Belgium booked a spot in the 2014 World Cup, courtesy of a Romelu Lukaku first half brace.
Igor Stimac was bold with his team selection, opting to align his side in a 3-4-2-1. Mario Mandzukic led the line ahead of Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic. Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic played in midfield, while Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic operated as wingbacks.
Marc Wilmots preferred to assemble his side in a 4-2-3-1 with Romelu Lukaku leading the line. Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne played behind the Everton striker, while Axel Witsel and Steven Defour played in the double pivot.
This was a mature Belgian performance that nearly backfired – Wilmot’s men were exceptional on the break in the first half, whereas they sat deeper in the second, allowing Croatia to grow into the match.
Belgium without the ball
Croatia trailed the Belgians for 83 minutes, despite finishing the match with 58% possession, and their shape without the ball was integral towards their success. Wilmots’ men dropped into a 4-5-1 in their own half aiming to maintain a compact shape.
Although Stimac’s men can be held accountable for their lack of productivity in the final third, the Belgians were organized, and deprived the Croatians space near their goal. Specifically, the work from Defour and Fellaini was admirable. Both men – with occasional help from Witsel – stayed close to Kovacic and Modric, preventing them from influencing the match. The Croatian midfield duo were marked well and forced to operate in deeper positions spreading sideways passes, and that was down to the tactical discipline of Fellaini and Defour.
Belgium was content with Croatia maintaining possession of the ball, because they nullified their two creators, and Stimac’s men struggled to push forward without them.
Lukaku stole the headlines scoring both of Belgium’s goals, and although both finishes were class, the Everton striker didn’t produce a great performance. In fairness, Lukaku’s presence alone was a threat to a slow Croatian back three.
Nevertheless, both goals displayed Belgium’s ability to transition from defence to attack in seconds. In the 15th minute, Defour intercepted a poor pass from Perisic at the halfway line, and quickly played a defence-splitting pass to set Lukaku clear on goal. The Belgian striker’s pace saw him run past the Croatian defence and round Stipe Pletikosa, to hand Wilmots’ men the lead.
Croatia wingbacks push forward
An interesting feat in Croatia’s attack was their success in wide areas. Strinic and Vrsaljko often ventured forward attacking the space behind Hazard and De Bruyne. Besides Strinic and Vrsaljko’s forward runs, Croatia lacked penetration, along with any significant threat in the final third.
Strinic surged forward driving at the Belgian midfield and backline, but the Croatian wingback lacked support from his teammates, a final ball, and his decision making was poor. The Croatian wingback did create Croatia’s best chance in the final moments of the first half when he drove forward and delivered a cross to Mandzukic, but Courtois made a good save to maintain his clean sheet.
Opposed to making penetrating runs, Vrsaljko opted to provide crosses into the box. Unfortunately for Croatia, Vrsaljko completed one of a total 12 crosses throughout the match. It was a poor first half performance from Stimac’s men, and they failed to capitalize on their freedom in wide areas.
A main concern Croatia encountered was the pace of their back three – and in the 38th minute Lukaku added to his tally. It must be said that it was a strange decision by Stimac, based on the type of attackers the Belgian’s possess – pacy players that thrive on the counter attack.
More so, there was no surprise to see Lukaku run past the Croatian defence – specifically Kovacic – to beat Pletikosa. This time Croatia failed to make the most of a quick set-piece, and De Bruyne and Witsel cleverly worked the ball up to Lukaku. The Belgian striker dodged a challenge and was on a clear breakaway from half, and he confidently slotted his shot past Pletikosa.
Both goals highlighted Croatia’s lack of pace in defence – many will question Stimac’s decision to play a sluggish back three against a pacy Belgium side, but also praise Wilmots’ men for turning defence into attack so efficiently.
Croatia was down two goals at home and changes were imminent, so it was interesting to see how Stimac would attempt to alter the match.
The Croatian manager kept his initial shape, but sacrificed Rakitic and Perisic for Nikola Kalinic and Niko Kranjcar – Stimac also replaced the ineffective Kovacic for Ognjen Vukojevic. These changes were logical because they provided a scoring threat in the final third, but also presented the link between midfield and attack that Stimac’s men severely lacked in the first half. To be fair, Stimac’s changes should’ve come earlier because Croatia improved in the second half.
Wilmots was more conservative with his changes, as he knew Croatia needed to score three times to prevent automatic qualification. Nacer Chadli and Kevin Mirallas freshened up the attack, while Dembele came on in the final minutes to help maintain possession and secure the three points.
In particular, Stimac’s substitutions had an impact on the match, but the changes both managers made displayed their approach towards the second half.
Croatia grow into the match
As stated earlier, Croatia significantly improved in the second half, but it was slightly down to Belgium’s complacent approach. Wilmots’ men dropped deeper towards their goal in the second half, and pushed fewer men forward.
A key feat in Stimac’s second half approach was Kalinic – who played his role better than Perisic. Again, tired legs could have affected the Belgians, but Kalinic began to drift between the lines and receive the ball in key areas throughout the final third. Also, the pressing on Modric decreased, and he had brief spells were he drove forward. It’s key to point out that Domagoj Vida began to facilitate play as an extra ball provider, along with making brave runs forward to help push his side forward.
For all their hard work in the second half, Stimac’s men were awarded in the 83rd minute when Vida pushed forward and delivered a good cross – unlike Vrsaljko – into the box. Kalinic met the delivery and was denied by Thibaut Courtois, but the Belgians failed to clear their lines and Kranjcar lashed a venomous shot into the left corner. The goal highlighted the positive feats in Croatia’s second half performance – a quality cross from the flank, and forward runs made into the box from the two attackers behind Mandzukic.
Croatia progressively improved in the second half – despite Belgium’s complacent second half approach – but it’s shocking that Stimac waited so long to make the required changes needed to claw back into the match.
Belgium stuck to Wilmots’ approach and survived a late Croatian resurgence – organized defending and quick transitions gave the visitors an early two-goal advantage and they intended on protecting their lead in the second half.
On the other hand, Croatia looks destined for a two-legged playoff tie in a few months, but they face a few issues going forward. As of late, they’ve lacked cohesion going forward, the distance between the double-pivot and attackers has been too large, and Mandzukic has been left isolated.
It’s an issue that Stimac needs to address going forward, because Croatia isn’t scoring enough goals or creating enough chances to win matches – which could prevent them from featuring in next summer’s World Cup.