World Cup finalists France, Croatia owe a lot to old-school Giroud, Mandzukic
They don't make them like Olivier Giroud and Mario Mandzukic these days. Or rather, they try not to.
World Cup 2018 has been utterly dominated by European nations, who contributed 11 of the 16 second-round sides, six of the eight quarterfinal teams, all four semifinalists and therefore, of course, both France and Croatia in Sunday's final. While tactical sophistication is frequently (and unfairly) cited as the main strength of European nations, as compared to sides from other continents, realistically their greater advantage is simply their industrialisation of youth coaching, a process has resulted in the production of a huge number of top-level footballers.
In fairness, Croatia are something of an exception to the rule. But if France lift the Jules Rimet Trophy on Sunday, the primary reason will be -- like with Spain in 2010 and Germany four years ago -- the academies that have provided them with the most impressive pool of talent around, rather than their manager's tactical plan.
There is, however, one type of footballer that European academies are not producing: the traditional striker.
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Academies prioritise speed, movement and versatility, increasingly producing attacking all-rounders who can play on the left, on the right, up front or as a No.10. These stars essentially play in a similar manner from various positions but don't offer the traditional penalty box qualities: strength, power in the air or back-to-goal, hold-up work. It's a topic former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has spoken about regularly.
"If you look across Europe, South America is the only continent that develops strikers," Wenger said back in 2014. "If you look at the 1960s and 1970s in England, even when I arrived at Arsenal in 1996, every club had strikers, and I mean strikers: [players] who headed the ball, were present on every cross. We have less now. Germany went to the World Cup with Miroslav Klose, who is 36!"
A year later, Wenger repeated his theory, citing Spain's use of Cesc Fabregas as a false nine, Germany doing something similar with Mario Gotze and Europe's gradual shift away from proper strikers. Eventually, he suggested that academies needed to adapt.
"What I am convinced of is that in the academies we have to specialise the players," he declared. "Maybe we have to rethink completely the education and specialise earlier."
Sunday's World Cup final, though, will feature a meeting between two centre-forwards from the old-school mould: Giroud, such an effective "super sub" in France's first game against Australia that he proved undroppable afterward; and Mandzukic, whose extra-time winner against England confirmed Croatia's place in the final.
Sure enough, neither rose through academies. Both were overlooked by bigger clubs during their formative years and made their debuts, both when 19 back in 2005-06, in their nation's respective second divisions. Giroud was at Grenoble, later dropping down to the third tier on loan, while Mandzukic started out in the Croatian second division with Marsonia.
These tall, strong strikers aren't what big clubs generally look for from youngsters, so they endured a gradual rise to the top. It took Giroud until 2010, at the age of 24, for his first taste of Ligue 1 action; and while Mandzukic had already been playing in the Croatian top flight by that age, he moved to a top league with Wolfsburg at the same age. Giroud then had two years with Montpellier, winning the 2011-12 Ligue 1 Golden Boot and earning a move to Arsenal, while Mandzukic had two years with Wolfsburg, jointly winning the Euro 2012 Golden Boot and earning a move to Bayern Munich.
Since then, both have regularly been overlooked despite impressive levels of consistency. Arsenal had been eternally attempting to move on from Giroud and basing their side around quicker, more dynamic centre-forwards. Somehow, the France No. 9 always battled back and proved his worth, until finally accepting his fate and moving to Chelsea in January -- a transfer made partly to secure his place at this tournament.
Similarly, Mandzukic was sidelined at Bayern Munich after the arrival of Robert Lewandowski, more of an all-rounder, before moving on to Atletico Madrid and then Juventus. Chelsea and Juventus seem good fits for Giroud and Mandzukic right now: clubs concerned with substance rather than style.
Also a good fit for both? International football. Whereas top-level club sides demand speed and movement from their forwards, at international tournaments the football is much simpler, the play much slower and the defences deeper. Therefore, stand-out centre-forwards are often more static. Giroud is the perfect example: Supporters and neutrals alike were salivating at the prospect of France using a mobile, energetic front trio of Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, but that type of fluid, free-flowing forward line always looks better on paper than it works on the pitch. Giroud's introduction against Australia provided someone who could play with his back to goal, serving on-rushing players and bringing more depth to their play.
Mandzukic's place up front for Croatia was never in doubt, but he plays a similar role as Giroud, battling against opposition centre-backs and providing a central pivot for the likes of Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic to feed off; this division of duties allows the latter pair to concentrate on using their speed in the channels. Mandzukic has scored two goals in Russia this summer: a gloriously scrappy opener against Denmark and the extra-time winner against England. It is two more goals than Giroud has managed in this tournament and means Mandzukic has now scored one more international goal than his French counterpart overall, 32-31.
There are two other aspects that link Giroud and Mandzukic. First, they're extremely hard-working despite simply not being natural athletes. Giroud, while a physically impressive figure, always appears exhausted after closing down opponents, as if the mere concept of running is something of an unexpected task. Mandzukic, meanwhile, moves somewhat awkwardly and has repeatedly suffered from cramp throughout this tournament. That said, his work rate throughout his top-level career has been incredible at times. At Bayern, he was a one-man pressing machine, and with Juventus, he seemingly manages to play left-wing and centre-forward simultaneously.
Second, both are genuinely outstanding footballers in a technical sense, capable of spectacular, acrobatic goals. For Giroud's scorpion kick against Crystal Palace on the first day of 2017, see Mandzukic's incredible overhead kick in the Champions League final against Real Madrid a few months later. They might be considered target men in the modern era, but they're not simply aerial threats who batter opponents with strength; they're skillful, intelligent centre-forwards with imagination and creativity to rival slicker, quicker players. They merely have a different body shape.
At the club level, Giroud and Mandzukic face uncertain futures after Sunday's World Cup final. Giroud's likely new Chelsea boss, Maurizio Sarri, will probably prefer a younger and more mobile centre-forward, while Mandzukic must wait to discover how Juventus will use Cristiano Ronaldo and whether Gonzalo Higuain will still be around.
Still, the World Cup remains football's most revered prize, and these two will lead the line in football's biggest game. The likes of Timo Werner, Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku and the other younger, more "modern" strikers have been eliminated, but Giroud and Mandzukic are still present: the great throwbacks who are always happy to play the long game.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.