Qatar 0-2 Ecuador: The debutants Qatar have kept its players from club play for three months playing friendlies against European competition, playing an antiquated 2-3-3-2 W-M formation. Ecuador’s tactical approach was not much more progressive, employing a tactically safe and patient yet counter-attacking 4-4-2. These teams met once before in a friendly four years ago, with Qatar the surprise winners 4-3. Gotta give it to both sides; they both came out with intent and physicality. Qatar was better in the air, while Ecuador was better in possession and had better midfield control.
Even though Qatar was more physical in their own third, they were 6’s & 7’s defending both the counter and long passes into the box, which mattered on both Enner Valencia goals in the first 31 minutes. Love the speed of Ecuador’s defense, which beat the Qatari counter to the final third. The one time in the first half Qatar got behind the Ecuadorian defense, forward Almoez Ali gets the ball served to him on a platter in the six-yard box – and misses.
Qatar showed much more energy pressing high in the second half, but Ecuador was still getting those long crosses into the box. Late in the match Qatar played the long ball hoping their two forwards Ali and Akram Afeef and midfielder Pedro Miguel would use their superior arial ability to one time it, but to no effect. Even with better pressing the W-M, with only two out-and-out defenders, was showing its holes in the back despite Ecuador having less possession in the second half. Love the energy, enthusiasm and athleticism by the Qataris, but somebody now needs to teach them the subtleties of actually playing futbol. – DK
England 6-2 Iran: No waistcoat from Gareth Southgate this time. The Three Lions went with a vertical possession 4-2-3-1 but with no discernable defensive midfielder (Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham are expected to contribute to the attack). Iran employed a tactically rigid 4-3-3 with the intent of sitting back, clogging the middle and countering. Unfortunately that meant that England ruled the possession. Bakayo Saka and Raheem Sterling really stretched the field with their speed, giving Iran fits on the flanks. Kinda a stop-start beginning to the match, with Iran deciding they were going to play rougher than what is typical of their counterparts.
The England attack overloaded the right side of the pitch, clearly taking advantage of Saka’s ball skills with support from Jude Bellingham. It worked: Bellingham finished a cross from Luke Shaw on the left, and Saka finished a corner from Kieren Trippier with an assist from defender Harry McGuire. No attack whatsoever in the first half from Iran; keeper Jordan Pickford had nothing to do. Ironic that the team that was relying on the counter couldn’t stop the England counter late in the half, with a stylish finish from Sterling. The high positioning of defender John Stones stopped the Iran counter before it could even start.
Iran came out for the second half high pressing (no real surprise). England looked a little sluggish but were still working the flanks and getting the ball in the box, as evinced by the Saka goal from a stylish assist from Sterling. Iran actually showed some quality buildup on a possession in the 65th minute and, lo and behold, it resulted in a goal from Medhi Taremi. Unfortunately, that goal opened up the Iranian attack – and in the back, because no sooner does Marcus Rashford come on than his first possession results in a goal. A late Jack Greilish counter finishes off the Iranian embarrassment despite a questionable Iranian penalty conversion at the last. A fully efficient dismantling by the Three Lions. – DK
Senegal 0-2 Netherlands: Former Senegalese national Aliou Cisse’ went with a flanks-heavy modified 4-3-3 with a defensive midfielder in front of the back four and, without world-class forward Sadio Mane’, pushing 5 players in attack. The inventors of Total Football, second-time manager Louis van Gaal employed a 5-3-2 that looked more like a tiki-taki approach, with a central stopper in front of the two center backs. Pretty even match most of the first half, with both sides getting chances in the attacking third but taking bad shots. Better high pressing from the Dutch. When Senegal did beat the press, they transitioned quicky into the counter but not in numbers. A more cagey than free-flowing, creative first half.
Better linkup play through the midfield by the Dutch in the second half but finishing was still an issue. The Dutch finally broke through in the 84th minute with Cody Gakpo sneaking in from the right flank past the backline for a header from Frenkie de Jong. Nine minutes into stoppage time, another mistake in the box, this time by keeper Edouard Mendy, allows Davvy Klaassen to put back the rebound. It could have gone either way if not for the mistakes in the back by Senegal. – DK
Wales 1-1 USA: Wales’ adventuresome 3-4-3 attacking formation begins and ends with Christian Bale up front leading the attack in front of goal, with speedy Daniel James wreaking havoc as the inverted forward on the left. Gregg Berhalter’s 3-4-3 relies on Sergino Dest and Christian Pulisic creating chances from the left flank while Weston McKennie comes into the final third through the middle. Wales kept things tight when not in possession, with their forwards keeping a low pressing line, meaning the USA had to go wide or over the top to get the ball forward. But the USA were very patient with their buildup from the back, looking for holes in the opposition end to exploit.
