The World Cup is here! And that means it’s time for World Cup previews – the types of thorough, leave-no-stone-unturned deep dives that can leave you with some real expertise on the teams involved.
And folks, that and $2.50 will get you a coffee. Honestly, plowing through a 15,000-word World Cup preview is sicko behavior that I just can’t countenance. And so this, dear reader, is not that kind of preview.
This is the kind of preview that gives you just enough to know (or potentially say) about a team to not sound like a complete idiot. Just the bare bones and then maybe a little bit extra if you feel like showing off.
They’re the host nation, so they auto-qualified. Nobody expects much from them, but they did win the Asian Cup three years back, and ran the US real close in the 2021 Gold Cup semifinals, so it’s not like they’re totally helpless.
Preferred formation: 5-3-2
Who’s their guy? Akram Afif is their guy. Pacy, tricky winger/second striker-type.
What to say to sound smart: They’ll spend a ton of time on the back foot, but honestly, once they get to the final third they can be a problem. Really well-drilled side!
They survived the notoriously difficult Conmebol (South American qualifying) marathon by defending deep, absorbing as much pressure as they possibly could, and then attacking at pace with numbers. There was nothing flashy about it, but it worked.
Preferred formation: 4-4-1-1ish blob that can often be much more of a 4-5-1.
Who’s their guy? Man, remember when Atlanta almost got Moises Caicedo? That would’ve ruled.
What to say to sound smart: Oh, you don’t want to give them a free kick there! They’re one of the best in the tournament on restarts!
They’re pretty clearly one of the two best teams in Africa and showed that in winning the African Cup of Nations for the first time in their history – sneaking past Egypt on penalties in 2021. Then they snuck past Egypt on penalties in the completely unfair, zero sum, head-to-head final round of Caf (Africa’s) World Cup qualifiers.
Preferred formation: 4-3-3
Who’s their guy? Sadio Mane is their guy, provided he’s fit enough to play.
What to say to sound smart: Kalidou Koulibaly’s going to drop a long ball right into the channel if you don’t get pressure to him!
They return to the World Cup for the first time since 2014 and are once again coached by the legendary Louis Van Gaal – his third spin at the wheel. You know what that means, right? Lots of attractive, open, free-flowing play based upon Van Gaal’s Total Football roots.
Preferred formation: Believe it or not, it’s a 3-5-2 that can flex from a 3-4-1-2 into a 3-1-4-2 depending upon where Frenkie De Jong’s run off to.
Who’s their guy? De Jong’s the most eye-catching, since his wild-ass ball progression is much more suited to the international game than it is to the club game.
What to say to sound smart: Watch for right wingback Denzel Dumfries to underlap and become a playmaker from the right halfspace!
They invented the game, so naturally they’re the best at it lololol I’m just kidding. Honestly they’re almost always good because of their talent, but almost never great because of their culture. Gareth Southgate manages to avoid defeat most of the time, which can make one of the most talented teams in the world pretty unbearable to watch.
Preferred formation: 3-4-2-1 that can turtle into a 5-4-1 against teams Southgate’s scared of. They’ll go with a 4-3-3ish 4-2-3-1 if Southgate thinks they’ve got the upper hand, though.
Who’s their guy? Harry Kane. Like a Canadian on South Park, his head flaps when he talks.
What to say to sound smart: Get ‘er into the mixer, innit! Pip pip tut tut cheerio!
Perennial powers out of the Asian federation, Team Melli have qualified for the third straight time, and fifth time in their past seven cycles. A quarter century ago they did so playing free-flowing, attacking soccer, but they’ve been much more compact and defensive over the past dozen years, most of which have come under current manager Carlos Queiroz.
Their first-ever World Cup win (one of only two they’ve posted) came against the US in 1998.
Preferred formation: 4-1-4-1 defending in the ‘keeper’s lap.
Who’s their guy? Porto attacker Mehdi Taremi.
What to say to sound smart: Sure, this game’s unwatchable. That’s exactly Queiroz’s plan.
Younger than they’ve been since 1990, and probably more talented than they’ve been since 1930 (or maybe ever?). This still feels very much like the start of a long, eight-year cycle for the US rather than the culmination of a typical four-year cycle, and there are still very legitimate worries that this group is incapable of executing the type of soccer manager Gregg Berhalter wants from them.
Preferred formation: 4-3-3. Or maybe a 4-2-3-1. My hunch it’ll be the latter grows stronger by the day.
Who’s their guy? Christian Pulisic’s supposed to be, but woo boy did that not happen often during qualifying.
What to say to sound smart: Forget about disorganizing opponents with the ball – if they can create instant verticality in transition moments, they’re going to be a problem for anybody.
They’re a rugby country that’s made it to the World Cup for the first time since 1958, and just the second time ever. It’s largely the same cast of characters that drove the Dragons to an unexpected semifinals run in the 2016 Euros, and a quality, Round of 16 showing in 2020’s edition of the same. They are, in other words, quite thoroughly battle tested.
