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The curtain raiser to the grandest tournament of the year took place on the 12th of June at Sao Paulo, with the hosts and hot \\\]favourites Brazil taking on Croatia. With all the feverish build up to this game, many were expecting a Brazil romp, but things didn’t really go as planned, as Croatia coach Niko Kovac set his team up to make things very difficult for the Brazilians. Thankfully, the game didn’t suffer as a spectacle, with both teams fighting hard and playing with a great intensity to ensure a positive start to the tournament.
Brazil: Julio Cesar; Dani Alves; Thiago Silva; David Luiz; Marcelo; L. Gustavo; Paulinho (Hernanes, 63); Hulk (Bernard, 68); Neymar (Ramires, 88); Oscar; Fred.
Croatia: Pletikosa; Srna; Corluka; Lovren; Vrsaljko; Modric; Rakitic; Kovacic (Brozovic, 60); Perisic; Olic; Jelavic (Rebic, 78).
Scorers: Brazil (Neymar 29,71; Oscar, 90); Croatia (Marcelo OG, 11)
Brazil 3-1 Croatia
At the start of the big tournament against the hosts, in a cauldron of noise, the key for Croatia was to silence the crowd. If Brazil got a goal early, the atmosphere would really pick up, and the Croats would have struggled to match the home side. Fortunately for all followers of the Croatian team, Kovac’s men held their own, and even took a shock lead early on in the game. This allowed them to settle down nicely into the game.
To start off with, they mostly stayed in their own half when Brazil had the ball (which they had for 65% of the first half), and arranged themselves in a neat 4-4-2. The 2 backs of four that were set up did their job, and kept Brazil from penetrating and breaking the lines. Instead of going and attacking the opposition players on the ball, Croatia chose to hang back and cut off passing lanes forward, which meant that a lot of the possession Brazil had was in their own half. This seemed like a good move by Kovac. When Brazil did venture into their half with the ball, Croatia attacked the man on the ball quite fervently, causing problems for Brazil. One example of this working was when Dani Alves lost possession easily, and conceded a chance.
As you can see in the graphic above, every time Brazil try to make a penetrating vertical pass, it is cut out by the Croatian defence. This graphic was taken in the time period between the start of the game and the Brazil goal. Brazil were incredibly frustrated, as they struggled to get to grips with the Croatian game.
What you can also see in the graphic above is a set of successful passes in the final third on the right wing. This was a deliberate ploy by Brazil to exploit the spaces that such a system left in the wide areas. Scolari placed Neymar in the middle, and the Brazilian hero got a lot of attention from the Croatian midfield. This in turn freed up spaces in the wide areas. However, Scolari wanted to ensure that his side had the room to play in the middle third of the pitch. The sheer volume of passes (260 in this area) suggests that Brazil were able to control the middle effectively. To empty the middle, he played Hulk higher up the pitch, almost next to Fred in a sort of lopsided 4-4-2. The presence of the pacy Hulk on their shoulders meant that the defenders needed to get a little deeper. As the Croatian defence got deeper, it created space in midfield for the Brazilians.
The players who utilised this space were Alves and Oscar. The latter especially, had a terrific game, doing all his jobs very well, and getting a goal for good measure. The young Chelsea man was often seen dropping deep and playing passes to the attacking players ahead of him. He also utilised the space he had to try and run at defenders and put balls into the box and succeeded as well, making 7 successful dribbles and finding the room to attempt 7 crosses. Scolari’s tactic worked out well, with Oscar going face to face with the inexperienced youngster, Vrsaljko. It also allowed Alves to bomb on, and as the game wore on, this meant that Ivica Olic also had less of a contribution going forward. Though the goal Croatia scored was due to this space being exploited by Olic, in the end, it worked out well for Big Phil and Brazil, as Oscar won the battle comprehensively.
The two most important players to Croatia in this World Cup are, without a doubt, Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, and Barcelona bound Ivan Rakitic. Both of these players were paired in midfield to help Croatia pass the ball with fluency, and to build their attacks and moves perfectly. The duo is certainly capable of doing so, and it was imperative that Scolari find a way to negate their influence. In the first half, Brazil were very keen to press Croatia on the ball very quickly. Croatia were not allowed to settle on the ball, and had to rely on quick incursions. This did the trick for them on one occasion, but they lacked the force to hold on to the ball, with Jelavic struggling to impose himself.
Another positive that came from this was Brazil winning the ball in very dangerous positions, and indeed, during the first half, this was their most potent form of attack, with their own build up being stalled by Croatia’s stout defence. Oscar in particular was superb with this aspect of the game. 4 tackles and 3 interceptions meant that he made a pretty heavy contribution without the ball at his feet as well. In fact, he won the ball and passed it to Neymar quite dexterously to set up the first goal. The tenacity that the 22 year old showed was admirable. Somewhere, Jose Mourinho must feel very vindicated.
In the second half, especially after they gained the lead, Brazil were quite content to sit deep and allow Croatia ball possession. The idea was to encourage Croatia to extend themselves, and then hit them on the break. The pressing that we saw in the first half was reduced considerably, and Brazil looked to keep their shape at the back. As Modric and Rakitic got on the ball more, their full backs got forward, and since Croatia were looking to play the ball wide, the two central midfielders were drifting a little wide to stay close to their passing targets.
With Hernanes brought on for Paulinho, Brazil had a player whose primary focus is on the passing, and can sit in the middle and pass the ball. As the space in the middle was created due to Croatia’s focus on width, Brazil exploited it, and grabbed a third goal, which fell to Oscar. The fact that none of the midfielders were even near the Chelsea player is indicative of how well the tactic worked, as the Brazilians earned 3 hard fought points.
As you can see from the image above, most of the forward passing from the Brazilians after the goal was vertical, and direct. Forgotten was the measured build up play that characterised much of their first half play.
However, something to look out for is the weakness that Croatia exposed in the centre of the Brazilian defence. The duo of Silva and Luiz looked quite assured with the ball on the floor, but when direct passes were hit towards them, they did have a bit of trouble. The cross for the goal, and the Olic foul on Cesar which saw a goal disallowed for Croatia are two good examples of how Croatia, even without their main target man, were able to trouble the mighty Brazilians.
No prizes for guessing, Oscar. The young midfielder put in a match winning performance from an unfamiliar position on the right hand side of the pitch. Not only did he terrorize his opponent with some fine individual skill, but also continued his role as playmaker. His passing was good, but what caught the eye more was the dirty work he was willing to do to recover the ball. This was directly responsible for Brazil’s opener, and pegged Croatia back on a number of occasions apart from that goal as well. Oscar was also at No.6 in our list of 25 Talent Radar Young Players to Watch at the World Cup.
The 3 points are nothing more than what Brazil were expected to pick up, but the manner in which they did so will please a lot of their supporters. The scoreline probably flatters them, and things might have been different if the ridiculous penalty decision in their favour hadn’t worked out for them, but Neymar has 2 goals, and Oscar is also showing form. Reasons for optimism then. As for Croatia, they made a bright start, and later on showed their attacking potential. Modric and Rakitic look like a fine duo in midfield, and the Croats will look to open up against Cameroon, and win the match, especially as they welcome their star striker Mandzukic back to the line up.