World Cup Weekend: A Tactical Guide
The first weekend of the World Cup brings seven games in rapid fire. Here’s a specific tactical point to watch for in each game to get a sense of the teams involved and what their success rests on.
France vs Australia
Will France’s fun lineup lead to more attacking football? France will likely start a front three of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele as well as elect to go with Corentin Tolisso over Blaise Matuidi. This is certainly a more creative attacking lineup than what manager Didier Deschamps has tended to use in the past. Olivier Giroud’s head isn’t there to cross the ball to, and Matuidi’s movement has been swapped out for Tolisso’s creative passing. That doesn’t necessarily mean that France will be more fun though.
The major criticism of Deschamps has been that he shackles his talented players. That problem won’t necessarily be solved simply by putting better and more creative dudes on the field. No matter how they play, France are probably talented enough to put Australia away barring some ridiculous curse from the variance gods, but the thing to watch is how they do it. If they score because Griezmann sneaks to the back post and finishes a couple of long range crosses, that’s not a great sign. If they’re interchanging through the middle of the field, trying to play defense splitting passes and have Dembele and Mbappe running rampant? Look out world.
Argentina vs Iceland
Iceland are a particularly tricky side for a team that wants to press, but might not be particularly good at it. Which is unfortunate for Argentina, who are a side that want to press, but aren't particularly good at it. Pressing a team that doesn’t want possession is a good way to use a lot of energy while they just kick the ball over your head and try to beat you down field. Iceland will be perfectly comfortable playing low percentage long balls and defending deep in their own zone, while hoping to convert a set piece or perfectly executed counterattack. They’re a disciplined and well drilled side that doesn't take chances.
It’s a good early test for the awkward fit of Argentina’s talent and Jorge Sampaoli’s tactics. A great pressing performance might force Iceland into some mistakes, but most of the time pressers will just take themselves out of position for dealing with the outlet ball that is almost certainly coming from Iceland. So, what’s a team to do? Does Sampaoli put the brakes on ever so slightly? Or, does Argentina go crashing into an Iceland deep block that isn’t going anywhere anyway?
Argentina will likely walk away winners, because Lionel Messi is still a person that exists, but the match will hopefully display some clues about exactly how committed they’re going to be to a tactical strategy that may not suit them.
Peru vs Denmark
This is a crucial battle between two teams likely battling for a likely second place finish behind France in Group C. The major question here is what pace the game will be played at. Peru likes to get up and down the pitch. They don’t want to counterattack particularly, or play a slow possession game.Tthey want a sustained end to end match where there is disorganization and chaos for them to take advantage of. Denmark would rather that not happen.
Obviously Denmark are built around Christian Eriksen playing as a typical creative attacking midfielder. He either scores the goals or sets them up. Against Peru he’ll have a slightly different task. A good Denmark performance means that Eriksen will bring order to the match for the Danes, slow everything down and orchestrate a more sustained attack. Peru are not a robust defensive side when forced to spend time in their own third, and that’s a matchup Denmark can win. Erisken, because he’s a super star, might do the scoring and assisting anyway, but for Denmark to win, he’s going to have to first keep the pace manageable and assert control over possession of the ball.
Croatia vs Nigeria
Croatia are a team that’s just good enough that they have to be able to keep possession and beat lesser opponents, and just weak enough that they have to be able to play without the ball and counterattack against better teams. Nigeria slots solidly in the first category and will be a real test of Croatia’s creative abilities. The Super Eagles are a very disciplined side that likes to play compact and then counterattack through the wings while Jon Obi Mikel runs the show from midfield.
Despite all the playmakers in Croatia’s midfield, their attack often ends up running out through the wings, as Ivan Perišić plays cross after cross aimed at striker Andrej Kramarić and pseudo-striker Mario Mandžukić. That will suit Nigeria just fine. They’re happy to play as a block, forces the ball wide and defend the crosses. Croatia, although they are less talented, face the same challenges and questions as France. Will they be able to play through Nigeria, or will they resort to crossing the ball in and hoping for the best. France are insulated by the sheer amount of talent they have, but if Croatia aren’t able to leverage their midfielder’s abilities in order to create great chances for their strikers, they might find themselves having a surprisingly short tournament.
Costa Rica vs Serbia
Sure, whatever. Costa Rica play an exceedingly conservative brand of football, and Serbia despite having some intriguing talent and an honest to god budding superstar in Sergej Milinković-Savić don’t exactly play mouthwatering stuff. It’s the early game on Sunday. Sleep in, go to brunch, do whatever else is time zone appropriate. Look at your loved ones. Just glance at them for a second. Say hello. They’ll appreciate it.
Germany vs Mexico
The biggest questions for Germany will come when teams try to out physical them in midfield. Mexico doesn’t fit that description. There’s probably not much to find out about here when it comes to one of the tournament’s favorites. Mexico, on the other hand, have tons of unanswered questions. Manager Juan Carlos Osorio really wants his team to play possession based soccer. They press, although often not that well, and try and do all the things that good teams do. They aspire to interchange positionally, and move the ball both back to front and side to side. Whether they can pull it off, however, remains an exceedingly open question.
In their three pre-tournament friendlies El Tri started twelve different players in their front four. The idea is that they were preparing specifically customized approaches for each of their group stage opponents. While beating Germany is probably a bridge too far, an effectively executed game plan, which leads to spells of effective possession will be a good sign for Osorio’s team, and suggest that they’re well on their way to their preordained round-of-sixteen exit, just like each of the last six World Cups.
Brazil vs Switzerland
Switzerland are a capable pressing team. If Brazil have a weakness it’s a midfield that’s a little light on creative passing. The trio of Paulinho, Fernandinho, and Casemiro do a lot of things really well, but bringing the ball from midfield into attack isn’t really a part of their collective skillset. Brazil work around that by having one of their wingers, either Neymar or whichever of Willian, Coutinho and Douglas Costa starts, drop deeper take the ball off the midfielders quickly, and run transition. It works because those wingers are all great, and because the transition happens before defenses get set, and then Brazil’s awesome attackers get to go do awesome attacker things.
If Brazil struggle to create against Switzerland that should be a warning sign for later in the tournament. If Switzerland manage to exploit the lack of natural passing in Brazil’s midfield and force the favorites to adapt and either bring in more passing oriented midfielders or take off a midfielder all together, it suggests that perhaps Brazil’s preferred tactical plan won’t stand the test of time. At this early stage of the game, it’s suggestions like this, rather than big shocking results that are helpful in terms of mapping out the tournament. Brazil are almost certainly not going to be bothered for a few matches, it’s just a matter of figuring out if they shouldn’t be the overall favorites.
(Header image courtesy of the Press Association)