After the perfect start to EURO 2020 Qualifying with a home win against Slovakia, Wales faced World Cup finalists Croatia in the first of a tough double-header that would also see them face Hungary, who beat Croatia in March. This blog will analyse the match against Croatia and assess how it transpired in relation to my previous writing in the build-up to the tie. Croatia won the match 2-1 in Osijek, putting their campaign back on track and leaving Wales under an enormous amount of pressure ahead of their trip to Budapest.
Croatia started as expected in their usual 1-4-3-3 shape with Marcelo Brozović as a single defensive midfielder behind Mateo Kovačić and star man Luka Modrić. Brekalo and Perišić started out wide and often stayed touchline wide so that Croatia could switch play effectively. Wales changed from the 1-4-4-1-1 used against Trinidad & Tobago and Slovakia in March and began with a 1-4-3-3 defensive shape. Will Vaulks, Joe Allen and Matthew Smith formed a flat central midfield three from right to left when out of possession, with Allen dropping in to become a single pivot in possession with Vaulks and Smith ahead of him. Wales were boosted by the availability of Ben Davies which kept the back four unchanged from the Slovakia game. Gareth Bale started on the right wing, with Daniel James on the left and Harry Wilson through the middle.
In my “Overload and Isolate” blog I touched upon Croatia’s vulnerability when defending the half spaces against Hungary and Azerbaijan and it is possible that Ryan Giggs was trying to exploit this by starting Bale and James high and outside of Harry Wilson. However, Croatia learned from their mistakes in March and kept their fullbacks deep in build-up. This ensured that they would not get caught committing too high up the pitch or being too far away for their centre backs to pass to them, but it also attracted Bale and James to press them and leave space for other Croatians to move into.
Whereas in March Wales had both Brooks and Bale marking Slovakia’s pivot, Lobotka, Wilson was tasked with marking Brozović. When Modrić or Kovačić dropped deeper to receive the ball off a centre back, they would be followed by Smith (Modrić) or Vaulks (Kovačić). This would allow Brozović to escape Wilson by moving into the space vacated by the dropping player, who would be able to receive the ball a safe distance away from him – as shown below.
Wales’ build-up from the back was centred around the use of James Lawrence at left centre-back. As Croatia’s right-sided central midfielder out of possession, Luka Modrić would press Lawrence and in doing so try to block Lawrence’s passing lane to Matt Smith (who would be covered from behind by Brozović). Lawrence was composed and technically proficient enough to find Smith with a penetrating pass on several occasions, however it was blatantly obvious when Hennessey was going to pass to Lawrence and it got very predictable.
17′ – Croatia 1-0 Wales.
Initially, Wales had the ball at the back. Ben Davies stayed deep at left fullback to provide balance as Connor Roberts pushed high and touchline wide on the right. This movement from Roberts occupied the wide space and facilitated Gareth Bale moving inside. Bale drifted into the central lane and was the target of a direct aerial ball from Lawrence. Harry Wilson was well-positioned to attempt to win the second ball and it was arguable that he was fouled, with Roberts having moved into the right halfspace and high up in support (shown below).
Croatia carried the ball away with Vida, who was under no pressure from Wales. Vaulks arguably could have closed Vida down with Smith closing off the pass to Modrić. Meanwhile, Allen should have shut off the lane for the split pass through to Kramarić but doesn’t – shown below.
Kramarić was able to comfortably set back to the unmarked Modrić who set Perišić free on Croatia’s left. This raises questions that only those in the camp will be able to answer. Firstly – Vaulks started the move covering Roberts’ run forward (and did so on other occasions), should he have stayed deeper and been in the space Modrić passes into? He ends up just being caught in no-man’s land in midfield instead. Or did Roberts go too far forward in going beyond Perišić? One thing I will not do is point fingers at individuals when I do not have the answers, but I sincerely hope the relevant issue was addressed in-camp. Being caught in a 3v3+an onrushing Perišić after a transition and one split pass is very disappointing. Finally, Lawrence’s initial forward movement towards Modrić leaves him behind the ball and he is forced into attempting a backheel because he was not in position in time to set himself and be in the correct body stance.
Another factor discussed in the “Overload and Isolate” blog was Croatia’s regular inability to deal with midfielders running into the box late. I spoke about how Ramsey would be the perfect Welshman to exploit this, however his subsequent injury ruled him out of the game. The below image shows Vaulks making a positive run into the box and getting a shot away after Harry Wilson was left alone at the back post (lack of defensive awareness again). In fairness to Vaulks it was a difficult chance but it shows that Croatia can be exploited in certain areas.
48′ – Croatia 2-0 Wales.
After having a goal ruled out offside shortly after the restart, Croatia doubled their lead through Perišić. Unfortunately, the Croatian host broadcaster failed to provide sufficient coverage to be able to describe exactly what happened in the lead up to the goal, however we know that it came from trying to play out from the back through James Lawrence. As previously mentioned, this got repetitive and predictable and while Lawrence did a good job on several occasions it is no surprise that a team as intelligent as Croatia eventually punished this predictability.
Substitutions 1&2:- Smith and Vaulks off, Brooks and Ampadu on. These changes added some much needed impetus into Wales’ play. Brooks played as the right-sided central midfielder and Ampadu played as a single pivot with Allen advancing forward to the left of him. Allen was much more effective further forward, receiving the ball well off of Lawrence and Ampadu and looking like the player Wales fans have been in love with for so many years now.
77′ – Croatia 2-1 Wales.
Croatia sloppily gave the ball away and Wales reaped the reward of having more creativity and flair on the pitch. Roberts was positive in his supporting run to the right, while there was not a lot else that happened in the build-up to the goal. It was a deserved first international goal for Brooks who is such a vital part of this Wales squad.
Substitution 3:- James off, Matondo on. He didn’t get a lot of service but James still didn’t have the best time of it when he did have one of his few opportunities, but this was forgivable considering the mentally draining time that he had had prior to the match. Matondo looked lively but lacked the experience and composure to make the right decision on occasion. The front three seemed to rotate more often when he came on. Whereas Bale and Wilson had both swapped positions twice during the match, all three interchanged for the last ten minutes or so.
It wasn’t Wales’ best performance by any stretch of the imagination and despite a late surge they were the inferior side on the day. Croatia were excellent at creating overloads in the wide areas with their centre midfielders and/or Kramarić supporting their wingers, who stretched the pitch as Croatia looked to switch the play and move the tiring Wales team around mercilessly. By having Bale press high and often onto the left centre back Vida, Wales forced Vaulks into covering a large amount of ground laterally to support Roberts at right back and it was consequently a very difficult afternoon for him. Ultimately, it is very disappointing to lose a tough away tie as a result of being caught in transition and then from losing the ball in our own build-up. A more general conclusion will be provided at the end of the Hungary analysis blog.
As always, thank you for reading/diolch am ddarllen.