On defense, the USA maintained their shape in all three thirds of the pitch, not overcommitting and not letting Wales have any space to put an organized attack in the opposition half. Crips, sharp ball movement from the USA, and they quickly put pressure on Wales and not allow them to have the ball for long, keeping Wales as far away from the USA third as possible. It finally paid off in the 36th minute when Pulisic found a hole through the middle and found Timothy Weah cutting in from the right for the easy one-touch goal.
Down a goal, Wales started putting on the pressure in the second half, putting pressure on the ball high and turning the tables on the USA. Keeper Matt Turner needed to make some spectacular saves to keep their one-goal lead. Clearly all the energy they showed in the first half had sapped them, and Wales took advantage and started running at them; the Americans failed to adjust. The match turned into a track meet with both teams playing end-to-end. The refs were consistently bad, allowing the Welsh to brutalize the Americans, and stopping play when Welsh players went down but continuing play when American players went down.
A fatal error late by Walker Zimmerman in his own box when he tackled Gareth Bale from behind resulted in a penalty that Bale converted. Pulisic spent a lot of time on the ball but his crosses and set piece service were atrocious. Really a pity; the USA left points on the table in a game that was there for the taking. – DK
Argentina 1-2 Saudi Arabia: Any approach Argentina is going to use will center around the tip of the spear, false-9 Lionel Messi, in the center of attack, but the key to their 4-2-3-1 is going to be the service he gets from Angel di Maria on the right and Leandro Parades through the middle. With a French coach in Herve’ Renard, the Saudis played it safe with a European-style tactically rigid 4-4-2 that played like a 4-4-1-1, relying heavily on playmaking from the left.
The Saudis dropped back to the half touch like, trying to keep the field as tight as possible and close down the passing lanes in the central part of the field; the closer the Argentines got in the attacking end, the more the Saudis collapsed into the center. Saudi Arabia’s best shot at getting a result here was to be physical. After a 10th minute penalty conversion from Messi, the Saudis could not afford to sit back and went long, but they actually showed some skill in the front with some combination play, getting the ball on the flanks stretching out the Argentine defense, and defensively trying to keep it close with high line and an offside trap. It seemed like every time Argentina got into the final third they had numbers.
The Argentines tried to cut off the Saudi possession in the middle third, but on forward Saleh Alshehri 48th minute goal it didn’t work. After that, the Saudis got aggressive, challenging in transition, switching possession from the flanks to the center and putting their passes together in the final third, with a 54th minute goal from forward Salem Aldawsari the result. After that, Argentina went to the races, furiously picking up the pace and relying on their superior ball skills, leaving just three in the back and sending numbers forward, throwing everything at the Saudis.
Hanging on for dear life, the Saudi third was under siege, with the Saudis denying Messi any space or time. Saudi keeper Mohammed Al-Owais was indispensable; some of those Argentine shots should have found the back of the net. The biggest game to this point was definitely fun to watch. – DK
Denmark 0-0 Tunisia: Denmark’s midfield-intensive 3-5-2 featured center talisman Christian Eriksen back in the national side for the first time since his heart attack a year ago at Euro 2020, with a side the featured scoring from the left (Joakim Maehle) and up top (Andreas Skov Olsen). Tunisia went with a compact 3-4-3 with a back three supported defensively by two cover men in front of them. Denmark really doesn’t have any one tactical identity; today they wanted to keep things wide and find the space to get the ball to Eriksen so he could create. And even though he was surrounded, on those occasions when Erikson did get the ball in the opposition half, he did create chances.
One of the oldest and most experienced teams here, Tunisia were more game managers, playing more out of the midfield and relying on long shots and set pieces (however poor they were). Given their styles of play, the big question for both teams was where are the goals going to come from? The game was played at Tunisia’s pace; it was up to the Danes to put pressure on them and changing things up. The problem with constantly pressing is that if you don’t rule the possession, it becomes a function of do you have the stamina and strength to keep it up for 90 minutes.
