How to build a decent team? Follow Croatia's lead
Slaven Bilic's men have a structure and coherence far beyond England's feeble reach
By Kevin McCarra
November 23, 2007 12:00 AM
The Wembley announcer ought to have explained that only Englishmen were eligible for the man of the match award. When he explained that the honour was going to Frank Lampard on Wednesday the Chelsea player would have been sheepish had he not been so distressed that
England were on the verge of elimination from Euro 2008. The prize belonged by natural justice to a Croat, probably Luka Modric.A nation of 4.7 million people had produced a side that made England, with a population of 10 times that size, look ponderous. The 3-2 result was a sort of cruelty since it tantalises Steve McClaren and his side with its permanent reminder that they were close to the point they craved. In the larger sense, however, England were banished by the visitors to Wembley.
Croatia would have deserved a victory by several more goals. The pitch was lamentable, but any attempt to co-opt it as a cause of the defeat is laughable. Slaven Bilic's side, perhaps under-motivated after learning they had qualified at half-time in Skopje on Saturday, had collapsed to a 2-0 loss against Macedonia, but they had every incentive to adapt to conditions in London.
Enough passes found their mark to terrify England. The angles were subtle and England's efforts to fight back from the 2-0 deficit simply put them at risk before the interval. They were up against the counter-attacking finesse of Croatia. This may have been the greatest display from
a visiting nation to Wembley in modern times. Indeed, it was the first time a country had scored three against England in a competitive game at the venue since West Germany won 3-1 at the old stadium in the Nations Cup quarter-final of April 1972.
Bilic's group truly were excited to be appearing at the new ground. Furthermore, Croatia were given a grudge to feed on when a significant part of the crowd chose to boo their national anthem. Patriotism is no superficial gestures for the natives of a country whose history has been so bloodied. Appearing for Croatia actually is the focal point for their existence.
That does not militate against slick management, however. Bilic got into the trade because he had to step into the breach when, as a director of Hajduk Split, action was required following the departure of the coach Nenad Gracan. He learned that he had a facility for it and eventually took charge of the Croatia Under-21 side. His greatest opportunity came after the indignity of the full side's failure to get out of their group at the 2006 World Cup. Bilic, of course, had been part of the great teams that reached the last four in 1998.
He had the good luck to be able to promote Eduardo da Silva, Vedran Corluka and Modric from the Under-21 ranks. The latter made his full debut in a win over Italy, two months after they won the World Cup. Croatian talent pounds exhilaratingly down on the European scene, but Bilic understood how to govern it. His predecessor Zlatko Kranjcar preferred a 3-4-1-2. The newcomer, possibly reflecting his time in England, believes in a back four.
It is a critical issue. With that base, Croatia can afford twin playmakers in Modric and Kranjcar. Niko Kovac covers in front of the centre-backs and Darijo Srna, a good crosser, supplies industry on the right. The attack is constituted of the cunning Eduardo and a more straightforward contributor such as Ivica Olic or Mladen Petric.
Bilic over-rates the defensive capacity in a line-up that conceded three goals before losing in Israel, but his work has still been excellent. A balance is maintained. That sort of team is the kind of structure that Steve McClaren could not engineer. Croatia will face difficulties at Euro 2008, but they deserve a place far more than England.