Preferred formation: It’s the old Costa Rican 5-4-1.
What to say to sound smart: When Bale drops in, watch for that ball over the top into the channel for Daniel James!
One of the true giants of the international game, La Albiceleste have won the World Cup twice and, just last summer, broke an almost 30-year major trophy drought when they won the Copa America. It was the first major international trophy of Leo Messi’s senior national team career and, well, there’s only one more thing the greatest player in the game’s history really needs.
Preferred formation: They’ll toggle between a 4-3-3 single pivot and a 4-4-1-1 double pivot that lets Messi run completely free.
Who’s their guy? Lionel Messi is the greatest athlete who’s ever lived and anyone who’s brought that much joy to so many people, and so much pain and suffering to Real Madrid fans, deserves to win the World Cup.
What to say to sound smart: Critics – imbeciles – have always said Messi’s a system player, so isn’t it funny how, with Argentina more comfortable playing without the ball and attacking on the counter (the opposite of his old Barça teams), he’s still as good as he’s ever been?
They are maybe the most consistent team in the history of the international game. They have qualified for seven straight World Cups. They have advanced from the group stage seven consecutive times. They have subsequently lost in the Round of 16 each and every time.
El Tri fans feel like they’ve been cursed.
Preferred formation: It’s almost always going to be a 4-3-3 under our old friend Tata Martino.
Who’s their guy? Winger Chucky Lozano. That said, Chicharito should still be with this team, and would still be their guy if he was.
What to say to sound smart: Edson Alvarez has gotten so much better at winning second balls and then immediately spraying them to the wingers, which wasn’t in his bag a few years ago. If he can put Chucky into good spots with that, Raúl Jiménez is gonna eat.
Other than a decade of glory from the ‘70s to the early ‘80s, the Poles have been an afterthought on the world stage. And this very impressive generation – which is super talented, and is coming to its end – hasn’t been able to erase that truth.
Preferred formation: They’ve mostly played out of a pretty standard 3-5-2 the past few games.
Who’s their guy? This is the last rodeo for 34-year-old Robert Lewandowski, one of the very best center forwards in the game’s history.
What to say to sound smart: Karol Swiderski’s ability to either drop in and be a playmaker or lead the line like a true No. 9… man, he unlocks a lot of things for that attack and makes things a lot easier for Lewy.
The Saudis are one of the Asian powers, but other than their great debut showing in 1994, that’s meant bupkis at the World Cup as they routinely finish at or near the bottom of the field. They’ve won just five of their last 17 outings.
Preferred formation: They’ll toggle between a 4-2-3-1 double pivot and a 4-3-3 with a single pivot.
Who’s their guy? Winger Salem Al-Dawsari.
What to say to sound smart: Sure, the Saudis don’t build from the back like they used to, but if you let them get comfortable and start knocking it around you could be in some real trouble.
The Socceroos are sort of in the same bucket as the US and Canada, achieving relevance in the world’s game only recently. Like the US and Canada they’re powered by immigrants, and they even call the sport by its correct name!
Also, they up and left their old confederation, Oceania, for the Asian fed about 15 years ago, and have qualified for each subsequent World Cup.
Preferred formation: Probably a 4-2-3-1 playing against the ball.
Who’s their guy? They don’t really have a guy unless they make the knockout rounds, it goes to penalties and Andrew Redmayne gets out there.
What to say to sound smart: Watch how Aaron Mooy drops deeper to stop the 6 from getting overrun, then springs the counter with long-balls into the channels.
The Danes have been punching above their weight for most of the past 30 years – a stretch that was famously kicked off with their triumph in the ‘92 Euros. Since then they have often been both good and watchable, and have made multiple trips to the World Cup’s Round of 16, and once to the quarters.
This group finished third in last year’s Euros.
Preferred formation: They’ll shift between a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-2-1.
Who’s their guy? Playmaker Christian Eriksen, who literally died on the field (and was revived, obviously) at last year’s Euros.
What to say to sound smart: Those third-man runs from Eriksen will murder you if they’re not tracked.
They’re the defending champs! Over the past 40 years they’re probably the most successful team in the world, and are certainly producing more talent than anybody else right now other than maybe Brazil.
Preferred formation: Probably a 3-4-1-2 with a double pivot, but they’ve been brutally bad at whatever formation they’ve played this calendar year.
Who’s their guy? Is PSG striker Kylian Mbappe ready to fulfill his destiny and become the best player on the planet?
What to say to sound smart: Karim Benzema’s ability to occupy space and both center backs gives Mbappe so much room to attack, man. Can’t let him dictate the game like that!
The Carthage Eagles are back again, for the second time in a row and fifth time in the past seven World Cups! Is this the one where they finally advance from the group stage for the first time? I wouldn’t get my hopes up!