Denmark was more patient in buildup while Tunisia was more Route One to the front and fast counterattacking albeit not with numbers or support. The best attempt on target came from Erikson from outside the penalty area. Denmark was always the most likely to score; it’s not that Tunisia didn’t get a few chances, they just took really bad ones. This fixture simply came down to poor finishing and great tenacity by the Tunisians. – DK
Mexico 0-0 Poland: Playing a 4-3-3, usually fast starters Mexico wanted to attack, but without their star striker Raul Jimenez, it was up to out-of-form inverted forward Alexis Vega and Hirving Lozano to find their shooting touch. Poland played a back-restrictive 5-3-2, with an attack looking to primarily get the ball to Robert Lewandowski, the best goal scorer in the world who ironically had never scored in the World Cup.
One thing you can always count on when Mexico plays: No matter where in the world they play, they will always have the most fans in attendance. Game plans for both were simple: Mexico wants to attack (wherever they can find space); Poland wants to defend, counter, and rely on set pieces (these guys are tall and can jump). Mexico needed to take advantage of transition because Poland’s back five were very well organized and unmoving. El Tri were probing and pushing but not finding a way through.
Who says scoreless games can’t be exciting? These two (and the Denmark-Tunisia game before it) slugged it out like two brawlers in the ring getting chance after chance after chance and they just didn’t budge. Which quite frankly speaks volumes about the lack of midfield control by either. I’m sure both teams came into this match thinking a tie would be OK, but given the earlier result, this is a bad result for both. – DK
France 4-1 Australia: The defending champions came out in a hybrid 4-3-3 that played like a 4-2-3-1, with Adrian Rabiot in place of the injured Paul Pogba as box-to-box midfielder, Olivier Giroud back as the target man up front instead of a poacher in Karim Benzama, and Aurelian Tchouameni attempting to replace N’Golo Kante’ as a ball-winning midfielder. Injury issues have affected the Australians, employing a 4-3-3 with two out-of-form central defenders and an inexperienced top three.
Four years ago France opened their tournament against Australia and only a late own-goal got them the 2-1 win. Apparently they are going to have to do it again: The Aussies had a decent amount of possession early – with Les Bleus uncharacteristically sitting back — when a Lucas Hernandez injury during the run of play allowed a counter buildup resulting in Craig Goodwin score in the 8th minute.
Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe’ were flying around the field, keeping the ball moving all over the pitch, keeping the Aussies in their end of the pitch, creating space with their runs all over the opposition end. It worked: In the 26th minute, Hernandez’s younger brother Theo made a long pass into the box that Rabiot got on the end of. Top scorer Antoine Griezmann was pressed into duty as a creator and provider. The French press caused an Aussie defensive mistake in the final third, springing Giroud for his first-ever World Cup goal.
The French are so fast and crisp that space just opens up on the fly; when they get out in transition, look out. This kept the Aussies from getting anything quantitative going offensively. Not willing to sit deep, Australia started playing a higher line in the second half and got a little more possession. The number of chances taken by the French without one going in was mindboggling until Mbappe’ finally put one in the back of the net after drifting in the box unnoticed. It turned into a route in the 71st minute with a Giroud header from an Mbappe’ cross. A Giroud goal late was just icing on the cake. A good thrashing by the French but I’m not convinced these guys can make the same kind of run they did four years ago. – DK
Morocco 0-0 Croatia: Morocco played a 4-1-2-3 formation that played like a 4-3-3, with Liverpool’s Ziyech moving up from his customary right winger spot to inverted forward in the final third, Amrabat protecting a two man central defense, and Achraf Hakimi supporting Hakim Ziyech from the wing. If it ain’t broke, then Croatia ain’t gonna fix it; four of the attackers in a hybrid 4-3-3 formation who played in the 2018 final are still up front and in-form, with 37-year-old Luca Modric further up front to facilitate the attack.
Both of Morocco’s fullbacks wanted to go forward, which leaves Modric, Mateo Kovasic, and Nikola Vlasic the space behind them to take advantage of. Morocco did get a few half chances, finding little pockets of space but not with significant possession. Croatia are about as good as anybody at utilizing the entire field when in possession, looking for cracks to quickly exploit everywhere on the pitch, and Modric is a little busy bee, doing everything everywhere (and he’s good at all of it). Not a lot of brave attacking in the final third from Morocco, but out of possession they were very organized. Morocco was getting forward – and Croatia is not a counterattacking side – but they didn’t get forward in numbers, especially through the middle.
Both teams had their chances in the box, but the finishing from both sides was atrocious (although to Morocco’s credit, every time the Croats got the ball in the box, there were no less than five Moroccan defenders clogging up the six-yard box. Morocco was content they got a point from an in-form Croatia; their opponents were far from pleased. – Dk
Germany 1-2 Japan: Thomas Mueller is back for a fourth World Cup at his customary raumdeuter (space investigator) spot on the right in a 4-2-3-1, but this time they will be trusting Ilkay Gundogan in the center to bring the noise (albeit a little deeper than he plays for Manchester City). No pure #9 for Japan in their 4-2-3-1, going with experience in the back and inverted wingers up front in a free-flowing attack and creative movement from the attacking six.
