Croatia got off to as comfortable a start to the World Cup as they could have hoped for. An uninspiring Nigerian team with very little attacking impetus provided the perfect platform for Croatia to grow into the game and cruise to victory. That said, manager Vlatko Dalic will have some thinking to do ahead of their next tie against Argentina. Here are some takeaways for the Croatians after the first round of matches for Group D.
1. Striking Problems
It was curious to note just how much Croatia improved at the hour mark when Andrej Kramaric was replaced by Marcelo Brozovic. An extremely narrow Croatia instantly found width by having Ivan Perisic play further wide and stretch a Nigerian team chasing the game. Croatia got the extra body in midfield they needed to allow the mesmeric Luka Modric license to burst forward at his leisure. With Ante Rebic on the other flank, Croatia’s play found a new lease on life as they stamped their authority on the game.
While both Kramaric and strike partner Mario Mandzukic played well, having them both on the pitch at once denies Croatia much needed width to stretch compact defenses. Coupled with Ivan Strinic’s reticence to overlap, that could spell problems as they come up against organised units such as tournament debutantes Iceland whom they face in their third group game. Dalic has to make a decision on which striker to drop from the start going forward. Mandzukic’s strength and aerial prowess could prove a useful outlet and if yesterday’s substitution is any indication, that may be what is preferred.
2. The Super Eagles yet to take flight
To put it plainly, Nigeria were not good against Croatia. Despite Oghenekaro Etebo’s efforts in the middle of the park (he had more touches and passes than any other player on the pitch), there is a distinct lack of movement and creativity up front to make it count for anything. The likes of John Obi Mikel and Wilfred Ndidi will help to keep the ball moving but neither are particularly expansive passers of the ball. It is unfortunate that Etebo will be credited with the own goal that put Nigeria behind, but football is like that sometimes.
Nigeria will hope to replicate the improvement they showed at the beginning of the second half if they are to keep their World Cup hopes alive. Victor Moses being their sole outlet will not cut it especially as Odion Ighalo looks a shadow of the striker who lit up the Premier League with Watford a couple seasons ago. One of Ahmed Musa or Kelechi Iheanacho of Leicester City from the start would help alleviate the burden on Moses’ shoulders. Seeing as they play Iceland next, Nigeria will need all the support with penetration they can muster to pierce the stubborn Viking wall.
3. Midfield will be vital
As alluded to prior, a swap from a two striker formation to a variant of 4-3-3 with a lone striker up top is Croatia’s best option if they hope to top Group D. The extra body in midfield and additional width also saw Ivan Rakitic burst into life following the change in approach at the 60′ mark. The Barcelona man seemed to have much more space and time with Brozovic making himself a willing option at all times.
The only concern will be Mateo Kovacic who put in an indifferent cameo in his 15 minutes on the pitch. Beating a man has never been a problem for the young Real Madrid midfielder, but he will need to tighten up his decision making if he hopes to carry the torch the two greats ahead of him will eventually pass on.