2018 FIFA World Cup: Group B
The Teams: Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Iran
Group B of this year’s participants brings us former World Champions Spain, who will be hungry to set the record straight after a premature elimination last time out, fuelled by a change of management and style. It also includes current Euro Champions Portugal, who have gone from strength to strength under new gaffer Fernando Santos. They will be keen on conquering the grandest stage of them all, coming off the back of doing likewise in Europe in 2016. Further, we have Iran, who make their 5th appearance at the World Cup finals, hoping to better their record of a group stage elimination from Brazil ’14. With a front line firing on all cylinders, they may never be better equipped to do so. And lastly, we have Morocco, led by Juventus CB Medhi Benatia. Morocco were one of the most solid teams in qualification, and seeing the mix of youth and experience they have in their roster, they too will fancy their chances of upsetting a tournament favourite and emerging from the group stage, into the knockouts.
We now have a detailed look at the tactical aspect of how these sides set about getting the job done on the pitch.
Odds to win: 6/1
Method of qualification: UEFA Group G Winners
It was at the 2010 World Cup, with teams employing the tried and tested ‘counter-attack’ approach to La Roja’s ‘tiki-taka’, that Spain seemed to be clinging on to a proven, yet outdated technique in a fast-evolving footballing world. After another dismal outing at Euro 2016, it was high time to change. And Julen Lopetegui provided just what was needed.
By sticking to their roots but making allowance for the speed of the modern day game, Spain tweaked their style to ensure they could still pass their opponents to death, whilst simultaneously running circles around anyone who dared to take the ball off them. With Lopetegui spoilt for choice in terms of creative midfielders, he devised a way for all of them to express themselves as a cohesive unit. Lining up in a slightly withdrawn 4-3-3 formation, Spain have tasted success both with and without an established forward leading the line. Instead of wingers, creative midfielders are employed on the flanks, with the full backs pushing up to provide the width. Spain’s success in attack has largely been due to the fact that the versatility of their midfielders allows them to play across the final third, and ergo more often than not we find them creating 4v3 situations against the defence, which a runner from deep or a false 9 is able to exploit to great effect.
However, Spain aren’t invincible. The fact that their full backs provide the width and the presence of only one out and out DM can be exploited, if the team is calm and skilled enough to play through or around the Gegenpress (or counter-pressing technique). It is possible for a team to exploit this weakness by making use of their own full back, in a side-overload-and-switch-flank approach, or by using a player in a free positional roam role (generally a No. 10 with a high work ethic), as Spain’s pressing is largely confined to the flanks, owing to their numerical advantage there.
Spain’s qualification domination and the recent battering of Argentina and the toe to toe confrontation with Germany may well propel Spain to the spot of favourites at this World Cup.
Odds to Win: 25/1
Method of qualification: UEFA Group B Winners
Portugal showed to the world that they were more than just the sum of 11 players, and indeed showed their ability to cope in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo in the Euro ’16 final. It would be very short-sighted to say that they are a one-man team, for Fernando Santos has worked out a system which allows his men to play to their strengths as well as expressing themselves as a unit.
Playing a slightly lopsided 4-4-2 (Or 4-2-2-2), that transitions into a 4-3-1-2 has suited Portugal’s attacking players quite a bit. With 2 defensive minded midfielders tucking in ahead of the ageing yet experienced CB pairing of Pepe and Fonte, it allows full backs Cedric Soares (Southampton) and Raphael Guerreiro (Dortmund) to really bombard forward and create numerous opportunities to put the ball into the penalty area from out wide. Interestingly, the full backs do not necessarily help create a 2v1 situation against the opposite full back, but rather take the position where a traditional winger is likely to find himself, which allows the creative players in Bernardo Silva and Ricardo Quaresma to drift infield with the ball, potentially looking to slice open the defence or cut inside and shoot. The full backs are also allowed to make late runs a bit more centrally, and on numerous occasions a right pass has put them through on goal or in a position to play a deadly squared pass across the face of goal. Crossing is likely to be employed to great effect by Portugal, with Andre Silva and Cristiano Ronaldo more than capable target men. We may also often see one of the two drop a little deeper to act as the creator, in a 4-4-1-1 scenario.
