Who are they?
I can’t believe they left out Leroy Sane?!?
I can actually, but I just wanted to join in. Sane’s form for the national side has been nothing like his wonderful cut and thrust for Manchester City. Julian Brandt, the man chosen in his place, has been really good for his club and adapted well to international football. Brandt impressed his manager in last year’s Confederations Cup and Germany have history for trusting players who are 7 out of 10 consistently rather than hoping for one exceptional game in every four or five. Sane’s a star and will play for Germany for a long time, but only when he is as consistent in white as he is light blue. For now it’s just about the right decision.
‘Oh to have such choice,’ said the England fan writing this. Germany may not have a France-level list to pick from but then who has? Sane/Brandt was the one big decision to be made squad-wise and the working is sound. If you think it limits Germany’s attacking options I’d suggest you’re worrying about nothing. The usual suspects – Julian Draxler, Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil, Marco Reus etc – will provide supply for Timo Werner, Mario Gomez or Thomas Müller depending who and how they want to play. They will all do so on a platform provided by protection from a choice of Ilkay Gundogan, Sami Khedira, Sebastian Rudy, or Leon Goretzka. It doesn’t feel like they’ve limited themselves too much does it?
Going into the World Cup their form isn’t particularly good but this is Germany; tournament football is what they do. It’s surprising to see that run of five games without a win before the underwhelming victory on Friday over Saudi Arabia, but previous to the 0-0 draw at Wembley that started it they had won 16 of their previous 19 by an aggregate of 59 to 10. They’ll be ready to go – it’s what they do – but to win it again they will have to get past at least two of Spain, France or Brazil by my reckoning. Of course they’re capable, but the competition in that top four is much stronger than before. Germany’s squad has actually improved over the last four years, but not quite as much as their main competitors have.
There is a well-known ‘curse’ of World Cup winners then struggling to get out of the group stages. I obviously fancy Germany to break that, but can they retain the World Cup? Not sure, but I wouldn’t back against them either.
Manager – Joachim Löw
Unmoved by Arsenal’s apparent overtures, Jogi is one of the very best managers at this competition and has the trophy cabinet Tite doesn’t yet to prove it. His squad is excellent, and Löw will feel confident if a little uncomfortable about recent results.
After 12 years, this may be Löw’s last World Cup as Germany manager. If so, don’t expect complacency to play a part. The group looks plain sailing and he’ll already have one eye beyond that third game against South Korea in Kazan. Retaining the trophy would be a magnificent achievement for the team but even more so for the manager. I have a few doubts based mainly around the competition they will face but, he’ll have a plan.
Key Man – Timo Werner
The next big thing in German football – that has many next big things – a lot is expected of Werner both here and in the long-term. Germany’s striking lineage is long and varied from traditional centre forwards in the Miroslav Klose or Rudi Völler-mould to those who are more limited but consistently raise their game in a Germany shirt like a Lukas Podolski. Werner is a very modern forward, capable of supplementing a front three, playing close to a number 10 or a lone role, all of which he has had to do at one time or another in domestic football.
He’s key here because he’s perhaps Germany’s one unknown factor. We’re not stupid enough to think teams will be warming up wondering who he is, but Werner could make the difference when the really good teams lie ahead. Might just be the breakout star of this World Cup.
What should we expect?
It’s Germany, so a semi-final at the very least. Winning it might be a stretch this time, competing all the way won’t be.
Who are they?
All Mexico want is a quarter-final. Six World Cups in a row they’ve made the first knockout round and gone no further. They’ve had some rotten draws and terrible luck along the way – 88th and 94th minute heartbreak in 2014 against the Netherlands, a Higuain-Tevez-Messi Argentine attack in 2010 and a Saviola-Crespo-Riquelme Argentine attack in 2006 – but they’ve also let themselves down in a couple of games. If they can qualify in second it’s against them again with a likely game against Brazil to follow. Can we make a case for them? Not really, no.
Since that defeat in 2014, it feels that at best Mexico have not got significantly worse. Hirving Lozano is the big hope and is making great strides at PSV, but he remains full of potential rather than the finished product. Beyond him, the Mexico squad has a few names of note – Hector Herrera has had a very good season in Portugal and Rafa Marquez, now 39, could play in his fifth World Cup. Marquez will definitely be the only player currently under sanction from the US Treasury for alleged ties to a drug trafficking organisation to play in a World Cup. Andres Guardado is fun and feisty in midfield, Carlos Vela is still Carlos Vela and Javier Hernandez is still Javier Hernandez.
But amongst these relatively bright spots are a few dark clouds. Manager Juan Carlos Osorio’s constant and often bewildering tinkering means all of the above, none of the above or some of the above may start, or all the above but all out of position. Mexico can play a 3-4-3 like they did against Iceland, or a 4-3-3 like they did against Wales, or a 4-2-3-1 like they did against Scotland, or a 3-5-2 like they did against Poland, and that’s just a few games from the last 12 months. The man is tactically obsessed to the point of parody. If I had to guess I’d say they’ll probably be a 4-3-3 in the opening game against Germany, but who knows.
Mexico also have heavy knockout defeats in their psyche since the last World Cup. The Confederations Cup ultimately means very little, but the semi-final battering from Germany after a cruise through the group last year will still be in the memory. A year earlier, a chastening 7-0 defeat to Chile in the Copa Centenario came with widespread criticism of manager and squad, while in 2015 they finished bottom of their group and didn’t manage a single win.
