48 hours to go! Oh my!
From the great folks at Zonal Marking, groups E through H:
- France: surprisingly promising
Particularly notable in the warm-up matches has been France’s midfield press. Pogba and Matuidi are both extremely powerful, energetic players comfortable pushing up and shutting down the opposition, which works well in combination with a centre-back pairing happy playing high up the pitch, and the best sweeper-keeper around.
- Honduras: physical, but little more
However, this shouldn’t hide the fact that Honduras have performed extremely well to reach their second consecutive World Cup. This is a poor country with a very small population, and yet they finished above Mexico in the CONCACAF final qualification group, winning 2-1 in Azteca, a genuinely fantastic result.
- Ecuador: the most basic side?
The inescapable truth about Ecuador is that they’re primarily at this tournament because their home qualifiers are played at altitude.
- Switzerland: true dark horses
They’ve always boasted good organisation, but have lacked quality in attacking positions to record victories. That might have changed. Switzerland have a superb generation of young talent, summed up by the fact their four forwards are aged 21, 22, 23 and 24, and their first-choice attacking midfielders 21 and 25. If Switzerland can keep their traditional defensive structure while successfully introducing attacking invention, they have all the qualities required to succeed.
- Bosnia: more cautious than expected
Their strength is still the final third – their best two players are their number ten and their number nine. But there’s little to suggest Bosnia will be any more adventurous than average, which seems a great shame.
- Nigeria: midfield questions…
Onazi could do with someone behind him, and it’s odd that Keshi seems so determined to field a midfield in this format – with two deep and one ahead, when the two don’t look comfortable together deep, and there’s no obvious candidate to play just ahead. It’s hard to see Nigeria dominating matches with these problems, although their usual approach is to sit deep anyway.
- Iran: frustrating to watch, frustrating to play against
Queiroz will drill Iran relentlessly on the training ground. “Carlos was obsessive about stopping [the opposition],” said Gary Neville in his autobiography, remembering Queiroz’s time as Manchester United’s assistant coach. “We’d never seen such attention to detail. He’d put sit-up mats on the training pitch to mark exactly where he wanted the players to be, to the nearest yard. We rehearsed time and time again, sometimes walking through the tactics slowly with the ball in our hands.”
- Argentina: big strengths, big weaknesses
Alejandro Sabella has a system, favoured personnel, and will stick to his beliefs. His starting XI in the group stage will be his eleven most-selected players throughout qualification , which sounds obvious, but it’s rare for international managers to remain so committed to players over such a long period.
- USA: a diamond midfield
The United States are expected to add to this variety by using a diamond midfield, which might be unique among the 32 teams. Jurgen Klinsmann has spent recent weeks telling the press that the formation doesn’t matter, but the switch to the diamond in April’s 2-2 friendly draw against Mexico was a significant move, and was designed to bring the best out of the USA’s outstanding player, Michael Bradley.
- Portugal: the same as usual
Cristiano Ronaldo is cutting inside from the left, and his performance in the play-off against Sweden, when he scored a sublime counter-attacking hattrick, shows how Portugal have rightly based their side entirely around the Ballon d’Or holder. Ronaldo’s international form over the past 18 months has been the best of his career, and a little like Brazil’s set-up (with Fred primarily in the side to bring the best out of Neymar) Helder Postiga is his foil.
- Ghana: still great on the break
Four years on, the side remains very familiar. The 2010 squad was packed with youth, and therefore it’s no surprise that the majority of players have retained their places as they’ve gained more experience. But as Ghana’s reputation has grown, they’ve been forced to adapt to different challenges. When they were the underdogs, they could sit back, remain compact and counter-attack extremely swiftly. Now opponents are aware of that threat, they’re forced to become more proactive, but lack the creativity and incision to dominate games and score goals.
- Germany: need the right combination upfront
Gotze has occasionally done OK in the false nine role and combined nicely with Ozil, but it hasn’t been flawless – Gotze coming towards the ball and Ozil breaking into the space is great aesthetically, but there’s no great goal threat. Muller could be pushed upfront, of course, but in a way this could bring less variety to the attacking quartet.
- Belgium: can they succeed without proper full-backs?
Having been something of an irrelevance on the biggest stage just four years ago, they suddenly find themselves with an impressive generation of top-class players at Europe’s biggest clubs.
As a result, they’ve been cited as the competition’s ‘dark horse’ by many. That term doesn’t really make sense, though – for a start, Belgium are the fifth-favourites, and considered more likely to triumph than the likes of Italy or France. More importantly, Belgium haven’t performed well enough to suggest they’re as good as the sum of their parts.
- South Korea: organised but prone to mistakes
Korea’s problem is the lack of a top-class striker. Kim-Shin-wood is stylistically no more than a Plan B in this side, and Park Chu-young remains something of a mystery – signed by Arsenal three years ago, but barely noticeable and twice loaned out. He’s still first-choice for Korea, but the Arsenal failure prompted a dramatic decline in his goalscoring ability at international level, too – he has 24 international goals, but just one since November 2011. He’s playing in a group with some strong centre-backs, and therefore it’s difficult to see him scoring goals.
- Algeria: young and mobile
Coach Vahid Halilhodzic has the side well organised, but also committed to playing good attacking football, with plenty of movement amongst the front three, and a mobile, young and technically proficient midfield trio too. Algeria are receiving less attention than the other four African sides in this competition, probably because of the lack of star names – but they’re actually the highest-ranked African side in the latest FIFA rankings.
- Russia: Shirokov a huge loss
Whereas Russia played primarily on the counter-attack at Euro 2012, taking advantage of the strong Zenit connection in the side, Capello has favoured different players and there’s no longer such cohesion about Russia, and little rotation of the midfield triangle. In fact, it’s difficult to understand this side’s specialism – the defensive is underwhelming, they don’t keep possession particularly well, and the counter-attacking threat is no more than decent. When you factor in the suspicion Capello might be building for the 2018 World Cup on home soil, it’s difficult to find reasons to back them.