Clearly Japan is the faster team and looked to run the Germans out of the stadium and spring numbers forward as quickly as possible, running diagonally into channels rather than straight forward. As with most times, the Germans are arguably the best in the world in the air. Germany had an almost 4 to 1 advantage in possession, but don’t be fooled; Japan transitioned so fast that they had just as much possession in the final third as Germany.
The Germans were at their best when they overloaded one side and someone was allowed to stray to the other unnoticed, as evinced by Gundogan’s penalty conversion in the 33rd minute. Even with Japan having so many numbers around the ball, the Germans were able to penetrate through the center. Japan finally spread the Germans in the back and pressed and counter pressed enough to quickly get the ball inside the box and score on a one-touch shot from Doam, and spring Asano on a long pass from his own end for a finish from an impossible angle. A big upset along the lines of the Saudi upset of Argentina earlier. – DK
Spain 7-0 Costa Rica: Pass, Pass, Pass! That is what La Furia Roja do, regardless of who is on the pitch and what they bring. The lone player in Spain’s 4-3-3 formation from when they won this tournament in 2010 is Sergio Busquet, who moved from his customary central defense to play as cover in front of the back four. Costa Rica pretty much played a Park The Bus 5-4-1, giving up an obscene amount of possession to the team that invented Tiki-Taki. Part of Costa Rica’s plan was to send the ball over the top hoping that Spain was playing too high a defensive line, but this Route One style wasn’t conducive to getting attacking help.
The bloodbath began in the 11th minute; Costa Rica was 6’s & 7’s in the midfield in the center of the pitch, and allowed 6”4” Dani Olmo to get behind the defense for a tap-in. Same thing with Marco Asensio in the 21st minute. I just get the sense that Costa Rica is not really trying to win this game, given their lack of concerted attacking buildup, as much as just survive as best they can. I could go on with this analysis, but the next five goals pretty much were a result of the same. I couldn’t tell you if Spain really is this good or Costa Rica really is this bad. – DK
Belgium 1-0 Canada: A strong 3-man backline complimented an attack through the midfield in Belgium’s 3-4-3 formation. Canada went with the same 3-4-3, again emphasizing buildup through the middle but with speed on the left.
Despite their inexperience, Canada got the ball into the final third frequently, although with poor shot-taking, and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, the Gold Glove winner in 2018, was busier than expected, with the Belgians having a tough time getting the ball past the middle third. Most of the attacking opportunities from both teams came from quick spurts into the box as opposed to patient buildup. In the 43rd minute, one of those Belgian spurts paid off on a long pass over the top to Michy Batshuayi. A surprising number of chances came from the neophytes Canada, who were not content to be patient and cautious.
Belgium’s central talisman Kevin De Bruyne was getting frustrated, so he had to go wide to receive the ball. Belgium controlled pace in the second half, but Canada still pressed high and made quick spurts into the final third. Faster pace in the second half; a more end-to-end game. As the game progressed, Canada pretty much circumvented their midfield and increasingly got the ball quickly up front, furiously attacking the box. But the Belgian back line held. – DK
Switzerland 1-0 Cameroon: Not known for their futbol pedigree, the Swiss have a nasty habit of grinding out results with their 4-2-3-1 that was sturdy in the back and relied on Granit Xhaka as the engine in the midfield and inverted forward Xherdan Shakiri providing ammunition from the right. Coach and former international Rigobert Song utilized a 4-3-2 that played like a 4-1-2-3, using speed to get the ball up front to poacher Eric Choupo-Moting. Xhaka plays a different, more creative midfield role with the national side than he does with Arsenal, allowed the freedom to find space and move diagonally in the final third.
