France and Croatia’s meeting in the World Cup final on Sunday in Moscow is in some ways fitting. Both teams play a practical, organization-oriented style apt to frustrate other sides, making them an interesting stylistic match.
France’s hybrid 4-4-2 formation has gained attention as it has advanced, mostly for the way it uses Kylian Mbappe, the best young player in the world. The formation is intentionally unbalanced, placing Mbappe on the right touchline and Blaise Matuidi on the left as an inverted outside midfielder.
Matuidi, a central midfielder by trade, performs similar responsibilities on the outside of the formation, spending much of his time close to N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba. His positioning tilts the formation’s width to the right, which gives Mbappe the freedom to stay farther up the field to attack in transition. It also frees Antoine Griezmann, working as a second striker to Olivier Giroud’s left, to probe across the attacking shape.
Griezmann is at the point of it all, working underneath the target striker Giroud, and Mbappe is high on the right side, working with the goal of finding space on the counter. The 19-year-old has been fantastic all tournament doing exactly that; Mbappe leads the World Cup with 46 total dribbles and has the most dribbles per 90 minutes of any player who has played at least 200 minutes in the tournament.
Containing Mbappe requires a compromise: Croatia could have to keep a player, usually a fullback, wider than usual to prevent him from easily receiving service. That could open other gaps and channels for Croatia’s center backs to deal with, less than ideal given the relative lack of pace down their spine, but Mbappe is France’s most threatening attacking piece. Trade-offs are necessary.
Croatia, managed by Zlatko Dalic, doesn’t have the attacking firepower of Mbappe and Griezmann or the ground-covering, ball-advancing midfield of Kante and Pogba, but it is organized, avoids mistakes and has iron lungs — Dalic did not make a substitution in the semifinal until extra time despite many of his players having endured 120 minutes of playing time in each of the previous two games.
Croatia will play a fairly standard 4-2-3-1. It’s an open question as to whether Luka Modric will play farther up the field underneath Mandzukic, leaving Marcelo Brozovic to play next to Ivan Rakitic, or deeper alongside his Barcelona rival, pushing Andrej Kramaric into the starting lineup as another attacking option. Modric’s role, as a high-volume ball-circulator and line-breaker, would be roughly the same either way.
Ivan Strinic and Sime Vrsaljko are quietly crucial contributors for Croatia. The danger is sending them forward and then getting hit on the break by Mbappe, a dangerous game Croatia probably can’t afford to play. On the other hand, the Croatian fullbacks could create overloads that would can help pin Mbappe deeper, forcing him to either track back and defend or let Benjamin Pavard take on Strinic and Ivan Perisic by himself.
Dalic will likely realize how important Pavard is to this French team — he plays a big role in possession and he and Mbappe exchange a lot of passes. Croatia will need to break that connection and the dynamic down Croatia’s left flank, and which fullback-winger duo gains the advantage, will be crucial.
More World Cup coverage from The Post: