Tim Groothuis, USA Today Sports
It was a rough first round of games for the World Cup favorites. Of the eight teams with the shortest odds to win the tournament, only three won (which is slightly mitigated by the fact that Spain and Portugal played against each other). Only Belgium won by more than a single goal. So which teams are actually in trouble, and which ones need to stay the course?
The Big Loser
The biggest shock of the tournament to date is Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico. It might be tempting to call Mexico’s win a fluke. Sure, maybe Mexico scored on a Hirving Lozano counterattack, but Germany outshot their opponents 26-13 and had 12 shots inside the penalty area to Mexico’s five. That would be wrong. Despite all their shots, Germany didn’t create a single big chance, and the two teams were roughly even according to expected goals.
Germany’s major problem, the one that Mexico exploited, is their central midfield. Neither of their two starters, Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos, are natural defensive midfielders. When Germany lost the ball up high, Mexico were quickly able to break into midfield space, and neither Khedira nor Kroos were able to slow them down. That left their centerbacks exposed, and Mexico exploited the weakness. Germany need to fix that problem if they want to contend in the deeper stages of the tournament.
Whether that means rotating personnel and bringing Ilkay Gundogan or even Sebastian Rudy into the side to shore things up, or something more drastic like a formation switch or even moving rightback Joshua Kimmich into midfield, it’s clear that Germany need to do SOMETHING or they’re going to be fighting for their lives early on.
From most disappointing to least.
Argentina looked like an absolute mess in a 1-1 draw with Iceland. While they could have snuck out a win if Lionel Messi scored a penalty, the draw was a fair result on balance. Similarly to Germany, Argentina outshot Iceland 27-8, but didn’t really outcreate them. Expected goals were only 1.1 for Argentina (plus a penalty) to 0.9. Two things make Argentina’s draw even more concerning than Germany’s loss. First, Mexico were Germany’s toughest group opponent, while Argentina still have to face Croatia. Second, it’s easy to see what went wrong for Germany; they have a specific problem that needs fixing. Argentina’s problems are bigger and can mostly be described as “everybody whose name is not Lionel Messi.”
They had a shaky defense, a slow midfield and a static attack against an Iceland side that is well-disciplined but extremely passive. Manager Jorge Sampaoli is reportedly looking to make wholesale lineup changes going forward, which is completely warranted but also a terrifying idea once a tournament has already started. A complete freefall that even Messi can’t stop is definitely a possibility for this Argentina side.
Brazil drew with Switzerland, 1-1, and didn’t look all that great doing it. Some of the credit goes to the Switzerland side who, as Dennis Green might have said, were who we thought they were. That is, they defended well, and aggressively, and didn’t have much of an attack. The game ended up being a muddy, hard-fought affair in which Neymar got fouled a whopping 10 times, Phillippe Coutinho scored a scorcher, and the Swiss efficiently put home a boring set piece.
Interpreting this game is in the eye of the beholder. The positive side is that there’s nothing wrong with struggling against the Swiss defense. It was Neymar’s first full competitive game since March, and with Serbia and Costa Rica ahead of them, Brazil probably will be just fine. The concern is, for a team built around having Neymar tick, it’s always going to be unsettling if he has a bad game. And he spent the entirety of the match dropping into midfield, getting kicked and losing the ball. If he’s not fit (and he reportedly limped out of training Tuesday with a foot problem), then Brazil have a very difficult choice ahead of them. A team with Coutinho on one flank and either Willian or Douglas Costa on the other might be better than one with a less than 100% Neymar. The question revolves around exactly how far from 100% he is.
It’s pretty easy to be sanguine about Spain. Sometimes, after all, you just get Cristiano Ronaldo’d (more on him in a minute). Sure, they conceded three goals, but one was a penalty, one was a goalkeeping error from David de Gea, who until the moment he spilled Ronaldo’s shot had been the best keeper in the world for a year, and one was a gorgeous 88th-minute free kick. Ronaldo happens. Spain only gave up nine shots total.
