Croatia face England at the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday evening in both nation’s first World Cup semi-final since the 1990s.
This summer’s World Cup in Russia has seen Croatia reach the final four by showing a little bit of every facet of the game.
They have a core of world-class talent that is complemented by a hard-working collective.
Here are three main strengths of the Croatia national team, along with two weaknesses that England will look to exploit to reach their first World Cup final since 1966.
The Croatia national team’s strengths
It will come as absolutely no surprise that Croatia’s main strength and biggest chance of beating England comes in the midfield area.
In Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, they have their standout star and one of the best playmakers in world football.
Modric is their top scorer, with two goals, and has played more minutes than any other Croatian at the tournament so far (485). Of all the players left in the competition, only Kevin De Bruyne has created more chances than the Madrid midfielder’s 14.
But the midfield roll-call doesn’t stop there.
Playing alongside Modric, you have Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, who provides the perfect platform for Modric to operate freely, while also contributing heavily in the creative department himself.
Throw in talents such as Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Perisic – then consider a player of Mateo Kovacic’s standing has only managed one start at the World Cup so far – and you have the blueprint for one of, if not the strongest midfield set-ups at this tournament.
Monaco stopper Danijel Subasic is enjoying a very strong World Cup.
Putting his penalty shootout record to the side for a moment, Croatia conceded just a single goal in their first three games as they cruised to the top of a very tough group D – Subasic played no small roll in that.
His save rate of 80% of shots faced is the fourth-highest of any goalkeeper to feature in more than one game at the tournament and is a continuation of his strong form in Ligue 1 this season.
But you cannot hide from that penalty shootout record for too long.
Following their win against the hosts, Russia, Subasic became just the second goalkeeper to save four or more spot-kicks in a World Cup penalty shoot-out, equaling Argentine Sergio Goycochea record from 1990.
England may have exorcised their penalty demons against Colombia in the quarter-final, their own goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was a huge part of that, but they will find it tough if it goes that far on Wednesday against Subasic.
Penalty shootout experience
We already know how good Subasic is at penalties, but it takes more than just a good goalkeeper to win in those situations.
Croatia won their round-of-16 game against Denmark 3-2 on penalties and then 4-3 via the same method against Russia in the quarter-finals.
They have very much changed their line-up in both shootouts, presumably for two reasons. To keep the opposition goalkeeper guessing on who is going to step up and to help the confidence of anyone who misses.
Despite the changing of the guard in this department, two players have stepped up and scored in both shootouts.
Luka Modric showed nerves of steel to score in the shootout against Denmark – he had already missed a penalty in extra-time – and Ivan Rakitic has scored the winning penalty on both occasions.
If the game goes this far on Wednesday then Croatia will see themselves as favourites, despite England’s win over Colombia and any amount of homework Jordan Pickford carries out on Croatia’s takers.
Croatia national team’s weaknesses
Manager’s restricting tactics
With that absolute wealth of midfield talent, you would think that the football played by Croatia would be free-flowing and devastating to the opponent.
At times, sadly, this has not been the case for Croatia.
Dalic has mainly used two different systems in this World Cup so far, 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1.
His 4-1-4-1 system usually involves talented wingers such as Ivan Perisic. With Ivan Strinic behind him, the Inter attacker has been restricted and asked to carry out more defensive work, limiting his considerable attacking talent. He has made just 52 successful passes in the opponents’ half in five World Cup appearances, while having performed four successful dribbles – compared to five tackles and six clearances.
England can use their wing-backs to press high on the Croatian line to exploit this, forcing Perisic and the other Croatian wide players back into defensive zones.
The 4-2-3-1 system often results in Modric or Rakitic – or even both – playing much deeper than they would like to.
This stifles two of the best creative midfielders in the world and during over 360 minutes of football against Denmark and Russia, Croatia managed just nine shots on target.
If Dalić opts for the 4-2-3-1, England can use their midfield to suffocate Modric and Rakitic, maybe even committing one of their centre-backs to the press with only one striker to worry about.
This would result in mistakes for them to capitalize on, as well as forcing Croatia into long-ball tactics.
The likes of Harry Maguire and John Stones will keep winning headers for fun, while Kyle Walker has great pace to cover flick-ons behind the defensive line.
Lack of an out-and-out goalscorer
For all of their midfield talent, Croatia desperately lack a consistent goalscorer to provide when Modric and Rakitic struggle.
Mario Mandzukic is the closest they have to a goalscorer, with 31 goals in 87 caps, but he has only managed one in this World Cup so far – his game is largely about holding the ball up and linking the midfield to the attack.
Croatia have now had eight different goalscorers at this tournament so far but only Modric – with two goals – has scored more than once.
England’s defence has looked more and more solid as the tournament progresses and, if Modric struggles to impose himself on the game, their back three could easily control that area of the field and quickly push England onto Croatia.