State of the Nations: A look at how the major nations are shaping up prior to this summer’s FIFA World Cup

World Cup 2018

With the 2018  FIFA World Cup kicking off in just over two months, Oliver Miller casts his eye over the European and South American nations likely to have a say in Russia.

The Favourites

The current favourites to win the World Cup in Russia – and retain the trophy – are Germany. Coach Joachim Low admitted that they had contemplated basing their camp in either Sochi or Moscow but decided on the latter as the capital city will host a semi-final and the final. Many didn’t bat an eyelid when Low made this remark and is quite telling that he, along with the majority of football fans, believes that Germany will be there or there about come mid-July.

Germany have the ability, problem-solving skills and togetherness that some of the nations coming to Russia can only dream of. The mix of experienced winners and a plethora of young talent has given rise to a difficult decision for Low. Germany’s strength in depth was obvious last summer when they were victorious in the Confederations Cup with essentially their ‘B team’ whilst their ‘C team’ won the U21 European Championship.

However, this strength in depth has brought an unsettled nature to the starting line-up – especially in the midfield. Whether the likes of Leroy Sane would be happy with a place on the bench having had a tremendous season with Manchester City is doubtful. Low is unsure on his best midfield but there is a sense that the greater competition will only increase the focus and hunger of the players – virtues that the Germans need given that they won the tournament four years ago.

Probably the biggest concern for Low and the rest of Germany is the fitness of Manuel Neuer, who has been out injured for the entire season. It was expected that he would be back to first-team football by now but that is not the case. His comeback has been delayed and delayed with various reasons being cited – this continual delay is a real worry for Germany.

Only Low knows whether he can trust a goalkeeper who has barely played a minute during the season but in Marc Andre Ter-Stegen they have a very good replacement. Ter-Stegen has been impressive for Barcelona this season, and there is little doubt that he would be more than capable of performing for Germany in the World Cup. However, given that three of Germany’s back four will be Bayern Munich players, the familiarity with Neuer in goal is important.

Another nation with a plethora of talent – especially in attacking positions – is France. They combine physicality with technique and have the capability of being a really impressive side when they are in full flow. The defeat to Portugal in the final of their home Euros in 2016 was certainly a setback for this promising French team but their abundance of top-quality attackers; Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, etc.… should not be underestimated.

France are the only team of the main competitors in Russia who are playing with a 4-4-2 system, this has certainly raised questions and there is doubt about whether a team who sets up in this way can succeed at the pinnacle of the world game. Didier Deschamps is taking a risk if he opts for this formation come the tournament but he is used to the pressure that is applied to him and his job from the supporters and the French media. Deschamps is tasked with getting the best out of an outstanding group of footballers but it is the need to get them performing as a team consistently that is the biggest task for Deschamps.

Given that Germany were the first European nation to win the World Cup on South American soil in 2016, then could Brazil be the first South American side to win in Europe since 1958? They certainly have a chance. There is the potential of something special to come from this current Brazilian side as they appear to have the wonderful ability to win with style. This has been lauded as possibly Brazil’s best crop of players for some time and many believe they exhibit the qualities that made everyone fall in love with Brazil in the first place.

Head coach Tite has said that 15 of the travelling squad are set and ready to go to Russia whilst the other places are up for grabs, leaving the final few friendlies as key matches for those on the periphery of the squad. Neymar is king – or the ‘Boy Prince’ as they like to call him – and he is the linchpin of the Brazilian attack. His injury has increased the anxiety levels but come early June he should be raring to go.

Perhaps the bigger concern for Tite is marrying the individual ability of Neymar with the rest of the team and ensuring that the collective unity shines through. The talents surrounding Neymar, namely the Premier League trio of Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino are also to be feared. Expect a big onus to be placed on former Tottenham and current Barcelona midfielder Paulinho, who Tite has reinstated into the starting XI and hopes will be the crucial link between Brazil’s defence and attack. The embarrassment of riches for Brazil starts in goal where Roma’s Allison is expected to start ahead of Manchester City’s Ederson.

