The World Cup final on Sunday pits two teams against each other who both play variations of the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formations. At first glance this may not seem like a particularly fascinating tactical battle but on closer inspection there are some key duals in the wide areas which could decide who gets the better hold of the game and so, who dominates. With two world class midfields coming toe-to-toe it is fair to assume that whoever can dominate in the central areas may have the running of things and may be able to produce that one decisive moment to claim that gorgeous golden statue. However, as I will argue, the key to who controls the centre of the park may in fact lie in the result of duals out wide – notably on Croatia’s right hand side or France’s left – depending on how you look at it.
Both teams will likely set up with flat back fours; France with N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba in front of that and then Balise Matuidi, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé behind Olivier Giroud as the target man. Croatia are expected to play a three man midfield with Marcelo Brozović deepest with Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitićeither side of him or with one slightly further forward (probably alternating). Up front, Mario Mandžukić will be flanked by Ivan Perišić and Ante Rebić – both of whom could be left or right, but given Perišić’s effectivenss from the left against England, I’d assume he would feature there from the outset. Whereas Perišić and Rebić both play quite high and wide, forming a relatively flat front three with Mandžukić, France’s offence is decidedly more lopsided. Mbappé, on the right, provides little defensive cover, whereas Matuidi, on the left, is more of a shuttling player who is expected to and comfortable coming quite deep if he needs to track runners and tuck inside in support of Kanté and Pogba in the middle. As Griezmann is more forward thinking, Matuidi tucking in from the left creates the three they might need in midfield without the ball. Whereas, for Croatia, the three central players simply compress around Brozović to create a denser midfield unit. France’s lopsidedness provides the starkest difference between the teams tactically and so provides the most obvious tactical difference through which to analyse the impending final.
Croatia’s left and Frances right offer similar dynamics going forward. Both Perišić and Mbappé will play high and wide and cut in to support the strikers when the ball is on the opposite side. Neither is accustomed to tracking back much nor providing a lot of defensive cover and so we will likely see both focusing on isolating their opposing full-backs in attack rather than tracking them in defence. As it were, neither Benjamin Pavard nor Ivan Strinić are particularly adept at attacking so we are likely to see two quite straight forward duals on that side of the pitch. That is, Mbappéagainst Strinić and Perišić against Pavard. If it turns out that Rebić starts from the left, this dynamic will change in name only. That is, it will look quite similar whoever Croatia place out on the left. Assuming, however, that Perišić starts left, this side of the field will be vital and interesting as both wingers there have been critical to their respective nations best moments so far. It may turn out that whoever can get the better of their man on this flank might be the one to serve up or take the decisive chance. We will see.
Whilst Croatia’s left and France’s right will be critical as just mentioned, the other side of the field could be even more key or rather, the key, to determining who dominates this match. As mentioned, France’s lopsidedness means that Matuidi on their left is likely to drop deep in defence and at times tuck into midfield. We saw him doing this frequently and effectively against Belgium to silence Kevin De Bruyne and clog up the midfield. It worked a treat. However, whereas Belgium had just one wide option on their right in Thomas Meunier – who Lucas Hernández could comfortably take care of on his own – Croatia will have Šime Vrsaljko bombing on from behind the winger, creating an overlap and so a second wide option on that side. What this means is that Hernández would be left alone to deal with both Rebićand Vrsaljko if Matuidi were to drop deep and tuck inside to bolster the centre of the midfield as he did against Belgium. However, Matuidi is far too disciplined to bypass the threat of Vrsaljko completely and as the Croatian right-back had so much space and time against England, Didier Deschamps will surely task him with the job of monitoring the Atlético Madrid man quite closely. The takeaway of this being that we are likely to see Matuidi drifting wider left in defence (than as against Belgium) to block off Vrsaljko as an outlet and so less likely to see him drifting inside to help Kanté and Pogba.
The role Matuidi plays and where he tends to drift off the ball will be essential to how this game plays out. If he doesn’t take care of Vrsaljko, the Croatian will be a free man, open to switches of play and ready to swing in deadly crosses and Hernández will be overwhelmed with two direct opponents to deal with. If Matuidi does drift out wide to close him down regularly, he leaves the midfield to fend for themselves. This is not the end of the world for France but it could play into Croatia’s hands by unlocking their most effective player, Modrić, in virtue of providing him with more room in which to move. With Matuidi wide, Croatia could easily create a three-on-two situation in the centre of the park: Modrić, Rakitić and Brozović versus Kanté and Pogba. Unless Greizmann drops quite deep, this could hand Croatia the keys to the park. On the flip side of this, Griezmann retreating too far in respite to this threat and being sucked into the cauldron could stifle France’s attacking fluidity. If France scores first they won’t mind stationing 10 men behind the ball at all, but if they don’t or if it stays level for a long time, the way these dynamics and tactical permutations play out will be critical to who controls the pitch, possession and thus, the match.
However it falls on Sunday, it promises to be an intriguing battle between two great sides packed with talent. As in the semis, it will likely be decided by marginal gains, single moments or maybe even magic. Both teams will want to find the keys to the midfield and hang onto them tightly. As I’ve argued in this article, those keys may just be found out on the flanks. Specifically, on France’s left, where Matuidi’s role, especially, will have repercussions further infield in the heart of the park.