Can they break the cycle here and go further than a single knockout game? Unlikely, but second place is theirs for the taking, particularly with Sweden as their third game if they only need a draw.
Manager – Juan Carlos Osorio
It’s likely he’ll be moving on whatever happens at this World Cup and in truth he’s probably not going to be missed by many. Booed in his last couple of home games and the constant changes bringing issues of his own making, it feels like a marriage that’s run its course. The next man in? Likely one Andre Villas-Boas…
Key Man – Hirving Lozano
If Mexico are to upset the odds they will need something inspired and Lozano is the one man capable of doing that. Incredibly fiery, he’s twice been sent off since joining PSV in 2017 but also been unstoppable on occasion. He has a big future ahead, and 17 league goals in his debut league season in European football is mightily impressive. He’s quick, direct, happy cutting in from the left or right but needs to learn quickly that World Cup referees love a card more than your nan on her birthday.
What should we expect?
Mexico should make the knockouts and should go straight out again. As to who or what system they’ll play? I’ve given up trying to predict.
What should we expect?
Firstly it’s worth giving Sweden a nod of recognition for not going back to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as had been rumoured. He would have improved their striking options but annoyed a squad of players who have worked extremely hard to get to this World Cup. Zlatan provides ego rather than balance and, while limited, this Swedish team have a spirit and togetherness that is worth cultivating.
They will, of course, line up in a 4-4-2, work hard for each other, be difficult to beat, and play neat and tidy football throughout because that’s what Sweden do. They are nowhere near as good as Germany, not as capable on any given day as Mexico, but better than South Korea so third place in this group feels about par. The generation that won the 2015 U21 European Championships have now come through to the first team and are progressing okay, but they still lack that little bit of star quality.
If Sweden are to spring a surprise or two, it will come from their striking options. John Guidetti and Ola Toivonen are both decent forwards who are likely competing to partner a better one. Marcus Berg may be playing in the UAE with Al Ain but his record is staggering – 32 goals in 29 games this season – and at 31 years old is enjoying playing the best football of his career. If he gets the supply he will score and expect that to be Sweden’s Plan A, Plan B and more than likely C as well.
Manager – Janne Andersson
Janne Andersson is big on organisation, and it was that level of planning that saw them through the play-off against Italy to get here. The discipline in the second leg shut out that saw them protect their 1-0 lead with their footballing lives was exceptional. With just 24% possession on the night and 56 clearances between the team, Andersson’s plan to largely play without the ball and look to restrict shooting and crossing positions worked.
Andersson knows his team’s limitations but he’ll also know Mexico’s – one slip up from them and their last game in the group becomes a knockout. Beat South Korea, try and do to Germany what they did to Italy and then be alive in their final game with Mexico. He’ll think it’s achievable and with Mexico’s issues they have a puncher’s chance.
Key Men – Emil Forsberg and Marcus Berg
For the first time in this entire set of previews this is men rather man. I really can’t separate the importance of Forsberg’s creation and Berg being the beneficiary. Forsberg’s versatility makes him a huge asset to this squad and his set-pieces will be key, Berg needs to keep his domestic form up. Having top-scored in qualifying for Sweden with eight, he’ll be their main weapon.
What should we expect?
Third would be par but they will pounce the moment Mexico slip up.
What should we expect?
When doing these previews, I feel it’s important to look at a team’s strengths and weaknesses in preparation and with South Korea it basically goes like this:
Strengths – Son Heung-min
Weaknesses – Everything else.
And it really does feel like that. For my money South Korea are the weakest team at this World Cup and overly reliant on an admittedly brilliant single player. Such is the desire to give Son a platform that coach Shin Tae-yong has been trying to copy Spurs’ system to make him as comfortable as possible. A tough draw has given them an excuse for a potential last place finish but can they take anything from their three matches?
This is a team still evolving after Uli Stielike’s reign, so perhaps progress from performance rather than result is enough? Tae-yong was appointed with a couple of qualifying games to go and has admirably been trying to change things. They don’t score enough – 11 goals in 10 qualifying games – they concede too many and they just need more of everything. A tough job ahead and not one that was ever going to be completed prior to this World Cup.
The quality is just not there apart from Son, Swansea’s Ki Sung-yueng, and Lee Jae-sung of Jeonbuk Motors who is widely acknowledged to be the league’s best player. The pool was shallow enough without the Achilles injury that has ruled out Kwon Chang-hoon, the winger who has been in really good form for Dijon this season and would have provided their other attacking focal point. An average squad with a bit of bad luck too – it really is tough to see the silver lining.
Manager – Shin Tae-yong
Whatever happens his job should be safe but there’s no easy road ahead. The plan will be defensive by design as it has to be but a single result from the three games ahead is the target. Tae-yong is looking at dealing with long-term problems and has to think that way, this World Cup will come and go but qualification with a stronger team from the outset in four years time is the goal. Losing Chang-hoon was devastating, he may have to keep tinkering throughout to stay in each game.
Key Man – Son Heung-min
There really is a Salah/Ronaldo/Messi-level reliance here on a player not on the same level as those three. He will need help from others and he’ll be used to far better service in his club football. He was magnificent at times this season but also inconsistent, tending to play in spells. Will need to be a 9 out of 10 as a minimum in each game if there is any hope of a South Korea shock.
What should we expect?
It’s harsh but they feel like the most fourth-placed team out of all the other fourth-placed teams.