Preferred formation: New head coach Jalel Kadri, who was appointed early this year, has had them playing almost exclusively out of a 4-3-3. And other than getting stomped by Brazil (it happens), the results have been excellent.
Who’s their guy? The reason the 4-3-3 works is because d-mid Ellyes Skhiri is real good.
What to say to sound smart: If Aissa Laidouni can muck things up in central midfield, Tunisia will definitely get chances on the break.
They’re older than dirt, they play some of the ugliest soccer on god’s green earth, and you underestimate them at your own peril. This group of Ticos has been inflicting misery on unsuspecting opponents for decades.
Preferred formation: They’ve been noodling around with a 4-2-3-1 but come on, it has to be the 5-4-1.
Who’s their guy? Keylor freaking Navas, the greatest player in Concacaf history.
What to say to sound smart: Joel Campbell’s done a good job of getting isolated on that fullback. Watch, as soon as that dude breathes on him, he’s gonna go down.
They’re the second-most successful team in the history of international soccer and won the World Cup in 2014. They have been, by their own high standards, absolutely abysmal since then, and their current Elo Rating (10th) is their lowest in a World Cup year since 1958.
Preferred formation: 4-2-3-1
Who’s their guy? Probably d-mid Joshua Kimmich, but it’d be super dope if 19-year-old attacking midfielder Jamal Musiala chose this month to announce that he is, in fact, their guy.
What to say to sound smart: Thomas Müller’s been the world’s second-best playmaker for 15 years and he’s still somehow underrated!
Japan qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1998 and haven’t missed it since. They’ve also become the dominant team in Asia in that time. You’d think they’d have a deep run in them at some point, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Preferred formation: It was a 4-3-3, but then manager Hajime Moriyasu switched to a 4-2-3-1 this summer and that’s what it’s been since.
Who’s their guy? 26-year-old attacking midfielder Daichi Kamada, who is currently tearing up the Bundesliga.
What to say to sound smart: They’re really great at compressing the midfield even with a two, so that lets Kamada release and play almost as a second forward.
Spain – ok, primarily Barcelona, though you could argue Spain started it – redefined how the game could and should be played 15 years ago. They won three straight major tournaments from 2008 to 2012, and you could argue (I would argue) that the game’s overall tactical evolution since then has been driven by the question “How do we stop Spain?”
Preferred formation: Single-pivot 4-3-3 always.
Who’s their guy? I sometimes wonder if Pedri popped fully formed from Pep Guardiola’s brain like Athena did from Zeus’s.
What to say to sound smart: Everyone remembers the Pep teams, but Luis Enrique’s 2015 Barca side was actually the best of them all because they held possession a little deeper and created more space to attack into.
This is the tail end of their super-talented golden generation, one which has provided lots of thrills and exactly zero trophies. They would not be the first golden generation – Belgian or otherwise – to fall short, of course. But it really feels like this is it.
Preferred formation: 3-4-2-1 with dual playmakers.
Who’s their guy? They’ve got lots of guys, but Kevin de Bruyne is the very best of them. I would do murder to have an American Kevin de Bruyne.
What to say to sound smart: Amadou Onana covers every blade of grass, so I’d like to see manager Roberto Martinez roll the dice on a deep midfield partner who can do a bit more in distribution than Axel Witsel.
They made it four years ahead of schedule! John Herdman took a team of tough-nosed veterans and young, exciting attackers and turned them into a counterattacking juggernaut that fairly eased through Concacaf, and thus got to the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Preferred formation: 3-4-2-1 that really often looks like a 5-4-1.
Who’s their guy? With all due respect to Jonathan David, left wingback/winger Alphonso Davies is their guy.
What to say to sound smart: Sure, David and Davies are the two best players on the team, but central midfielder Stephen Eustáquio is actually the most important player on the roster.
2018’s beaten finalists have mostly turned the page to a new era in the past four years, and to their credit they’ve done it without really skipping a beat. Very few teams of any stripe (or checkerboard) have been able to do that over the years and decades.
Preferred formation: 4-3-3 single pivot.
Who’s their guy? 37-year-old playmaker Luka Modric is still very much their guy. He’s one of the half-dozen best midfielders in the history of the sport.
What to say to sound smart: Center back Josko Gvardiol’s ability to come off the backline into midfield and make game-changing plays… man. That dude’s different.
They’ve been consistently inconsistent despite spending a half-century looking, on paper, like they should be one of the two best teams in Africa and one of the 20(ish) best in the world. Maybe this is their time!
Preferred formation: New head coach Walid Regragui was hired in August and had his team lined up in a 4-3-3 in both games since then. So… I guess that’s it.
Who’s their guy? The world’s best right back, Achraf Hakimi, is their guy.
