This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2016 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the countries who have qualified for France. theguardian.com is running previews from three countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 10 June.
Almost all of Croatia’s ideal XI is well known, but their manager’s propensity to tinker extensively from one strategy to another offers little reassurance that he knows what he’s doing.
Ante Cacic inherited the 4-2-3-1 formation and the 4-4-2 midfield diamond as a back-up plan from his predecessor, Niko Kovac. However, he has experimented with a flat 4-4-2 as well as with 3-5-2. Going into the tournament, we still have little idea of what his primary choice will be.
The sensible thing to do would be to build a team around the world-class playmaker axis of Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, but Cacic doesn’t have a genuine holding midfielder to provide defensive balance and a safety net for them.
Instead, Internazionale’s Marcelo Brozovic – a dynamic box-to-box midfielder with lungs of steel but not a typical, aggressive ball-winner – should be used to complement them if the manager opts for a triangle in the middle. That means a more advanced role for Modric, who has been known to organise play from as deep as the edge of Croatia’s penalty box. But it also means the bench for his Real Madrid team-mate, Mateo Kovacic.
Monaco’s Danijel Subasic is untouchable in goal. A back three wouldn’t make much sense given the personnel, although that doesn’t necessarily mean Cacic won’t try it. But assuming he doesn’t, Lokomotiv Moscow’s Vedran Corluka and Dynamo Kiev’s Domagoj Vida should be the starting pair of centre-backs, especially as Cacic has fallen out with Dejan Lovren and has not taken him to the Euros. Of the two, Corluka is better and more technical, while Vida is more aggressive and dynamic. The captain, Darijo Srna, of Shakhtar Donetsk is set to start on the right, although Sassuolo’s Sime Vrsaljko would be a better choice. Ivan Strinic doesn’t play much for Napoli, but he’s the only natural left-back in the squad; Cacic might play Vrsaljko there, though.
Provided the manager sticks with the 4-2-3-1, Internazionale’s Ivan Perisic and Dinamo Zagreb’s Marko Pjaca are sure starters on the right and left-wings respectively. The former has been Croatia’s best performer since the 2014 World Cup, while the latter is a new force: both are speedy, skilful and can make a difference in one-on-one situations.
Up front, the Juventus workhorse Mario Mandzukic is still first choice, despite scoring only one of Croatia’s 20 goals in the qualifiers and despite his style not fitting that well with the rest of the team. Alternatives are Fiorentina’s Nikola Kalinic and Leicester City’s Andrej Kramaric, who spent the second half of last season on loan to Hoffenheim and has now agreed a permanent move to the club.
If, however, Cacic decides on 4-4-2 or even 3-5-2, the changes he will make are just about anyone’s guess.
Predicted Line-ups: Subasic; Corluca, Vida, Srna, Vrsaljko, Modric, Brozovic, Perisic, Rakitic, Pjaca, Mandzukic
Aleksandar Holiga writes for Telegram.