Is the Fairy Tale Over for Zlatko Dalić?

Daniela Rogulj

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić had no patience in Budapest after Croatia fell to Hungary 2:1 in their second Euro 2020 qualifier. In front of the TV cameras after the match, Dalić was in charge, but at the press conference, he responded to journalists resignedly and barely waited to escape. It’s hard to remember the last time we saw Dalić so disappointed, if we’ve ever seen it at all. After the unforgettable summer in which he led Croatia to the World Cup final and experienced the climax of his career, Dalić’s job may no longer be a fairy tale, reports on March 25, 2019. 

The consequences of the brutal race in Russia are still present; the players are not in rhythm and are lacking fight, strength, and ideas. The defense is plagued with blunders, the attack does not exist, and defenders mostly score goals. These are serious tasks for Dalić and his decisions in this cycle will be crucial. In the World Cup, he could rely on the class and experience of players who had nothing left to lose. Modrić’s generation, one of the oldest in the tournament, was last reunited in Russia. They did not need a particular motive, a top expert or a better system. They needed a positive atmosphere, a coach that believed in himself and them, and had elementary knowledge on how to make a substitution after an hour of play. Or, more specifically: they needed a coach who wouldn’t bother them and understood them. This luxury did not happen for years, as this generation was more or less successfully trained by beginners, and when the situation escalated, Modrić took over the responsibility. This could be seen in front of the cameras on Rujevica, which ultimately dismissed Ante Čacić.

Russia was the last chance for the best generation of Croatian football to achieve a concrete result and to erase the consequences of the tragic, but deserved, elimination from major tournaments of the last decade. In addition to their decision to go to the end, a lot of luck was needed to place in the World Cup final. They fought and fought hard to get everything.

Today, the Croatian national team has nothing but beautiful memories. The premiums will be spent, and they have a piece of silver they can hide behind. Unlike Russia, they now need their top strategist and manager. Dalić’s work in the team has just begun. For the Euro, Croatia is Dalić’s team – he chooses the players, makes the decisions and builds from the ground. The results will show what kind of coach he really is. The shift from generation to generation is the biggest challenge for Dalić, who has no problem with rotating and testing various options, but for now, there is no clear pattern or good results.

Dalić is aware of the problem. And even after the game, albeit obstinate, he openly said it. The solution, however, was not offered.

“The World Cup finalists are a target for everybody. Each opponent against us goes to the maximum, and we are obliged to respect each other. It is not always easy for players to do the best, sometimes some luck is needed,” Dalić said, pointing to the key issues while awaiting someone else’s solution.

“Yes, we have small problems and not all players are in the rhythm. The ball was ours, but we did not do anything special. It is now classic to get goals from set pieces and corners. There is no blaming, no drama, no rationalization. Hungary was better. As a team, we were not at our level, and that’s why we lost. We did not finish off Hungary, but we let them get back in the game. We did nothing in the attack, and the Hungarians were more aggressive, that’s the key. In the second half we had a reckless initiative, but then that stop in play happened again,” Dalić explained.

After the World Cup Dalić achieved only three wins in eight games and received 15 goals, of which most came from set pieces and corners. These goals were also received during the World Cup. Classic, as the coach himself, said. The team is always training to defend set pieces and warns players when they are threatened, but there hasn’t been a shift.

And there are no goals. After the departure of Mario Mandžukić, Croatia has no world class striker. Kramarić is successful in the Bundesliga but is not the guy who will pull up the whole team and settle the game with a couple of touches, practically without the ball. In the World Cup semifinal, Mandžukić held the ball for two minutes and did everything a real attacker needed to do in a big game. Croatia does not have such a player at the moment. There is also the worry that Croatia no longer has a secure midfield, although Croatia has a surplus of superior midfielders. Dalić has to settle everything from scratch.

Dalić tried everything against Hungary, and even changed the whole system in the last 15 minutes, leaving Croatia with three defenders and adding another attacker Bruno Petković. Dejan Lovren finished the match up top, but nobody could score.

“We changed everything, but we did not get anything,” Dalić said briefly and clearly.

Dalić did not speak about the patterns, nor did he draw any possible solutions. At this point, we’re not sure they actually exist. 

“These players have given so much to Croatia. And hard work and joy. A single defeat will not unhinge us. It was a deserved loss. We weren’t on our level in either of the games, but it will be better. It is up to me to do this and to be ready for Wales,” Dalić said upon his arrival in Zagreb.

“We had a bad reaction yesterday, a drop in concentration. We have to get up. Keep our heads up moving forward. One defeat will not break us. Thanks to the fans who supported us. A defeat is difficult, but we learn lessons. I said that the group is not easy. There is no easy opponent. Especially for us, everyone is eager because we are the World Cup finalists. If we are not serious and motivated as we were in the World Cup, and if we do not give everything of ourselves, it will not go well,” Dalić concluded.

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