What to say to sound smart: Man, you better get pressure to Hakimi early or he’ll hit one of those big right-to-left switches that opens the whole field up, and then it’s on.
The most successful team in the history of international soccer has not won a World Cup since 2002, and last summer they suffered the ignominy of watching Argentina hoist the Copa America in Rio at the famed Maracanã stadium.
They’ll be pissed.
Preferred formation: They’ll probably be in a 4-2-3-1 that often looks like a 4-4-1-1 so that Neymar gets a chance to freelance.
Who’s their guy? It’s still Neymar.
What to say to sound smart: Brazil got high on their own supply for years, but Tite’s finally got them doing modern soccer things with positional play and they look damn good.
Five-time winners of the African Cup of Nations – finished third in this latest version – they’ve nonetheless consistently disappointed in the World Cup, with the lone exception of Roger Milla’s famous drive to the quarters in Italia ‘90. Haven’t left the group since then.
Preferred formation: Probably a flat 4-4-2 with a double pivot.
Who’s their guy? Everybody knows it’s Seattle Sounders FC’s Nouhou, but besides him it’s central midfielder Frank Anguissa, who’s been awesome for that Napoli side currently running away with the Scudetto.
What to say to sound smart: If they can get on the ball enough in midfield, right back Olivier Mbaizo (Philadelphia Union) will do real work getting into the golden zone on the overlap.
The Serbs have made three of the past four World Cups – one of those was as Serbia & Montenegro – but haven’t gotten out of the group since 1998 when they were still part of Yugoslavia.
They went unbeaten in qualifying.
Preferred formation: 3-4-1-2 with two true center forwards and a real playmaker in Dušan Tadić. It’s great.
Who’s their guy? Fulham target man Aleksandar Mitrović, who dominated the Championship with 43 goals last year and already has nine in 12 EPL appearances this season.
What to say to sound smart: When center back Nikola Milenković gets space to pick his head up, he’s going to hit a big, right-to-left switch every single time. And you do not want to have to deal with left wingback Filip Kostić in the open field.
The Swiss basically disappeared from international soccer for nearly half a century, but they’ve now made it to the World Cup five times on the trot and have gotten out of the group stage in three of their past four. They also put together a very credible push to the quarters of last year’s Euros.
Preferred formation: A straightforward 4-2-3-1.
Who’s their guy? They really need Chicago Fire FC right winger Xherdan Shaqiri to be their guy.
What to say to sound smart: Sure Noah Okafor’s pressing is a weapon, but Switzerland don’t really play that way so starting Breel Embolo as the 9 makes more sense.
Ghana’s golden generation is long gone, which means a new generation has strode forth to return the Black Stars to the World Cup after their absence last time around. It is a more functional and less dynamic group than the one that tormented the US in the 2000s.
Preferred formation: A deep and defensive 4-2-3-1.
Who’s their guy? Ajax playmaker/forward Mohammad Kudus, who I think will be a No. 10 for this tournament, maybe?
What to say to sound smart: Inaki Williams doesn’t score much, but you could make the argument that he’s literally the most valuable forward in the sport. Athletic Bilbao would be nowhere without him. It’s wild that he’s here at the World Cup playing for Ghana.
Back in 2016 they were the team everyone pretends Italy are: dour, defensive, and often unwatchable. And they won the Euros. Then three years later they won the Nations League playing a much more expansive game, one which is better tailored to all their attacking talent. That’s still how they roll.
Preferred formation: Primarily a 4-3-3, but they’ll throw some 4-2-3-1 in there as well.
Who’s their guy? Playmaker Bernardo Silva.
What to say to sound smart: They’re actually better starting d-mid Danilo Pereira on the backline because his ball-carrying can destroy the opponent’s shape and force them to scramble.
This marks their 10th straight trip to the World Cup. Only twice, however, have they gotten out of the group stage, which only salts the wounds they suffer every four years in the Asian Cup. The Taegeuk Warriors have hit a good level but have not really taken a step forward in 30 years.
Preferred formation: Mostly a 4-3-3 that has recently somehow become a 4-1-3-2 at times.
Who’s their guy? Attacker Heung-min Son, who’s good enough to win the Golden Boot this month but currently has a broken face.
What to say to sound smart: Gue-sung Cho’s ability to function as a target but also flare to the touchline should open a lot of space for Son or Woo-Yeong Jeong.
For the first time since 2004, Uruguay enter a major tournament with someone other than the legendary Óscar Tabárez calling the shots. But there is still plenty of know-how, with all-time greats Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin and Martin Cáceres all taking their last ride.
Preferred formation: 4-4-2 mid-block blender. Nobody does it better.
Who’s their guy? Box-to-box midfielder Federico Valverde is their guy.
What to say to sound smart: Sure, Giorgian de Arrascaeta’s a natural No. 10, but I actually like him inverted on the left more because it lets him receive while facing the whole field.