On the attack side, their three goals demonstrated an attack that adapted well to having a goal-hunting striker in Diego Costa. For their opener, Sergio Busquets released a decidedly un-Spain-like long ball to release Costa against the backline, which he promptly schooled. But they didn’t sacrifice their Spanish possession style to do it. Despite spending large chunks of the game chasing the match, they kept their patience and completed a monstrous 700 passes and controlled 66% of total possession. The combination of short passing and long bombs to Costa should put to bed any real concerns about the striker fitting in tactically.
Despite the abrupt pretournament management change, Spain looked every inch a team that knows how it wants to play, and what specific things they need to do to accomplish their tasks. Sometimes you just get Ronaldo’d.
It’s good to have Ronaldo. Portugal displayed a surprising amount of flexibility and broke out an unexpected lineup, playing youngster Goncalo Guedes as Ronaldo’s partner up top. Guedes’ movement was good, but the 21-year-old also spoiled a number of golden counterattacking opportunities thanks to either dumb bad luck or a pretty pronounced case of the World Cup yips.
The story of the game was Ronaldo, who not only scored three goals but looked decidedly spry in doing so. He drifted wide and ran with the ball at his feet, a spectacle not seen since circa 2013. He set himself up, including using a stepover to draw a penalty, distributed for Guedes and ended a 44-shot-long direct-free-kick drought.
Portugal as a squad may be somewhat too limited to contend for a World Cup title. The fact is, Ronaldo went about as off as going off goes, and they still only drew with Spain. But if he plays like this all tournament, they will certainly be a threat to beat anybody.
It took a questionable penalty on a through ball played by Paul Pogba, and then a Pogba-induced own goal, for France to get by a plucky defensive Australian side, 2-1. Wins are nice, but for a team that started what was supposed to be their fun lineup, with a front three of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele, the results were underwhelming.
The midfield remains conservative, mainly existing to support the attackers in recycling possession and shuffling the ball wide to the wingers. They defend well — it’s very hard to break through France — but they don’t press at all, meaning that for a team of talented players, they sure do let the other team have the ball a lot. This is particularly unforgivable given that they have probably the best rangy defensive midfielder in the world in N’Golo Kante, who was born to cover for the cracks in a press.
That these were all known problems, and that shifting from a lineup with Olivier Giroud in the starting 11 to one with three dynamic attackers didn’t change them, is certainly a worry. That said, it’s also true that they won despite their uninspiring performance, and they still have as much talent as any country out there. They aren’t clicking yet, but they could never click and still win it all.
Belgium had the most comfortable win of the bunch, a 3-0 walk over Panama. Similar to France, Belgium often suffer from having lots of good attacking players and not enough cohesion between them. That problem wasn’t exactly solved Monday, but the thing about great players is that a lot of the time they just do great things. Just after halftime, Dries Mertens opened the scoring with a brilliant half-volley from an awkward angle. The beauty of Belgium is they have so many players on the field who can pull off a piece of magic like that. The problem with Belgium is that they often need that magic to open the scoring.
Like France, Belgium’s win was both evidence of the problems we already knew they had and a demonstration of how they can overcome them.
Ignore that it took England 90-plus minutes to ultimately eke out a 2-1 victory. They dominated Tunisia. By whatever metric you look at, England were easily the better side. They outshot Tunisia 18-6, outpossessed them 61% to 39 and carried the game with an assured style that forced Tunisia into ever increasingly rough tactics to cope. England only conceded thanks to a marginal, at best, penalty decision. They created 3.1 expected goals while holding Tunisia to a measly 0.1 (plus the penalty). They played an open and aggressive style, with a midfield that consisted of two very attacking players in Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard.
Perhaps most impressively, manager Gareth Southgate stuck to his game plan. Rather than change what was working to chase a goal, Southgate made like for like substitutions, bringing on Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Raheem Sterling and Alli. Similar players in the same position, meant to reinforce the system that was working, not change it. And, ultimately, Southgate was rewarded by Harry Kane’s backpost setpiece header in stoppage time.
It was an impressive performance from England. The Three Lions not only got three points, but they demonstrated just how committed they are to their identity. They know who they are, and they know what they do well, and that’s more than can be said for almost any other team in Russia.