Croatia are through the semi-finals of the World Cup for only the second time, matching the achievement of the 1998 side who finished third in France. That side was packed with talent, including defenders Slaven Biliv and Dario Simic, midfielders Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki, and forward Davor Suker. But this Croatian team is something of a golden generation too, and while Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic have grabbed the headlines, they have quality throughout the side, especially in the attacking areas.
Ante Rebic, who plays as a centre-forward for his team side, Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga, has lined up as a wide attacking midfielder in Zlatko Dalic’s 4-2-3-1 and Croatia use the wings a lot. Indeed, most of their good attacking play goes through Rebic, who has scored once, profiting from Willy Cabellero’s calamity in the group stages, and other wide man Ivan Perisic. The front four as a whole is mobile and can interchange positions more or less at will: Mario Mandzukic can play through the centre but crops up out wide; Andrej Kramaric plays off Mandzukic centrally but can play as a number 9 and wide right; and Perisic and Rebic swap and play parts of games on the other flank. This makes them a nightmare for defences, as Modric and Rakitic find them with long, flat passes, and the full-backs get up to create overloads out wide as well.
Rebic, who is right-footed but often plays towards the left hand side for Eintracht Frankfurt, normally starts on the right for Croatia. He excels at linking play, dropping in to take passes before turning and bursting past his man, or holding the ball up to lay it inside to an advancing midfielder or dropping off forward, or outside to the full-back moving up. Rebic’s physical strength means he can hold players off while doing this, and he has the pace to break past a defender, especially if they get too tight while marking.
Cutting inside from the left, he likes to shoot with his stronger right foot, while he also pops up in the central spaces, and will turn and drive towards the goal before shooting, or playing it forwards to a colleague as the defence back off him. His directness and dribbling mean that defenders are unsure whether to step up and close or back off and try to cover, and it is a key part the dynamic attacking play of Croatia’s front four.
Rebic has areas to work on, as well. He can be frustrating while carrying the ball, giving up possession too easily, or too concerned about beating a player and not taking a sensible passing option instead. His shooting, passing, and crossing have been a little wayward, at times, while his defensive work, although willingly covering back long distances on the right flank to help the full-back, looks a little cumbersome.
Having said that, Rebic is a versatile, exciting player. His dynamic approach can pay dividends, and his hard work and understanding with his Croatian teammates, which is very similar to what one would find in his club performances too, can produce scintillating moments of interplay. He wins a lot of fouls with this direct style of running, which helps his team relieve pressure and can produce attacking opportunities from set-pieces too.
Rebic needs to work on his shooting and crossing, especially electing when to shoot: too often, he is too quick to pull the trigger from outside the box and his shots get blocked. He also needs to learn that one does not always have to take a player on; he is very good at doing so, and often manages to beat his man, but there are sometimes better options that he eschews. But he is exciting, dangerous, versatile, and extremely hard-working. It is little wonder that his stock is rising on the back of a strong club season, an excellent World Cup and a move looks on the cards, possibly to Bavarian powerhouses Bayern Munich. Rebic has the talent and the application; the only question is who will benefit from it next season?
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