The flaws of the World Cup favorites: Why France, Brazil, England and others could struggle in Qatar
by Ryan O’Hanlon, ESPN.com writer, published on September 27, 2022
At this point, it’s easier to list which national teams are not in the middle of some kind of pre-World Cup crisis. Forget the USMNT’s forgettable loss to Japan; after all, the majority of the tournament favorites all seem to be experiencing their own kinds of meltdowns.
Such is the nature of international soccer. While federations don’t necessarily have to worry about losing star players to richer teams, they also can’t just go out and sign whomever they want. Coaches can select only from a mostly random collection of people who, as FIFA rules state, are citizens of that country and also exhibit a “genuine link” to the nation. That leads to lopsided player pools — you can’t do anything if your four best players all happen to be right-backs — which theoretically requires a higher degree of tactical sophistication from the manager in order to make it all work.
Except for the most part, the best coaches don’t coach national teams anymore because the pay isn’t as good. And if they did still coach national teams, they wouldn’t be able to implement the right kind of high-wire, tactical plans because their rosters are always changing and the teams train together for only a couple of weeks per year.
Depending on how you want to look at it, this is either the charm or the bane of international soccer: Everyone is deeply flawed, including the nine favorites to lift the trophy in Qatar. So let’s go through each one and their profound issues, in ascending order of how likely the betting markets think they are to win the whole thing.
Netherlands: OK … so who’s going to score the goals? (+1400 to win, per Caesars Sportsbook)
After losing to the Czech Republic in hilarious/embarrassing fashion in the round of 16 at last summer’s Euros, the Netherlands have been on fire. After replacing Frank De Boer with Louis Van Gaal as manager, the Dutch haven’t lost a match, and they’ve improved their elo rating more than any other nation in the top 15. In fact, they’re currently the highest-rated European team in the elo ratings, which award/penalize teams a certain number of points based on the result of each match, the quality of the opponent and the level of competitiveness.
It’s not really driven by any fluky results, either, as they have the third-best xG differential among all the teams we’re looking at since last summer. Plus, they have a pretty cushy World Cup draw (hosts Qatar, plus Senegal and Ecuador) and they match up with a relatively easy group in the round of 16 — either England, the U.S., Wales or Iran.
So, what’s not to like?
In the past, the problem for the Dutch was that they had too many attackers to fit on the field: Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Robin Van Persie, Dirk Kuyt, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and so on. Now, they’re incredibly reliant on Memphis Depay who, to be fair, has been absolutely lights out since LVG took over, scoring 13 goals and assisting on five more in 11 matches. He leads the team in goals, assists, shots attempted and chances created.
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With either unproven (Cody Gakpo) or uninspiring (Steven Bergwijn) options outside of him, can Memphis carry an attack all the way to the World Cup final?
Belgium: They can’t defend (+1200)
You’re probably familiar with the idea that “defense wins championships” from just about any sport, and that has tended to be true at the World Cup, too: the team that wins isn’t the one that blows everyone else off the field. No: it’s the one that keeps every game close and ekes out victories by executing in decisive moments and getting enough of the right bounces.
What Roberto Martinez’s Belgium presupposes is: “What if that’s all wrong?”
While I don’t totally disagree with the premise — defensive teams winning doesn’t mean that playing defensively makes you more likely to win — he has not found the right solution. All of these nine favorites have played somewhere between 11 and 13 competitive matches since all of the continental competitions wrapped up last summer, per Stats Perform. Belgium have allowed 1.2 expected goals per game, while none of the other eight are north of 0.9. They’ve allowed 19.2 touches in the penalty area, while none of the other eight have allowed more than 14.1.
It’s not like they’re the rare national team that presses, either. They’re not conceding because they’re pushing too many bodies forward; only France have a lower pressing rate. Instead? Well, their defenders might just be too old. Remember Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld? They’re both still starting for this team.
Portugal: That whole, uh, Ronaldo thing (+1200)
In terms of a comprehensive, field-covering collection of talent, Portugal might be in a better spot than everyone other than France and maybe England. They have at least one guy who’s starting for one of the best teams in the world at just about every position — other than keeper, and … striker.
Forget all of his tactical tweaks or transfer-targeting of former players: the biggest change that Erik Ten Hag made to Manchester United was benching Cristiano Ronaldo. If you think they’re better this year, that’s the biggest reason, because at 37 years old, CR7’s reputation no longer matches his impact on winning.
