. As the style goes between two efficient sides that give nothing away, it will be a tight finals. A 1-0 final or another penalty shootout seems likely. France has the individual quality but there is something inexhaustible about Croatia. Both sides are firmly built out of this contemporary footballing moment.