With a rather pedestrian midfield, Cameroon had little of quality to bring the ball forward, so it seemed that Choupo-Moting was doing it all by himself up front. As the game progressed, the Swiss got more of the possession and put together more organized attacks, spreading the field and creating more space with a more patient buildup. If finally paid off with a 47th minute goal inside the box from tall forward Breel Embola with an easy tap-in (ironically, born in Cameroon). Embola has the speed to get behind the defense, so there were a few times when the Swiss tried to go Route One and get him the ball quickly, but mostly they were patient. Cameroon was moving the ball, switching play from side to side, but any effort towards the box was usually intercepted before it could result in any buildup in the box. – DK
Uruguay 0-0 South Korea: For Uruguay it is a grizzled veteran side that has been living and dying with Luis Suarez up front and Diego Godin, Martin Caceraes, and Jose Gimenez in the back in a 4-3-3 setup through 4 World Cups, hoping that inverted forward Darwin Nunez and playmaker Federico Valverde will become permanent mainstays in the side. Korea’s 4-2-3-1 begins and ends with Tottenham inverted forward Heung-min Son on the right and Napoli defender Min-Jai Kim the stopper in the back.
This was two teams not content to sit back and wait; they went after each other like two brawlers in the ring, and long balls to the front was the name of the game, waiting for someone’s backline to fall asleep. Korea probably engaged and pressed higher than any team in this tournament. The Koreans were so fast, quick, and seemingly frantic that you wonder if either side can keep it up for 90 minutes. No real midfield control; both sides pretty much circumvented their central players. Both defenses bent but did no break, so we had to settle for a tight goalless draw. – DK
Portugal 3-2 Ghana: Portugal can be so much more than Cristiano Ronaldo, but they never play like it as long as he is on the pitch. He comes into this game out of form as a part of a 4-3-3 attacking lineup that starts with the wing backs getting forward, and Bruno Fernandes the engine that feeds the ball inside forward to Ronaldo in the center. This is the right approach to take on a defensive-minded Ghana, looking to really Park the Bus with five defenders in a 5-4-1, with two defensive midfielders to protect them, bringing the two midfielder flankers into to help one forward, so expect Ghana to use their strength and speed with the long ball.
Ghana’s offside trap was 6’s & 7’s, constantly getting beat, so a high defensive line was out of the question (they’d better be thankful Ronaldo was having trouble finishing). Portugal showed a lot of energy pressing, with a man always there to close down somebody no matter where they were on the pitch. If Ghana’s game was to go long, they were failing miserably; there just was not any kind of organized attacking buildup anywhere. Ghana’s attack was basically straightforward, going in one direction; no diagonal or lateral movement, no back or side passes, no one getting ahead of the ball or making runs behind the defense.
After the half, Portugal took more risks, getting players in wide areas and bringing numbers more often. This was a winnable game for Ghana if they had gotten the ball more to the front and given more help to the lone front man more consistently. On the rare occasions Ghana got into the final third, the service into the box left a lot to be desired. Of course it was going to be one of Ronaldo’s melodramatic falls in the box that drew a go-ahead penalty. In the 74th minute, one of Ghana’s few organized attacking buildup resulted in a score from Jordan Ayew coming in from the right flank. Portugal gets the lead back in the 78th minute on a quick through-ball from Fernandes to inverted forward Joao Felix, who beat the offside trap with ease.
Two minutes later, the other inverted forward Rafael Leao broke that offside trap again. Ghana pulls one back in the 89th minute from Osman Bukari (surrounded by five Portugues defenders just standing around ball watching) with a header from the left. A mundane first have was followed by a furious and entertaining second half. – DK
Brazil 2-0 Serbia: There is just way too much attacking quality in Brazil’s 4-2-3-1 formation; just pick your poison in the attacking end (most of the time it will look like five up front), and with the Argentina loss, they are now the favorites. Serbia’s 3-4-3 plays with a back three but most of the time it will look like five, and while they don’t have Brazil’s otherworldly attacking, their front three are not minnows.
Serbia didn’t just sit back and let Brazil have the ball, they played very high and challenged every Brazilian with the ball. I love Neymar and his ball skills, but given the choice between using his ball skills to maneuver past three and four defenders closing in or finding obviously open teammates nearby to dump the ball to, he would rather do the former. Serbia showed better patience on the ball, spreading the field wide. When they relinquished possession, Serbia tried clogging the center of the field, pushing the Brazilians out on the flanks; Brazil was just not going to play through the Serbian defense, Brazil was going to have to create the space and draw the Serbs away from where they wanted to go.
This was a Serbian side that just wasn’t going to easily give an inch, and Gawd knows Brazil tried, basically keeping the final third under siege. Brazil kept pushing Serbia further and further back, literally shoving four and five men into their own keeper, until target man Richarlison finally tapped one in in the 62nd minute. Richarlison with the goal of the tournament so far in the 73rd minute with a scissor kick (I had been waiting for Vinicius Jr. to make his presence felt on the left; it finally happened). Now THAT was O Jogo Bonito! – DK