While Fernando Santos has been the Portugal manager for eight years and he did lead them to their first international trophy, I still don’t think he has the power or internal support to bring Ronaldo off the bench in what’s likely to be his last World Cup. Since the Euros last summer, Ronaldo has played more competitive minutes for Portugal than anyone, including their keepers. Plus, Santos himself is one of the more frustratingly conservative managers out there.
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There’s a version of Portugal that runs teams ragged with all of its dynamic, interchangeable attackers (Diogo Jota, Rafael Leao, Joao Felix) who also defend from the front — and then shuts the door by bringing Ronaldo on for the final 20-30 minutes. It’s just unlikely we ever get to see it.
Germany: Can they beat a good team? (+1000)
At the past World Cup, Germany tried to play like Liverpool and Manchester City were playing in the preceding Premier League season, pressing super high and heavily tilting the field against their opponents. They did both of those things as planned, just not effectively. They got ripped apart whenever they lost the ball and couldn’t immediately win it back. The approach seemed, in a word, naive.
At the Euros, they switched to a back three to create some built-in solidity and experienced slightly better results: an embarrassing loss to France, a complete demolition of Portugal and a 50-50 game against England that ultimately came down to Thomas Muller missing a breakaway.
After the tournament, they replaced longtime coach Jogi Low with one of the better coaches in the world: Hansi Flick, who led Bayern Munich to a Champions League trophy in 2020. Flick preferred a risky, high-pressing 4-2-3-1 that most notably never featured a traditional, ball-winning center midfielder. He has roughly brought that approach to Die Mannschaft, as Germany’s matches average 94 possessions per team, while the average among these teams is 85. Germany press way more aggressively than the other eight favorites and win possession in the attacking third way more often, too.
– Ogden: England v Germany was fun, but proved why neither will win the World Cup
This revamp has added up to the best xG differential among all of these teams, but that’s misleading. They smoked all of the minnows they played in World Cup qualifying, but their xG differential in their six Nations League matches against Italy, England and Hungary is actually negative.
Flick never really had to fix problems when he was at Bayern, but when the competition gets tough, it hasn’t worked at all for Germany just yet.
Spain: How slow can you go before you fail? (+800)
While Flick has instituted the Bundesliga’s stereotypical high-pressing, constant-turnover style into the German national team, Luis Enrique has done the same with his nation’s own stereotype: slooooooow possession.
Well, he hasn’t really instituted it. Last time we saw Spain at the World Cup, they were stretching the concept of possession to its breaking point as they totally dominated the ball against Russia but barely created anything and were eliminated by the hosts after conceding a penalty. Enrique is the best coach at this World Cup, for my money, and I thought Spain were the best team at the Euros last summer. They pressed and possessed in a way that few non-Spain national teams ever had, dominating eventual winners Italy in the semifinals, only to lose in penalties.
Since then, though, they seem to have fallen back on even more possession. Stats Perform has recorded data on 198 national teams who have played at least one competitive match since August of last year — across a number of levels, for both men and women. Among all of those teams, Spain have moved the ball up the field at a slower rate (0.89 meters per second) than any of them. As such, La Roja haven’t really had any really bad games since the Euros, but they haven’t produced a signature win, either.
Argentina: When the vibes are too good (+700)
The months leading up to just about all of Lionel Messi‘s World Cups have felt like the first few pages of some grand tragedy. The word “tragedy” appears somewhere on the front of the book, and whatever you try to tell yourself, you know it’s not going to end well.
This time around, though? It feels different.
For starters, Messi finally got that “ain’t won a thing with the national team” weight off his back by winning the Copa America last summer. On top of that, well, he is no longer looked at as the obvious best player in the world. The expectation is no longer that Messi’s team should win because it has Messi. No, he’s 35 now and has developed into much more of a creative passer than scorer. Lionel Scaloni seems to have bought into that, surrounding Messi with a bunch of younger, athletic, high-flying midfielders and attackers whom the team captain can pick out with his precision passing.
Since losing to Brazil in the semis of the 2019 Copa America, Argentina have played 34 matches and lost a whopping … zero. Their last competitive game was a complete demolition of Italy back in June, too.
So, why won’t it work? In short, they’re the opposite of Spain: they frequently lose control.
Among these nine presumed favorites, Argentina have the lowest differential between penalty-area touches for and against (plus-9.2 per game). Some of that is because they don’t get to beat up on the Gibraltars and San Marinos of the world, but it’s also because this is how they want to play: they want the space that comes with transition and all the angles it opens up for Messi to play the ball into.
