What’s their deal? Deutschland über alles! The defending champions arrive in Russia with a team as frighteningly efficient as ever. They won out in qualifying with a goal differential of +39. Again, that’s PLUS THIRTY-NINE. The German machine rolls on, impeccably well-oiled in all facets, a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of pitiless dominance.
But who can play? Who can’t? Hell, the Germans won the warm-up Confederations Cup playing their B team. Toni Kroos is one of the world’s best in midfield. Next to him will be Sammy Khedira or Ilkay Gündogan providing the pinpoint passing to the attack led by Mesut Özil at center and Thomas Müller out wide. The defense is rock solid as well, constructed as it is with the likes of Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, and Joshua Kimmich. And though his availability is questionable, this discussion would be incomplete without mention of Manuel Neuer, who, when healthy, can not only stop anything that comes his way but can even initiate an attack with a cannon of an arm that would make any left fielder jealous.
What’s their soccer look like? German soccer is something to behold, as one might expect from a team sheet this balanced. The defense never missteps, the passing is never without purpose, and the runs are always into the gaps no one sees except the telepathic Teutons. All this is done in a 4-2-3-1 formation with a high attacking midline. A typical sequence might go like this: While Özil runs circles around the pitch, Müller will find space on the flank. Kroos will find one or both of them, and a cross will end in a chance.
So, how far can they go? It’s nearly impossible to see the German machine grinding to a halt anywhere before the semifinals, but the competition will be a better match for them by that point. But how could anyone bet against the Germans in any game? All they seem to do is win. Like the Goeben and Breslau steaming relentlessly towards Constantinople, the German juggernaut will set a course full steam ahead for a repeat championship, and no one would want to get in their way.
What’s their deal? Now indisputably the best team in North America, Mexico arrive in Russia brimming with confidence—or at least the squad does, maybe not the endlessly critical Mexican press corps. The players have bought into Juan Carlos Osorio’s chameleon-like approach to matchups, as an ever-shifting rotation keeps opponents on their toes from game to game. That approach will continue at the World Cup, and could bring El Tri massive success or crushing failure.
But who can play? This Mexican team is fairly well balanced, with a lot of talent in different areas of the pitch. In particular, the trio on the front line present a menace in any attacking situation, with Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Carlos Vela, and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez all capable of a brilliant finish at any moment. Behind them, Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera will provide the setup play, along with Giovani dos Santos if he starts.
What’s their soccer look like? Fascinatingly, Osorio’s formation never seems to look the same twice. His default will be a 4-3-3, but don’t be surprised to see something like a 3-3-1-3, depending on his mood, or the weather, or however he decides his tactics. Indeed, this constant tinkering is a lightning rod for criticism from the press. But whatever the formation, El Tri will certainly keep the ball moving and press the attacking advantage whenever and wherever they can, with the defense looking to win back possession as high up the pitch as possible.
So, how far can they go? El Tri will be looking to win a World Cup knockout game for the first time ever in a country other than Mexico. With such weak competition in the group, they could be well positioned to do just that… except their likely second round opponents are Brazil so… maybe not.
What’s their deal? South Korea enter this World Cup in the midst of what has to be called a transitional period. Normally among the best teams in Asia, the Koreans very nearly failed to qualify at all this time around. Throughout the campaign and subsequent friendlies, the Taeguk Warriors have looked shaky and altogether beatable, which does not bode well for their chances in a killer group draw. That said, there is some young attacking talent to make things interesting, so this transitional period might end in some success—in 2022.
But who can play? Son Heung-Min, the up and coming Tottenham Hotspur winger, has enough scoring talent and speed to have earned himself the affectionate sobriquet of “Sonaldo,” though he is a far more unselfish type of player than his nicknamesake. Ki Sung-yueng is a visionary in the midfield, and likely the key to the team’s fortunes, no pun intended. Other than that, there simply isn’t much here, particularly on defense.
What’s their soccer look like? Coach Shin Tae-yong is still searching for a formation that he is comfortable with. A 3-4-3 would seem the best option to allow Son to thrive on the wing, and met with a modicum of success last year. But more recently, a 3-5-2 failed spectacularly against Bosnia. So it’s anyone’s guess what the shape will be. In any case, Korea will be focused on the attack, because it’s all they can afford to do. There is no defense to speak of.
So, how far can they go? This group is an unfortunate draw for Korea, and the likely result is a finish in third or fourth place and a quick exit. There is just good enough attacking talent to hope against hope for a fourth game, but that is wishful thinking.
What’s their deal? Sweden beat Italy in a playoff to qualify for this World Cup, and that’s very nice for them.
But who can play? Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not on this roster for some reason, yet somehow that didn’t prevent the Swedes from from eliminating the Azzurri, who will be missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1958. No, there’s no favoritism in the press box and no, I am not holding a grudge. Why do you ask?
What’s their soccer look like? Have you ever seen the Swedish Chef throwing various food items around the kitchen?
So, how far can they go? Last place. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.