But it will be the management of Brazil’s emotions along with the expectations that are key in Russia. Tite has already dropped Thiago Silva as captain and centre-back, insisting that the leadership in the team must be more concerted and tactful rather than pure emotion. It were these passions that got the better of Brazil in 2014 when they succumbed to a humiliating defeat to Germany in their home World Cup.

Also emerging into the Russian spotlight after experiencing two disappointing tournaments following world domination is Spain. Their route to Russia was encouraging haven beaten Italy to top-spot in the group and qualifying with ease and style. Vicente Del Bosque left the national team after Euro 2016 – some say he outstayed his welcome and for too long favoured the old-guard – but in his place came Julen Lopetegui who was promoted from the U21 team and has impressed from day one.

Lopetegui has surprised and delighted with his squad selections, team set-ups and playing style whilst somehow managing to manage expectations and allow Spain to enter the World Cup kind of through the back door without anyone taking much notice. When the kick-off in Russia arrives, then people will sit-up and take note of this Spain side with a huge emphasis on youth.

The centre-forward position is key for Spain – Diego Costa is likely to lead the line but Iago Aspas and Rodrigo are decent alternatives. No one player has nailed down the position during qualification and the possibility of the goals drying up in Russia is probably at the forefront of Lopetegui’s mind.

England

‘Humble’. ‘Full of humility’. These are some of the phrases used to describe the current England squad. Some would also argue that ‘average’ also fits the bill. England entered the qualification process for Russia at their lowest ebb for some time but Gareth Southgate – who was brought through the nation’s FA like Lopetegui and Low – has instilled a positive mindset on the young and inexperienced crop that he has assembled.

Southgate believes tactical flexibility is key to success at any international tournament – the ability to change shape and approach both from match to match but also within matches is vitally important to him. He has long advocated trying players in a multitude of positions and only last Friday raised many an eyebrow when he played Kyle Walker on the right of a back three.

To believe that one man and one man alone can change England’s fortunes at a tournament is ignorant, although Southgate has impressed and appears to be the best fit for the role at the minute, the real challenge is yet to come. Like Lopetegui, Southgate thinks outside the box, he has a long-term plan, which should improve how the national team is perceived, especially in their own country.

Southgate’s most immediate concern is that of the fitness of Harry Kane – the team does not contain many world-class talents or renowned names but Kane is one of them. His recent injury setback is an issue, especially given the over-reliance on the Tottenham striker for goals. Without Kane, England are a very different proposition and to not have him in peak physical condition would be a serious blow.

Besides Kane, there are questions all over the pitch and in every position. Jordan Pickford is most people’s choice in goal with Jack Butland and Joe Hart deputising but the form of Nick Pope cannot be ignored and a squad place would certainly be warranted. In defence, the back three set-up looks likely and the final few friendlies will serve as yet more testing to find the best combination. Harry Maguire is England’s most in-form defender and could realistically be around the national team for many years to come.

Jordan Henderson is expected to be captain and is probably the first person on the plane to Russia. He offers leadership and an attitude that Southgate relishes but his role in the team is determined by who plays alongside. Eric Dier, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, and Adam Lallana are all contenders to start in the midfield.

Expectations of this England team are low and both supporters and the media are not predicting a serious challenge as the gulf in quality and depth to the favourites is substantial. A good showing would be to get a win in the knockout round but more importantly are performances to provide encouragement and a long lost sense of pride.

The Other South Americans

The greatest player on the planet will be at the World Cup but for a while it was touch-and-go. Argentina just about qualified and now face a difficult group in Russia with challenging games against Croatia and Iceland to come. However, they do have Leo Messi. The Barcelona star only just pulled his nation through the notoriously tough South American qualification process; however, the dependence was far from healthy – Argentina only managed 19 goals in 18 matches.

