Some things just don’t go together. Socks and sandals. Painkillers and alcohol. Microwaves and metal. Adam Sandler and movies. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. And … Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić?
The Real Madrid and Barcelona stars are undoubtedly the two best Croatian players on the planet right now, however they’ve never quite been able to add up to the sum of their parts when wearing the red-and-white chequered shirt of their national team. Their inability to function together for Croatia will have England fans thinking back to the days of Lampard and Gerrard, when the Chelsea and Liverpool midfield leaders consistently stepped on each other’s toes.
“Maybe it’s because Lampard and Gerrard have the same style, so they can’t play together,” explained Algeria’s Hassan Yebda after the goalless draw with England at the 2010 World Cup, one of the most disappointing moments of the Frank-and-Stevie experiment. “They play at a very different level [for England] and I don’t know why.” It’s true that both players were similar in the way they loved to burst forward, arriving in the box or just outside it at the right moment. They also had license to roam for their respective clubs, but if they both trotted around the pitch for England then they left a huge gap behind them.
So why don’t Modrić and Rakitić work together? It’s not as if they are known for driving forward and for drifting out of position, as they play with such attacking talent at club level that they don’t need to reach the double-figure goals tallies at club level that both Lampard and Gerrard had to. Their clashing is, therefore, of a slightly different kind.
Over the years, various Croatian coaches have lined Modrić and Rakitić up in a variety of combinations, yet none of them have really worked. At Euro 2012, Rakitić was moved out to the wing, while Modrić was part of a central midfield two, alongside Ognjen Vukojevic. In Brazil, two years later, they were put together in a defensive midfield duo, with coach Niko Kovac hoping they could build the play from deep, at the same time as defending just about well enough. They could not and, just as at Euro 2012, Croatia exited at the group stage.
Then, at Euro 2016, expectations were at their highest yet, given the high standard both men had been setting at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu and at the Camp Nou. They even made it out of the groups this time, with Rakitić played in the centre of the attacking midfield trio in a 4-2-3-1, while Modrić was talented enough to shine brightly from defensive midfield, where he partnered Milan Badelj.
Their inability to function together for Croatia will have England fans thinking back to the days of Lampard and Gerrard, when the Chelsea and Liverpool midfield leaders consistently stepped on each other’s toes.
However, the best Croatian performance of the whole tournament actually came in the final group match against Spain, when Croatia discovered that the ideal Rakitić-Modrić combination was… to leave one of them on the bench. That’s right, Croatia defeated Spain 2-1 – probably their best result at a tournament since France 98 – with Modrić slightly injured and on the sidelines, with Rakitić in the No.10 role and with two natural defensive midfielders in behind. With Modrić back in the team for the next round, they crashed out against the until-then underwhelming Portugal.
Then, in qualification for next summer’s 2018 World Cup Croatia again struggled, in one of the weaker groups. It probably says it all that their most impressive result came when they once again didn’t start together, as they defeated eventual group winners Iceland 2-0 at home, with both goals arriving when only one of them was on the pitch – the Barça man started and the Real Madrid player came on in the second half.
Towards the end of the campaign, though, Croatia improved when Zlatko Dalic was brought in for the final group game as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency coach. He opted for the same combination used at Euro 2016, but this time with Rakitić in the double pivot and with Modrić as the No.10. He used this template in the 2-0 win over Ukraine and in both legs of the 4-1 aggregate triumph over Greece in the play-offs, with the team finally starting to gel.
This, then, must inspire some optimism for Croatians as they look ahead to Russia, as the back line and the attacking front almost write themselves onto the teamsheet. Mario Mandžukić will lead the line and he’ll have Ivan Perišić plus one other in behind him, so the main puzzle has been in midfield. Playing Rakitić deep and Modrić just behind the attack may sound odd, especially as this is not where they play for their clubs, but perhaps this willingness to experiment will help Croatia to avoid another Lampard-Gerrard-esque missed opportunity. Given that both players will be in their 30s by the time next summer’s tournament begins, this might be their last shot at international glory.