Alex Keble shines his tactical spotlight on four intriguing match-ups for the opening round of World Cup fixtures.
For the most entertaining match of round one we may have to wait until the final day, when the attacking and unusually-formulated Serbia will take the game to tournament favourites Brazil. It is even possible, given the tactical differences between Tite and Dragan Stojkovic, that Serbia will win the possession battle, if not the game.
Serbia line up in a confrontational 3-5-2 formation in which Dusan Tadic plays as one of the free eights alongside Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
If that wasn’t bold enough, Stojkovic deploys Inter Milan winger Filip Kostic and highly-rated wide forward Andrija Zivkovic as wing-backs; Serbia will go down swinging against Brazil, safe in the knowledge that defeat here does not likely threaten their place in the second round.
It should give us goals. Kostic and Zivkovic should be able to find space up against the weakest area of the Brazil team – full-back pair Dani Alves and Alex Telles – and yet Brazil’s depth of talent in attack probably makes the Serbian approach suicidal. Vinicius Junior and Raphinha have taken the pressure off Neymar to create a calmer and more deadly forward line.
Serbia, who in the last year have conceded three against Denmark and two against Slovenia, don’t have the defenders to cope with that.
There is almost no chance of Belgium repeating their semi-final appearance of 2018. The 'Golden Generation' is ageing rapidly, most notably in central defence where Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen continue to form part of the back three.
Age isn’t everything, but it is very important when part of Roberto Martinez’s swashbuckling and far-too-open attacking structure, itself weakened this year due to Romelu Lukaku’s injury issues.
Canada might be the surprise package in Qatar and they stand a good chance of bursting on to the scene in the first week. Manager John Herdman is a bright tactician who tends to shift formation regularly between matches and works hard on nullifying the opposition threat, more often than not via a hard-pressing and expressive team shape. The Canadians will not sit back, but rather tackle aggressively to create speedy transitions that aim to attack Belgium’s weak back-line.
Jonathan David is enjoying a very strong season domestically, scoring nine goals in his first 15 games for Lille, and he will be joined in the front three by Alphonso Davies, the rapid Bayern Munich left-back who plays as a narrow forward for Canada. These two have the pace Canada need in those transitional moments to outmanoeuvre Alderweireld and Vertonghen.
The first major shock of Qatar 2022 could come on Wednesday evening.
A peculiar atmosphere hangs over England’s first game, beyond even the ethical concerns surrounding Qatar and the weirdness of a winter World Cup.
For the first time in living memory England are an unknown entity, finalists in a major tournament 12 months ago but winless in their past six matches. We don’t even know what formation Gareth Southgate will use, let alone his best XI or the extent to which he will confront complaints regarding his instinctive conservatism.
Nevertheless we can predict the tactical pattern of their opener against Iran. Carlos Queiroz has always been a defensive coach, responsible for the more restrictive Manchester United of the late 2000s and regularly creating rather tedious matches at international tournaments.
He will set up Iran in a narrow and compact 4-5-1 with every player behind the ball, crowding the penalty area and hoping to force England into stale and sideways possession.
England are prone to doing that even without being lured into a trap, so this one won’t be a fun watch. Trent Alexander-Arnold as a wing-back in a 3-4-3 or a wildcard attacker such as Jack Grealish or James Maddison in a 4-2-3-1 would represent a more attacking Southgate selection, and certainly a back four seems probable in the group stages.
The tactical dynamic here is likely to be England shuffling the ball out wide for crosses into the box, with Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling largely restricted from more nimble work by the sea of bodies in front of goal.
Until we see England in action, we cannot be more precise than that.
USA feel ready for an explosive tournament and will feel confident of progressing through the group, but starting with Wales poses a problem: here is a team that makes magical things happen, no matter the odds. On paper, it is USA who are the more coherent and prepared team, yet that is precisely why the underdogs Wales could flourish.
American manager Gregg Berhalter is pretty radical for international football, believing in a progressive style complete with high and hard pressing from the front.
It is a tactic that has worked well in qualifying and yet the USA are fairly inexperienced against European opponents, making them potentially vulnerable to the direct counter-attacking style of Rob Page’s side. This could be a game of exuberant US confidence being undermined by the scrappy Welsh.
As USA press high, looking to assert dominance with an expansive and searching style, they will inevitably leave gaps in which Wales can break.
Page’s 3-4-3 relies upon Kieffer Moore to hold up the ball for Gareth Bale and either Brennan Johnson or Daniel James (both very quick) to support just behind him, and therefore should Wales evade the first wave of pressure – Joe Allen, that’s your job – we can hope for some exhilarating, surging counter-attacks.