Two major questions surround Argentina and Messi in Russia: firstly, how fit will Messi be? Having had another tough season with Barcelona there are concerns that he will be burnt-out and not able to produce the high-quality performances that Argentina will require to reach the latter stages. Secondly, how coherent is the team around him? Servicing Messi is the task of the supporting cast but even that is not easy. The level he is used to at Barcelona will not be matched by his Argentinian teammates.

Aside from Messi, Argentina have got the best strikers from Serie A and Premier League – Sergio Aguero looks to be the starter alongside Messi whilst Gonzalo Higuain will be the Plan B. Paolo Dybala and Mauro Icardi both face a battle to reach the final squad let alone the starting XI. A possibly interesting addition could be Racing club youngster Lautaro Martinez who is impressing for his club but yet to make a first-team appearance for Argentina.

There are choices aplenty for Jorge Sampaoli. After having success with Chile and a short spell at Sevilla, Sampaoli took the Argentina managers job in May 2017. Since taking on the role, he has implemented his typical style of pressing high in the opposition half and capitalising on mistakes. He is a relentless, crazy little man… a character certainly. But there are still numerous questions surrounding him. There are doubts concerning not only the players who should be picked but also the formation they should play. Having played with a back three for much of qualifying, it now appears likely that Sampaoli will opt for a back four.

Sampaoli has admitted that rather than playing friendlies in the international windows in March and early June, he would rather just have training sessions. Being the tough taskmaster that he is, hours on the training pitch is what Sampaoli really wants – and needs – to instil his playing game on his players. The difficulty for such a tactical manager, like Sampaoli, in an international setting is trying to relay your often-complex ideas in such a short space of time.

Given the many questions surrounding Argentina, it is not unreasonable to case Uruguay as South America’s second best. Whereas Argentina face the task of creating a unity that enhances the individual quality, Uruguay have togetherness in abundance and, for such a small nation, continue to punch above their weight. Of course, there is Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani, and even this season’s La Liga star performers in Maxi Gomez and Cristhian Stuani, but it is the younger players who are turning the heads of many.

There has been a new approach from head coach Oscar Tabarez, as he has removed many of the ageing stalwarts and brought in a wealth of young talent from the U20 side. It is these younger and less experienced players who South American football expert Tim Vickery believes will be crucial to Uruguay performing in June. There is now much greater importance placed on maintaining possession in midfield – where most of these new players fit in – and consequently, playing a more attractive style of football. However, it is whether these young players can match the form they’ve shown in the lower age groups to take Uruguay beyond their albeit easy group and well into the knockout stages.

The Other Europeans

Portugal won the European Championship in 2016 with a pragmatic and somewhat defensive approach. The focus still remains on Cristiano Ronaldo and it is the job of the team to serve him. His goals are key to Portugal and, as it appears likely, he will be entering a major tournament for the first time in some years without any injury concerns. If Ronaldo delivers, then Portugal have an outside chance.

Perhaps, the biggest under-achievers in recent tournaments have been Belgium. Given the quality that they can place on the pitch – and even on the bench – it shows that individual quality is not enough to win a major international tournament. There now appears to be a psychological mindset developing within the Belgian squad preventing them from turning up at tournaments.

Previous manager Marc Wilmots was regarded as Belgium’s biggest drawback as he failed to successfully combine the qualities of the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. Wilmots’ successor Roberto Martinez still has questions to answer; most notably whether his nonchalant approach to defending can work in an international setting. Martinez has no previous international managerial experience and there are certainly doubts as to whether he is capable of changing the fortunes of the Belgium side especially given that he does not even speak the language.

At face value, Croatia has a lot going for it, numerous highly talented players who play for the best teams in Europe along with some exciting prospects. However, below the surface, it is apparent that Croatian football faces a number of problems. The fan culture in Croatia – and the rest of Eastern Europe for that matter – is certainly an issue but that stems from the high levels of corruption within Croatian clubs and the FA itself. There are a number of court cases currently hanging over clubs, officials and even players including Luka Modric. For these reasons, it is difficult to know exactly what we’re going to get from Croatia.

About the Author

Oliver Miller
European Football Writer - currently specialising in La Liga @oliver_miller