World Cup Final Tactical Preview: Modric can overcome Kante for Croatia

N'Golo Kante
N'Golo Kante is a key man for France
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Alex Keble picks out the key tactical battles from the World Cup final and takes a brief look at England's bronze medal match with Belgium...

"Kante v Modric is the individual battle a World Cup final deserves. The better player on the day will probably lift the World Cup – and win the Golden Ball."

Croatia v France
Sunday, 16:00,
Live on BBC One & ITV

Modric v Kante to define a cagey encounter

Dider Deschamps' Mourinho-esque conservative tactics throughout this World Cup have just about got France to the final two, but up against such a resilient and pragmatic Croatia side those defensive instincts could finally be his undoing. This will be a cautious game between two nations keen to avoid risks, both looking to grind the other down via their respective world-class central midfields.

For that reason, the head-to-head between Luka Modric and N'Golo Kante - the tournament's two most impressive players - should define the World Cup final, both tactically and symbolically. Kante's role is extremely important given Paul Pogba's tendency to drift and Blaise Matuidi's need to close down on the left wing (see below), and the Chelsea midfielder certainly won't choke; he has made more ball recoveries (48) and interceptions (19) than any other player at the World Cup.

Modric has dragged Croatia to the final with his incisive passing and composure in possession. His teamwork and resilience under pressure perfectly represents Croatia's key attributes and their game plan on Sunday, as does the defensive diligence and understated genius of Kante for France. It is the individual battle a World Cup final deserves. The better player on the day will probably lift the World Cup - and win the Golden Ball.

Croatia's long diagonals could cause damage

Such a cautious, midfield-heavy match will be won by one moment of quality or one lapse in concentration; a miniscule margin that, for Croatia, could be the result of the raking diagonal passes that hurt England in the semi-final. France's 4-3-3 formation certainly makes this tactical move an intriguing option for Zlatko Dilic.

Marcelo Brozovic's long passes into the full-backs Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic exposed the spaces either side of the England midfield when their 3-5-2 retreated into a 5-3-2. From here, Croatia's full-backs combined with the inverted wingers to cross the ball into the box. Mario Mandzukic's aerial ability ensures this tactic will come to the fore during the World Cup final.

France will cope much better than England did, although Kylian Mbappe's high starting position means there could be space on France's right, while Blaise Matuidi's dual role from the left (he has to drop infield to support Kante when Pogba goes walkabout) could also leave space on the other flank. Expect France to deal with it adequately enough, but as legs tire those diagonals could provide that one crucial moment of quality.

Mbappe's speed will terrify Lovren and Vida

The main reason England should have beaten Croatia is that Raheem Sterling tore them to pieces in the first 45 minutes. Sadly Gareth Southgate's side couldn't turn this pressure into goals, but with Antoine Griezmann floating in the half spaces, Pogba clipping the long balls in behind the defence, and Mbappe in Sterling's role France should be considerably more ruthless.

Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida are far too slow to cope with Mbappe. The 19-year-old's raw power and fearless playing style should allow him to get the better of both defenders, as long as Deschamps instructs him to make arcing runs on the shoulder of the last defender.

A direct approach is surely the best way to beat Croatia, not just because of the example England set but because doing so would push Croatia's lines deeper and eliminate Modric and Ivan Rakitic from the game. However, France haven't shown much tactical flexibility during the tournament and it seems unlikely they would be quite as long-ball as England were in Moscow.

Belgium v England
Sunday, 16:00,
Live on ITV

De Bruyne & Lukaku partnership to trouble unfamiliar back three

Speaking after England's semi-final exit Southgate admitted he would need to rest tired legs for the third-place playoff. "I think a physical part of that is going to have a huge bearing," he said. "We only have a two day recovery and I'm sure some of the guys won't be able to get out there." By contrast Roberto Martinez has vowed to play a strong team, telling the press that his reserves had already been given their chance when Belgium last met England.

That means Romelu Lukaku, just two goals behind 1.081/12 favourite Harry Kane in the race for the Golden Boot, will probably start the match. He has had an outstanding tournament and, brimming with confidence, he should get the better of England's unfamiliar back three. Assuming Phil Jones and Gary Cahill both start, it is hard to see how England's defence will have the legs - or the communication - to track Lukaku's intelligent runs.

Kevin de Bruyne was sensational as a false nine against Brazil, dropping off to vacate space for Lukaku to move into off the right wing, and after Martinez's conservatism cost him against France the Spaniard should return to the complex tactics of the quarter-final. De Bruyne's link-up play with Lukaku, coupled with his ability to shrug off a flat-footed Eric Dier, should give Belgium enough to take the bronze medal.

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