Portugal too have their weaknesses in defence. With marauding full backs, there is scope for teams to hit them on the counter using pacey wingers and long diagonals. Further, the CB pairing, whilst supremely experienced, cries out for pace. Overall, Portugal could be exposed on the counter attack, or by teams who attack chiefly down the flanks. However, their ability to grind out results must not be underestimated, having lost just once in 29 competitive games. It also must be remembered that Ronaldo and Co only managed to win one game in 90 minutes at the Euro’s and still managed to get their hands on the trophy.
Odds to Win: 500/1
Method of qualification: CAF Third Round Group C Winners
Morocco’s claim to fame was the fact that they cemented their spot in this world cup without actually conceding a goal. In fact, they’ve let in only 11 goals over 23 matches, in a period spanning 2 years. Led by Juventus star Medhi Benatia, the defence is well drilled and not afraid of going in for a tackle. However, the defensive solidity displayed will be called into question perennially by the likes of Ronaldo and Iniesta, and Morocco will require their attacking unit to shine bright to supplement their fearless defensive unit.
Playing a defensive oriented 4-1-4-1, Karim El Ahmedi will be tasked with adding steel, whilst Hakim Ziyech of Ajax and possibly Amine Harit of Schalke will need to be at their creative best to assist Khalid Bhoutaib, who netted 4 times in qualification. Long balls will likely be used regularly on the counter attack to isolate a creative player out wide with an opposition defender, and Morocco will then look to build on from there. Wolverhampton’s Romain Saiss, who originally plays as a defensive midfielder for his club was frequently used alongside Benatia in the build up to the Cup. This further reinforces the need to be accurate with the passes, and the emphasis that is laid on long, searching diagonals out of defence, in the absence of a steady, viable short-passing route.
Clinical-ness will be a prerequisite if Morocco are to continue their world cup journey past the group stages, with the team not expected to create a plethora of chances against the top dogs of the group. Every ounce of the experience of Younes Belhanda, Medhi Benatia and the zeal of Hakim Ziyech and Amime Harit will be required to cause an upset, but Morocco know themselves that they are quite capable of pulling it off.
Odds to Win: 500/1
Method of qualification: AFC Third Round Group A Winners
Iran qualified for the World Cup without a blemish on their record, going undefeated in qualification. However, having been put into a group where, on paper, everyone seems to have a better roster than theirs, it will be quite the challenge to emerge from this test.
To aid them in their quest for qualification out of this group, manager Carlos Quiroz has devised a modified 4-3-3, that takes the shape of a 4-1-4-1, with directness at the helm of everything Iran do going forward. Ruben Kazan striker Sardar Azmoun will be the target man for the Asian side, with AZ winger Jahanbakhsh also looking to exploit any lapses on the flanks, coming off a splendid season in the Eredevise. This 4-1-4-1 fields one out and out defensive midfielder in Saeed Ezatolahi, and 2 central midfielders who supplement both defence and attack equally. They will look to play to the feet of Jahanbakhsh out wide to get him 1v1 with the full backs, and build on from there. The two-footed winger can play on either flank, and was the Eredevise’s top scorer this season, so drifting and movement across the front men and in the final third is to be expected. Defensively, Jalal Hosseini, a man with over 110 caps for Iran looked to be set for another World Cup at the heart of defence, but recent lineups have suggested that Queiroz is opting for a different permutation, choosing youth over the experienced veteran. Whether it is only to test his bench or indeed for a starting berth remains to be seen.
Despite coming through unscathed from qualification, Iran will have to be at their very best to escape from this group and challenge for a spot in the knock out stages.
Spain to top the group, Portugal in second, Morocco in third and Iran in fourth. The quality of the European giants seems unsurmountable for the latter two sides, and between the former, I can see Spain exploiting Portugal’s defence with clever interplay and a merry-go-round of defence splitting passes. I also believe Morocco’s defensive solidity will propel them over Iran, who still have some work to do in determining their strongest playing XI.