Alex Keble shines his tactical spotlight on Argentina's semi-final clash with Croatia, highlighting why the Croats could cause an upset.
Both World Cup semi-finals are going to be cagey and low-scoring matches and the first one seems highly likely to go to extra-time; three of their four combined knockout matches so far have been settled by penalties largely because their respective managers prefer defensive caution via slow possession football – and because neither side has enough quality in attack.
Croatia might just be better placed to overcome this creativity problem. They have struggled throughout the tournament, ranking 22nd for shot-creating actions per 90 (15.88), because they are one-dimensional in what they do with the ball in the final third. It is normally shuttled out wide for a cross into the box that, without a reliable centre-forward since Mario Mandzukic’s retirement, doesn’t go anywhere. They still top the charts for total crosses into the box at Qatar 2022 with 119.
Finally, the tactic might work. Argentina lack height in central defence and that was put to the test by Louis van Gaal’s decision to go route one for the final 20 minutes of the Netherlands’ quarter-final, with Wout Weghorst the disrupter, scoring twice as Argentina were badly unsettled by such a direct approach.
Clearly, Croatia’s midfield three won’t suddenly be bypassed with longer balls – but this is a good sign their crossing can find its target, especially given that Marcos Acuna’s suspension means the more attack-minded Tagliafico will come in at left-back. Josip Juranovic, who overlaps right winger Mario Pasilic as he dips infield, should find space to deliver dangerous balls into the box.
These crosses may spread panic in the Argentina defence, especially if the score is close late in the game. The Netherlands came back from 2-0 down and Australia very nearly did the same. This stoic, never-say-die Croatia side will come into their own just as Argentina begin to wobble.
At the other end, it’s all about Lionel Messi. Angel di Maria’s fitness issues, coupled with the changes that came after the 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia, have left Argentina badly lacking fluidity in the final third, increasing the pressure on Messi’s individual genius to 2018 levels.
Lionel Scaloni will not be happy with the manner in which Argentina have arrived in the final four, with performances far less assured than they had been in the Copa America.
Thankfully Messi has been outstanding, contributing the second most shot-creating actions (32), behind Kylian Mbappe (35), and recording the tournament’s highest individual xG (4.38).
Speaking to Fifa+, Zlatko Dalic said he will not look to man-mark Messi out of the game but rather take the same holistic approach that kept Neymar quiet. “We know how much he runs, how much he likes to play with the ball at his feet and the key to our defensive phase will be discipline,” Dalic said. “If we repeat the same thing as against Brazil, which is that we are close [to him], that we stand by the player, we have nothing to fear.”
Translation: the tight compression of space that Croatia have maintained between the lines should be enough to squeeze Messi out into less dangerous wide areas.
Marcelo Brozovic, Matteo Kovacic and Luka Modric will work together to stay calmly in control of the ball, defending Messi by denying him space and possession. However, there is always the risk that the breakdown of a Croatia counter-attack gives Messi enough room on the counter-counter, and it is here that Dalic’s standout player of the tournament – centre-back Josko Gvardiol – will be needed.