Spain takes on Croatia in the round of 16 at Euro 2020. One nation’s generation of players is entering their twilight years, while another introduces new faces, styles and ideas. This Croatia side is largely made up of the same players that made it to the World Cup Final in 2018 but do not have nearly as much influence or impact, while Spain are bleeding in new talent, young and old, in an attempt to move away from the style made popular by the Euro 2008, 2012 and World Cup 2010 sides.
Croatia will be without Ivan Perisic due to Covid-19 while Dejan Lovren is suspended. This, coupled with a Croatian side that doesn't play progressively when in possession and has struggled to win the ball back when out of possession, leads to Spain being heavy favorites. Croatia’s PPDA is a woeful 16.4, meaning that they’re happy to allow their opponents time on the ball. Croatia will struggle against a Spanish side that dominates possession with fluid off the ball movement.
Spain comes into this match having thumped Slovakia in their last group game. After disappointing performances against Sweden and Poland, Luis Enrique has likely found his best starting lineup and can be expected to play the same team that did so well against Slovakia. Against Sweden, Spain made 89 passes into Sweden’s final third and by comparing that to their game against Slovakia, where Spain made 54 passes into the final third, this suggest that the personnel on the receiving end of these passes were not good enough on the day, or were in roles that did not best suit their abilities.
This preview will serve as a guide to what you can expect each team to do tactically, with an in-depth look at each team’s build up play, strategy in transitions, and final third structures and ideas.
Spain will play out from the back with the central defenders splitting apart while Busquets drops in between them. This creates a four versus one against what is expected to be the lone pressing Petkovic. Depending on how intensely Croatia presses, Koke will be given permission to drop slightly deeper in the right half-space to assist. The Spanish fullbacks will be positioned at the bottom of the middle third of the pitch, further stretching the Croatian block. Rebic and Vlasic will be tasked with screening these fullbacks from passes from Laporte and Garcia.
Spain will beat the first line of the Croatian press easily as Spain are excellent at playing out from the back and Croatia do not press often in the opposition first third. Across three group games, Croatia performed 117 attacking third pressures, of which just 28.7% of them resulted in Croatia winning possession. Spain will be able to play out from the back and move the ball into the middle third with ease.
Spain struggled to make any meaningful impact in the final third during their games against Sweden and Poland. This was due to personnel and the roles assigned to the wrong players. For example, Pedri was asked far too often to participate in the build up phase against Sweden, allowing Koke and Llorente to play in more creative roles. This did not create enough chances for Spain. They massively underperformed their xG: Spain 2.57-1.17 Sweden. The quality of chances made was there, but they were not enough of them.
Against Slovakia, Pedri was given a more creative role in the left half-space. His objective was to link play between the middle and final thirds, join the forward line as a wide player or in the left half-space, while changing positions with Moreno. The combination of Pedri and Moreno routinely pulled the Slovakian defenders out of position and was the focal point of most of Spain’s attacks.
Presuming Spain attacks Croatia in the same manner as they did against Slovakia, their attacking shape will resemble a 3-3-4 or 3-2-5. Alba will tuck into the left-half space while Laporte and Garcia shift to the right to form a back three and cover the vacant space left by the advancing Azpilicueta. Azpilicueta will provide width on the right hand side to stretch the Croatian backline, creating space for Sarabia to run into.
Pedri and Moreno on the left will switch positions often. One will play in a position resembling a winger, the other will play as an inside forward. Both players are also capable of playing slightly deeper in a role similar to that of a more traditional #10 player. Expect the fluidity we saw against Slovakia to continue here.
To defend against this, Croatia will defend in a very deep and low block, resembling a 4-5-1 shape. Spain’s off the ball movement and fast passing will be key in moving the players around and distorting the shape as much as possible.
Spain’s defensive shape will resemble a 4-1-4-1 or more flat 4-5-1. The wingers will be expected to remain out wide so that if possession is won, the ball winners will have immediate passing options to find in space. Spain have a PPDA of eight, meaning that they look to press aggressively and win the ball back as soon as possible. Most of Spain’s pressing actions come from the middle third, having successfully won possession 41.2% of the time from 160 pressures made.
Spain will likely press in all areas of the pitch, but the transition from defense to attack in the middle third will be the quickest and most effective route to goal for them due to the positioning of the wide players and history of successful pressing at Euro 2020. Busquets will likely be the heartbeat of Spain in transition as he’s completed seven of eight (87.5%) long passes.
Croatia will struggle when playing out from the back but not due to their lack of ability, but instead because of the Spanish press. Throughout the tournament Croatia have played out from defense in a structure that sees the central defenders split wide while Brozovic drops to a deeper position.
The Croatian fullbacks will take up advanced roles, but should be expected to drop deeper to help beat the first line of Spain’s press. If Brozovic struggles to move possession forward by himself, Modric will drop deeper, increasing Croatia’s numerical advantage in their first third from four versus three to five versus three.
Spain will combat this build up tactic by having the wide players press the wide central defenders while screening the Croatian fullbacks, making them low quality passing options. Morata will be tasked with screening Brozovic, so expect Modric to drop deeper in the build up phase sooner rather than later.
Croatia have been hard to watch at times during Euro 2020. Against Scotland, the only game Croatia won, they massively outperformed their xG by beating Scotland 3-1 with an xG of 0.7-1.2. This shows that Croatia struggles to create quality goal scoring opportunities often. This should spell disaster by itself, but now that Perisic is ruled out of their game against Spain, expect little if anything going forward.
Having said that, Croatia does have some plans when they enter the final third. Their attacking shape resembles a 3-3-4 with little flexibility. Rebic and Vlasic will be expected to tuck inside their respective half-spaces while Petkovic remains central. Fullback Juranovic impressed against Scotland when going forward, so he can be expected to help Rebic isolate Alba in the final third or during transitions. Ultimately however, most meaningful passes will come from Modric and Spain will likely be able to press him out of the game.
Most, if not all, of Croatia’s chances will come from the transitional phase as they move from defence to attack while Spain moves into their defensive shape. The objective for Croatia will be to get the ball to Modric who can then find players running into the space behind Alba, between Alba and Laporte, Laporte and Garcia and behind Azpilicueta.
Spain’s attacking structure does invite counter-attacks in all of the wide spaces, half-spaces and central space but are adequately set up to press against a midfield Maestro like Modric. Spain’s attacking structure will have Koke and Busquets sitting firmly in midfield, affording Spain two players capable of either pressing Modric together, or committing one man to press while the other drops deeper into defense. It is not clear how Croatia will be able to beat this.
Spain: Simon, Azpilicueta, Garcia, Laporte, Alba, Koke, Busquets, Pedri, Sarabia, Morata, Moreno
Croatia: Livakovic, Gvardiol, Caleta-Car, Vida, Juranovic, Kovacic, Brozovic, Modric, Classic, Petkovic, Rebic
Spain are the better team on paper but expect a very workmanlike performance from Croatia as they will be spending most of the game defending and playing counter-attack football with an emphasis on targeting the channels. Spain are considered favorites but be wary of continued tinkering from Luis Enrique. He seemed to have struck gold against Slovakia so it would be risky to continue to change up his starting eleven.
Prediction: A comfortable Spain victory while Croatia creates nothing.
I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___