Sokratis and Greece Show Familiar Failures Against Croatia
With most of the football world on international break, From the Touchline this week travels south to Zagreb to watch a UEFA World Cup qualifier between Croatia and Sokratis’ Greece. The match was eagerly anticipated even before the controversial suspension of Kostas Manolas for time wasting/violating the spirit of the game in Greece’s match against Cyprus. Also missing, at least in the starting XI for Croatia, was Mario Mandzukic although as we will see Nicola Kalinic did quite fine in that position.
The result of the match was a resounding defeat for Greece. Sokratis’ lone goal gives Greece a sliver of hope going into the home leg of this playoff but a 4-1 deficit will be hard to overcome. Did Michael Skibbe play this match too conservatively? Or was the strategy correct and the tactics poorly done?
To cover his defensive deficiency, Skibbe deployed a 4-2-3-1 with Sokratis partnering with fellow Bundesliga player Kyriakos Papadopoulos in the middle and Alexandros Tziolis and Andreas Samaris positioned in front of the backline. Even though on paper Greece looked to be playing a positive formation, the result was that Kostas Mitroglou spent most of the match – and was supposed to spend most of the match – up top by himself. When they did have possession early on, Greece were content to play direct passes and cycle the ball around without being too adventurous and going forward.
I mentioned “early on” because the game changed in the 11th minute. As mentioned, Greece got the ball and cycled it back to Oresti Karnezis, who had been lacking playing time with Watford recently. The result by him was a heavy touch that Kalinic jumped on and Karnezis cut him down for a penalty and yellow card. Luca Modric converted and Greece were now down 1-0 early. Their first chance came a minute later when winning a free kick, Greece enjoyed a period of possession. This was a good opportunity to put pressure on the home side and maybe grab a goal to flip the tie. However, again Greece played conservatively, passing back to a backline that at least pushed up, then passing the ball over the top until finally after about 90 seconds of this back and forth Croatia retained possession. Greece then immediately went back into its defensive shell. It is hard to say if Greece would have pressed more if there could have been a different result in this match, but this brief window early in the first half showed everything wrong with the Greek game plan.
While official the playoff is still ongoing, it arguably ended in the 18th minute when Croatia went up 2-0.
Ivan Strinic again went on a run down the left and punished the fullback. His cross in was a little too easy. Despite playing essentially six to seven players back, this picture summarizes exactly what was wrong with Greece’s defensive position on the day. As Dortmund fans, this looks too familiar. The pass came in and Kalinic flicked the ball into the net. People can blame the absence of Manolas but for two Bundesliga defenders, that much space for a Serie A forward is unforgivable.
After the match, Croatia’s head coach was blunt in assessing his strategy. “The basic idea was to raid them on both flanks and the strategy worked,” said Zlatko Dalic to the press after. “I am not happy with the goal we conceded but in the end, it’s a very good result.” The coaching staff knew that we could dominate the wings and as Greece sat back, that was where they could disrupt the Greek shape. It looks like Sokratis will be joining teammates Pulisic and Yarmolenko in watching the World Cup from home unless Skibbe can find a new strategy against a vastly more talented side.