The situation heading into the tournament has never been so clear. Nine of the 11 starting places feel cemented; the remaining two are anybody’s guess — but not because there are no good options, quite the contrary. Zlatko Dalic has three or four players competing for each of those (right-wing and centre-forward) and will decide who gets the nod on a game-to-game basis, depending on the opponent and player form. What is particularly pleasing, given that in the past the manager had been known to engage in plenty of unnecessary experiments, is that he is now fully settled on an approach and has made that very clear too.
“I won’t change the way we play,” he said ahead of the deciding Nations League matches that ultimately saw Croatia win a group consisting of France, Denmark and Austria. “When you have a midfield like ours, you have to strive to move the ball and create your chances through possession. We must play out of the back and when midfielders don’t have to drop deep to get the ball we are more dangerous. We’ll press when possible, and when not, we’ll defend in a block.”
The 4-3-3 (4-1-4-1) formation is definitely Dalic’s primary choice, with 4-2-3-1 as a backup. And although the midfield trio have more than 300 caps between them, there have been changes elsewhere — particularly in defence, with starting centre-backs aged 22 and 20 respectively, and much more mobile and confident on the ball than their veteran predecessors. Most of the 2018 silver-winning squad has been replaced and there are important additions even since last year’s Euros, such as Josip Sutalo and Borna Sosa.
Coach: Somehow it all fell into place for Zlatko Dalic. He’s been through some depressing times and embarrassing defeats since the last World Cup, as signs of complacency and a rift within the squad took hold. However, he managed to reunite and reshape the team with fresh additions, emerging with renewed confidence and public approval — although not quite like the 2018 mass worship. His priest-like public persona and persistent talk of “humility” may have worn off a little but he is certainly not meek – just Milan’s Ante Rebic, who has not been a part of the team since Euro 2020.
Star: Luka Modric. Clichés on aging like wine aside, the 37-year-old captain is still fully deserving of his undoubted status of the team’s leader, its biggest star and MVP. You will see him work at least just as hard and run at least just as much as any of his younger teammates. And if time has slowed him down a bit at all, it did not take its toll on the speed of his thinking or on his creativity, which are at least just as incredible as they ever were.
Unsung Hero: Marcelo Brozovic used to be unreliable, inconsistent and without a fully defined position or role in the team; now he’s pretty much the opposite in all those aspects. With time, Brozovic has settled in the holding midfielder position and Croatia have benefitted because they used to lack that type of player in the past, certainly before the 2018 World Cup, which is when he made it his domain. It is where his seemingly endless stamina works best with both his physical and technical capacities. Virtually irreplaceable.
Best XI: 4-3-3 — Livakovic — Juranovic, Sutalo, Gvardiol, Sosa — Brozovic, Modric, Kovacic — Vlasic, Livaja, Perisic