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June 22, 2018

Another World Cup Weekend: Tactical Guide

By Mike Goodman

The World Cup marches on. This weekend’s slate of games runs the full gamut from competitive nail-biters to likely one-sided romps. Here’s your tactical guide to the six games taking place Saturday and Sunday.

 

Belgium vs Tunisia

Belgium coasted to a 3-0 win against Panama in their opener. The score line wasn’t deceiving, they certainly dominated the lesser side, but it also didn’t do anything to alleviate concerns that while talented Belgium might not be a cohesive unit. Two of their three goals came from incredibly individual play, a difficult volley from a tough angle for Dries Mertins and a gorgeous outside of the boot angled cross from Kevin De Bruyne to Romelu Lukaku.

Roberto Martinez’s team did more than enough in the opener to demonstrate they’ll be fine and advance to the deeper stages of the tournament, but they haven’t yet shown that once there they’ll be able to compete against teams that both attack and defend competently. Luckily for them, Tunisia doesn’t present that challenge. They’re a team happy to defend deep and hang on. Still, it would be nice for Belgium to start demonstrating the ability to create good chances rather than continue to rely on individual talent to carry them through.

 

South Korea vs Mexico

Mexico are coming off the shock result of the tournament so far. But, their win over Germany doesn’t actually help much when it comes to predicting how they’ll perform in their second time out. Mexico’s manager, Juan Carlos Osorio, is deeply committed to tailoring his game plan to each opponent. The upside of that approach is that his teams seldom get caught shoe-horning an awkward approach into a match where it’s not really appropriate. And, when he gets it right, well, just ask Germany.

The down side is that Mexico’s win in the opener doesn’t help predict how they’ll perform against South Korea. They’re going from a match where they were a dedicated counterattacking side, focused on exploiting an exposed midfield, to one where they will have the vast majority of the ball. Mexico can certainly field a side that’s comfortable in possession, but whether they can use that possession to create high quality chances is unclear.

There’s not much positive to say about South Korea. They didn’t manage a single shot on target against a decidedly mediocre Sweden side in their opener. Squint really really hard and it’s possible to see a world where Mexico play a fancy interchanging possession game and lose the ball at just the wrong moment for Son Heung-min, South Korea’s star hybrid forward to gallop into the breach. But South Korea have an exceedingly narrow path to an upset, and even a mediocre showing out of Mexico should likely to seem through.

 

Germany vs Sweden

Well, things could be going better for the Germans. After doing their best Arsenal impression in the opener, Sweden will be a welcome change of pace. Eventually Joachim Low will need to figure out how to fix the gaping Bastian Schweinsteiger shaped hole in his midfield, but on Saturday it’s unlikely that it will get taken advantage of. Sweden simply don’t have the speed or dynamism to exploit Germany’s weakness.

Germany will look to do their thing, control the ball, and create great chances around the box. Sweden will look to hold on while the Germans do that. One thing to watch is whether Germany’s fullbacks once again get caught upfield. Against Mexico there was an attacking disconnect with Germany playing aggressive passes into the penalty area for Timo Werner and Thomas Muller at the same time that fullbacks Joshua Kimmich and Marvin Plattenhardt were coming into the attack. It’s part of why the team was so exposed. Making those same mistakes again may not prove fatal against Sweden, but it’s not a great sign for the Germans long term chances if they can’t start to get that problem solved.

England vs Panama

England’s last second winner against Tunisia was deceiving. They dominated the match start to finish. They remained committed to their 3-5-2 style deep into the match despite the tied score line, choosing to bring on Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek as like for like substitutions rather than take off a center back. Instead they upped the attacking tempo by freeing outside center backs Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire to become more involved in the attack.

If there’s one concern for England it’s that most of their attacking thrust came from set pieces. Not only were both goals scored by Harry Kane off set piece routines, but 13 of their 18 shots game from dead ball situations. Only five shots came from open play. It would be encouraging to see England turn more of their possession into dangerous shots, rather than turning it into corners and free kick opportunities that they then turn into good shots. Panama is likely to defend deep, try and make themselves difficult to break down, and if absolutely force into it counterattack occasionally. England need to make them pay for dropping deep with penetrative possession and dangerous movement from whichever midfielders get the nod from manager Gareth Southgate.

 

Japan vs Senegal

Japan’s shock win against Colombia in their opener through Group H wide open, although it might be more accurate to say that it was the inexplicable decision of Carlos Sanchez to intentionally handle a ball in front of his goal in the third minute that was the real agent of chaos.  Now Japan only need to manage a draw here in order to have a strong chance at progressing to the knockout stages while Senegal still have a match against Colombia looming.

In their opening match Senegal beat Poland 2-1, and while they were outshot 11-8 they managed the all important task of keeping Poland’s Robert Lewandowski from exerting any influence on the match. They held him to two shots, both from outside the box. Senegal played a strong overall match against a Poland side that usually likes to play open matches, defending well and creating good opportunities which they took advantage of.

The combination of taking the lead in the 37th minutes and Poland’s tendency to want to control the ball meant that Senegal spent the majority of the match defending, but they were very comfortable doing so. Against Japan they’re going to have to carry much more of the play, but if they can do that they’ll demonstrate that their a dangerous threat to upset a team or two in the knockout rounds.

 

Poland vs Colombia

Despite their disappointing opening result there’s not a lot of reason for alarm about Colombia. The dual whammy of not having James Rodriguez in the starting lineup and then conceding a red card and a penalty in the third minute make losing to Japan understandable. But their wiggle room is just about gone. Anything other than beating Poland and they’ll be at serious risk of being eliminated.

That’s a particularly dangerous predicament for Colombia because while they are consistently defensively sound (mind bendingly dumb red card not withstanding) they’ve often struggled to score goals. This team was built to play tense low scoring matches that eventually get decided by a moment of brilliance from James or Juan Cuadrado either scoring for themselves or creating for a striker like Carlos Bacca or Radamel Falcao. It wasn’t built to comfortably outscore teams in must win scenarios.

Colombia will likely be fine, but this isn’t a comfortable situation for them.

Article by Mike Goodman