One of the things that I love about soccer is that a guy like Modric, who looks more like an extra in "Trainspotting" than a guy who goes to the gym every day, can be one of the greatest players in the sport. He looks like...a barista? A bike messenger? A roadie for jam band gone dark? Fifty other things before I'd say one of the greatest players in the world's biggest sport. But today he showed us that he is all that.
Alexi Lalas suggested that Modric coming so deep to receive the ball was a real problem, but I disagree, for a few reasons. First, Modric on the ball is always a plus. Full stop. But he is an excellent orchestrator out of the back, a regista (think Pirlo) player who sets tempo and navigates out of tight spaces. He's brilliant at it. Secondly, he is probably the most underrated defender in the world. He wins tons of balls, both from anticipating the pass and from somehow digging it out in tackles, despite his diminutive status. Moreover, he is a maestro at turning a dispossession into an attack. His performance was dominant and sumptuous.
No small part of it is the understanding that he has with Rakitic; they can both play in either and advanced or withdrawn position, and both are killers with the one touch pass. Some say they don't play well together, but I'm not seeing it. At all.
The other piece that Croatia brings is a very physical frontline who can also play with finesse when needed. Mandzukic's power is well known, but Rebic provided another pivot point. Croatia clearly saw the advantage he posed over the Nigerian full back, which he will likely have over many outside backs, and played high balls in his direction. What makes them dangerous is that they were playing the ball back to the oncoming mids, right into their strength. They came close a few times from these gambits.
Defensively, the Whitewalker Vida and Lovren are a tough centerback combo to best.
Finally, on corners, interesting tactic--the Croats don't send runners, fundamentally but rely on posting up and even stepping away from the goal, and then sending secondary runners hard (witness the just missed diving header on the own-goal). Perfectly delivered by Modric.
Of all the teams that I've seen thus far, they've executed the game that they wanted to have.
Nigeria...well, not the best match, but oddly enough the reaction gives some hope. Look, almost nobody looks good against Croatia--they aren't rash going forward, they defend cohesively, and they have the skill to control the midfield. I don't know if I've ever seen a team look terrific against them. To Nigeria's credit,they didn't decompose, they only gave up 2 goals (differential could prove important), and the subs made an impression. No one on the squad will very good about their play today, though credit to the 19-year old keeper--who barely played for Deportivo La Caruna in La Liga--for a solid outing. Ighalo is a horse of a man up front, but maybe this was the wrong centerback pairing to play him against. Ilheanacho should get a look, I'd think. Hopefully well see a better outing from them next time.