Will the defense be able to handle that increased pressure? Nicolas Otamendi is 34 years old, and he has played more competitive minutes than any other Argentina player since last summer.
England: When the vibes are too bad (+700)
It appears that Gareth Southgate is the first manager to be relegated with a club team and a national team. It’s not good! But it’s also not quite as bad as it seems. Heading into their final Nations League match against Germany, England had attempted 62 non-penalty shots in the competition and scored none of them:
Unless you think players like, I don’t know, Harry Kane are bad finishers, that was always going to end real soon, and it did in Tuesday’s entertaining but meaningless 3-3 draw with Germany. But it still doesn’t absolve the main issue of Southgate’s tenure as manager. The players all seem to like him, and he clearly has a plan, but despite having one of the two or three most talented collections of players in the world at his disposal, he has frequently opted to raise the team’s floor, rather than attempting to lift the ceiling.
Instead of trying to find a way to fit Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s once-in-a-generation creative passing into his side, he hasn’t given it much of an effort. Despite being weaker at center-back than anywhere else on the field — did you see Harry Maguire against Germany? — he hasn’t tried to make much use of Fikayo Tomori, who has been one of the best center-backs in the world for AC Milan over the past year. Despite having a ton of attacking talent at his disposal, he has opted for a system that sacrifices one of the traditional attacking roles. He has made less room for his best players.
There’s also this:
Nearly all of England’s Nations League matches could’ve gone either way, with a roughly equivalent number of chances for both sides. It seems as if that’s almost what Southgate wants, with his team finding the edge on set pieces, individual execution and defensive execution. It could work, and England could win the World Cup — but it really feels like they could be so much better than that, too.
France: C’mon, seriously … it’s France (+550)
You know the deal here, and if you don’t, this is how it tends to go: the most talented team in the tournament; a coach who frequently seems to be at war with the tendencies of his best players; and a group of incredible players who constantly seem to be at war with each other.
All the way through to the 2018 World Cup final, French fans were bemoaning what a defensive team Didier Deschamps had cultivated. Of course, France won anyway because they had Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. And this time around, they could have even more talent.
Since that past World Cup, Karim Benzema was still blacklisted from the French program because he, uh, helped to blackmail one of his former France teammates, Mathieu Valbuena. Benzema has not only since rehabilitated his image, but he has become arguably the best soccer player in the world. At least he was last season. On one side of him, you could have Mbappe, who also might be the best player in the world. And on the other side of him you could have Ousmane Dembele, who might be the best right winger in the world.
Those players fit together seamlessly and would rival any of the best front threes in the club game. Elsewhere, France have a seemingly never-ending list of elite center-backs, effective central midfielders and productive secondary attackers.
By now, you know the “buts.”
But Deschamps might never play that front three together. And Mbappe is feuding with the French federation and its under-fire 80-year-old president, who is very close with Deschamps. And Pogba — along with a bunch of other big names — is injured and currently being extorted for money by a group of old friends that includes one of his brothers.
That, somehow, is just how it goes.
Brazil: Full-backs, anyone? (+450 to win)
Ever since hiring Tite in 2016, Brazil have been the most consistent national team in the world. Under their current manager, they’ve played 75 matches, won 56, lost five and drawn 14. They’ve scored 161 goals and allowed 26. You read that right: 26 goals! They’re basically conceding a goal every three matches. Put another way, they’ve allowed 3.7 goals … per year.
And of course, this is Brazil. They still have Neymar, Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, Richarlison, Roberto Firmino, Antony, Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli, Raphinha, Coutinho and plenty of other attackers to choose from. Against Ghana, Tite essentially played Neymar as a “free-eight” — part of a midfield with Casemiro and Lucas Paqueta, behind a front three of Richarlison, Raphinha and Vinicius — and it was unstoppable:
With loads of depth at keeper, center-back and central midfield, the weakness for Brazil comes in a traditional area of strength.
Gone are the days of Marcelo and Dani Alves, of Cafu and Roberto Carlos. Against Ghana, the full-backs were Eder Militao, currently a second-choice center-back for Real Madrid, on the right, and Alex Telles, the Manchester United washout currently on loan at Sevilla, on the left.
Brazil, rightfully, are the favorites to win the whole thing with two months to go before the first match. But like everyone else on this list — and every national team to come before them — they’re nowhere close to being perfect.