World Cup Group A Preview


We are approaching that time of the year where the world stops as we all passionately enjoy the beautiful game of Fútbol-yes, even us Americans! There is a significance to this year's World Cup due to the fact that it's being held in November instead of June-we don't want people melting in that Qatari heat. If this is your first rodeo, it's okay, you came to the right place because by the time you're done reading the last word of this article, you will know more footy than the average fan.

Qatar 🇶🇦

Strength: Team Chemistry

To start us off is the host nation, as they will be making their debut appearance in the tournament. Manager Felix Sanchez has done an excellent job of exposing his squad to many different styles of play. In this cycle, Qatar has played in 4 continental tournaments as they finished as a semi-finalist twice and champions in the Asian Cup. Not only did this core gain valuable international experience, but they were also able to build partnerships in a very structured 5-3-2 mid-block system.

Weakness: Goalkeepers

In a recent discussion with CBS Sports, Rob Green reflected on his time being England's #1 during the 2010 World Cup: "As professionals, we don't prepare the same way...we prepare in a way if you are a starter or a sub, and for a goalkeeper, to have that clarity whether you agree with it or not, you can respect your goalkeeper union member and help him in the build-up to the game because one thing you don't want is for things to go wrong."

For Qatar, all the positions in the starting 11 are a lock except for the goalkeeper. The two candidates for the starting goalkeeper role are veteran keeper Saad Al Sheeb and Meshaal Barsham, a young keeper with immense potential. Both Al Sheeb and Barsham play for the Qatari club Al Saad; however, they are the respective second and third choices at the club, making this decision harder than expected. Sanchez will want this goalkeeper battle to be squared away because the last thing his squad needs are unnecessary nerves leading up to the first game versus Ecuador.

Player to Watch

Akram Afif (Al Saad, Qatar)
15 Goals, 19 Assist in 27 Games

Starting 11 for Success

The Maroons will likely play in a 5-3-2 mid-block formation, with the intent of channeling play to the center of the park, and igniting a counter attack through the threatening duo of Afif and Ali.

Ecuador 🇪🇨

Strength: Relentlessness

La Tri are a team that does not like to hold back, for 90 minutes plus, they want to create havoc for their opponents. Ecuador's efficient repress and aggressive flank play is their key to success as they finished 3rd in the Conmebol Qualification stage for possessions won in the attacking third (4.6 per90), and accurate crosses (4.7 per90). Occasionally, Ecuador may catch their oppositions off guard with a diagonal ball exposing the backline's weak side. On average, the South American side led Conmebol with 11.1 accurate diagonal balls per90 during qualifiers. With this high-octane style of play, good luck trying to remain calm for a full match against the Tricolor squad.

Weakness: Defensive Shape

Despite La Tri being must watch TV this winter-because of their vibrant style-the defensive issues are holding back this team's success. No matter the situation, Ecuador will send many numbers high up the field to win possession which leaves detrimental gaps between their midfield and back line. As seen in qualification matches against Paraguay and Peru, Ecuador were invited to press high, which opened up gaps for their opponents to expose and go on to score. Expect lower block or possession-oriented teams like Qatar or the Netherlands to attack these gaps during group play. With that being said, this issue must be addressed before the tournament starts, otherwise Ecuador could be in for a rude awakening.

Player to Watch

Moises Caicedo (Brighton Hove & Albion, England) 

1 Goal, 2.2 Tackles won per90* in 13 Games

* Top 10 in Big 5 European Leagues

Starting 11 for Success

La Tri are accustomed to playing a 4-3-3, sending their full backs high and wide along with their box to box center midfielders occupying any open attacking spaces. The defensive midfielder will have to be very disciplined in ensuring support to the center-backs whenever Ecuador's press is broken.

Netherlands 🇳🇱

Strength: Total Football

The total football system was introduced to the beautiful game by Dutch coach Rinus Michels during the 1970s. This system enables outfield players to fluidly take positions based on what the game provides during situations-which allows them to frequently create open spaces on the field. In order for a side to successfully play the system, the squad must be full of both intelligently and technically sound players. With the return of the legendary coach, Louis van Gaal, the Oranje have reverted to the style of play that has made them a powerhouse in international football. As of late, the Netherlands attack has been deadly in front of goal, finishing 92% of the big chances they created in the UEFA Qualification stage and Nations league. This stacked Dutch side will be looking to lift their first ever World Cup trophy and their odds are looking great if they can keep up this utterly productive attack.

Weakness: Anti-Football

When a team is unbeaten in their last 15 games, it is very hard to find any blemishes. Nonetheless, there's a saying in soccer that goes "the ball is round for everyone", meaning that no team is unbeatable, and on a bad day you can be beat. The last poor performance the Netherlands had was a Nations League match against Poland. Poland sat in a 4-4-1-1 shape condensing the middle of the field and forcing the Netherlands to whip in low percentage crosses towards a relatively weak aerial frontline. Poland's successful low defensive shape guided them to a draw, and you can expect teams with less talent than the Netherlands to replicate this game plan to clinch an upset.

Player to Watch

Cody Gakpo (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands)

12 Goals, 14 Assists in 18 Games
* Leads Eredivisie in goal contributions per90 (1.89)

Starting 11 for Success

The Oranje favor any back 3 system as they are able to utilize every blade of grass on the pitch. The wing backs are in charge of occupying the flanks, the center midfielders conduct the possessions, and the wide center-backs are encouraged to join the attack to create a numerical advantage on offense.

Senegal 🇸🇳

Strength: Experience

Currently, FIFA has the West African side ranked as the #1 African squad leading up to the World Cup. Senegal have earned this recognition through their dominance in the Confederation of African Football (CAF), as they are the recent champions of the African Cup of Nations. This squad is led by big name players like Sadio Mane and Kalidou Koulibaly who have played in many Champions League games as well as participating in the previous FIFA World Cup. Although this may be a relatively young squad, the big stage should not be too bright for the Teranga Lions considering the majority of their players play in the Big 5 European Leagues. In all honesty, for the amount of talent available, Senegal can repeat the success they had in the 2002 World Cup where they finished as quarterfinalist, their best result ever.

Weakness: Dependency

The two-time African Footballer of the Year, Sadio Mane, is the headliner of the Senegalese frontline. With Mane scoring 10 of the last 15 goals for Senegal, opposing teams will look to cut off this supply. Hence, players like Ismaila Sarr, Boulaye Dia, and Bamba Dieng must have their scoring boots ready to combat the tactics of stopping the Bayern Munich star.

Player to Watch

Formose Mendy (Amiens, France)

1 Goal, 2.61 Interceptions per90*, 1.84 duels won per90* in 13 Games

* Top 3 in Ligue 2

Starting 11 for Success

The Teranga Lions attractive style of play will consist of an interchanging front 3, box to box midfielders working to break down the opposition's offense, and a deep-lying playmaker running the possession, looking to find overlapping fullbacks joining the attack.

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