France are the immovable object and Croatia are, well, a more or less resistible force. The story of France’s tournament, and even more broadly their last two years of international play starting with a trip to the finals of Euro 2016, is that despite an abundance of attacking talent, the team is built to defend.
It is the nature of defense that it gets overshadowed by attack, and the nature of defenders that they do the dirty work while the goalscorers grab the headlines. In France’s case that means that the best defensive midfielder on the planet, N’Golo Kante, has quietly become the team’s center point. Rather than leverage Kante, play an open team around him and depend on the indefatigable little ball winner to provide most of the defensive work, France have instead chosen to reinforce him.
Paul Pogba plays next to him and isn’t given license to roam forward. Blaise Matuidi plays ahead of the pair, mainly for his defensive contributions, and the conservative fullback pairing of Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard are preferred to more expansive alternatives. The result is a team that’s conceded four goals in the entire tournament, one in the opening match where they played a more expansive lineup and three in an unlikely Round of 16 clash with Argentina.
Croatia’s plan to beat France will likely be the same as their plan to beat everybody else: have their extremely talented midfield get the ball out wide where the team’s wingers, supported by overlapping fullbacks, can create for themselves or for forward Mario Mandzukic. Against England, Croatia’s most common pass combinations were Luka Modric on the right side of the center midfield to right back Sime Vrsaljko and left-sided center midfielder Ivan Rakitic to left back Ivan Strinic. Eventually this strategy paid off against England when Vrsaljko played a hopeful cross from the right and Ivan Perisic cut in from the left and literally hurdled defender Kyle Walker to score.
Croatia are very good at playing this way, but it’s also a style that creates inefficient chances. Headed balls in crowded penalty areas from long crosses are not great scoring opportunities. Croatia haven’t been forced to pay for that deficiency because they have faced a series of opponents who did not have the capability of mounting their own attacks. England, and before them Russia and Denmark, were simply poor attacking teams. Croatia’s inefficient attack was itself more than those squads could muster.
France’s defense is better than any that Croatia has faced this tournament. Their attack is as well. If Croatia stage an upset, they will have to do it by surprising on both sides of the ball, which is hard to imagine. I think this one ends 1-0 France.