These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.
Head Coach: Roberto Martínez
Odds to Win: 10-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: It’s already very well-documented that neither Yannick Ferreira Carrasco nor Thomas Meunier are especially suited to sitting back; the former is a winger by trade but both have plenty to offer going forward and the Red Devils will always be in the final third in large numbers. Martínez emphasises attack, which is a good fit for the personnel on the roster. It can be possession-based or quick, reasonably direct thrusts.The flanking centre backs split, both to offer passing options for the goalkeeper and to sweep up after the wing-backs. If selected, Axel Witsel will be the closest approximation Belgium have to a holding midfielder. Kevin De Bruyne now adopts a similar role at both club and national level, dictating the play as only he can. Dries Mertens will be deployed just behind the main striker (unless a tactical change is required).
Eden Hazard will stretch the defences with his unpredictable trickery. There are plenty of options on the bench should they be needed – not least of which, is his younger brother, Thorgan Hazard, who takes up similar positions but is more of a creator than a short, sharp passer. Michy Batshauyi enjoyed a fruitful half-season on loan at Borussia Dortmund; he’s more fleet of foot than Romelu Lukaku and you can guarantee at least two of the three sides in the group will bunker down against their vaunted opponents.
Prediction: Along with Argentina (and now Spain, after today’s huge news), there is a wide range of outcomes that are possible for Belgium. They might find Tunisia tricky to break down and England seem to have a setup that’s keenly matched for Martínez’ formation and tactics. I think they’ll come second in the group and be beaten by the Three Lions in that last game. That will make their path to the final trickier on paper. It can then go one of two ways – either the head coach swallows a bit of pride and employs more players with defensive mentalities to balance things out or they could fall embarrassingly early. I actually think it will be the former – they, like Uruguay, have a decent chance of winning it. It’s do or die.
Head Coach: Hernán Gómez
Odds to Win: 1,000-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Contrary to popular belief, Panama will more often appear as a 3-4-3 than a 5-4-1. The emphasis will still be to keep things watertight. Captain Róman Torres is a muscular leader in a backline that will sit deep and initiate counterattacks when they regain possession. Fidel Escobar will be key from set pieces and watch out for his long-range shots. Once the opposition have been stymied, despite most of their ages, the starting XI can be deceptively quick on the break. The wide midfielders are key to maintaining their shape and supplying the frontmen, who are all capable of getting behind the defence at speed.
Prediction: They will not be walkovers and could easily steal at least a point from their Group H opponents, who will surely collect one or two knocks from their physical style. The longer in each game they can maintain a clean sheet, the more their belief will increase that something can be gleaned. Goals at the other end are also an issue, so, whilst qualification is probably beyond them, competing with two of the more favoured sides in the world will be an achievement in itself.
Head Coach: Nabil Maâloul
Odds to Win: 750-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Playing out of defence in a methodical manner is how the head coach has sThe wingers will shuttle up and down the wide spaces, offering protection to the full-backs and support to the lone striker. Shorn of more potent options through injury in the build-up to the tournament, Wahbi Khazri could start in that position. Whilst at Rennes on loan, he stepped into that role because of an injury crisis and excelled, taking on defenders with relish, beating them on the dribble and scoring a decent amount of goals. The Eagles of Carthage will be heavily reliant on him to break the deadlock, as well as the vast experience of custodian and captain Aymen Mathlouthi to keep clean sheets and organise a young defence.
Prediction: Tunisia have shown in recent friendlies that they could be a big thorn in the sides of both the heavy hitters of the group. If they frustrate one of them as they managed to do for so long against Spain recently and come out with a point, then there’s a slither of hope that they could sneak through, as long as they dispatch Panama. It could then come down to goal difference, which isn’t likely to favour Maâloul’s charges. They have never won a game at any of their four previous finals, but I think that unwanted record will be broken this time around.
Head Coach: Gareth Southgate
Odds to Win: 16-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Southgate has proven his tactical flexibility and willingness to devise a system first, then match the players to it. In a 3-5-1-1, John Stones will likely be the leader of the centre back trio, and his style revolves around turning with the ball and picking out teammates with a good selection of passing. The wing-backs will provide almost the entire width in the XI, although Kyle Walker might step out of the back to cover gaps on the right. Raheem Sterling’s creativity and pace are key to unlocking defences that will be high in numbers and deep on the pitch. Should he be unavailable or the manager feels in need of another player with vision, Ruben Loftus-Cheek will be tasked with pulling the strings from the middle third, utilising the speed of the side to latch onto his through balls.
Prediction: The group shouldn’t phase them too much, although they will do well to remember not to get caught up the pitch in numbers, especially in the wing-back areas. The current crop of players are more comfortable in possession than previous iterations and the tactics match what many of them are used to (and suited for) at club level, playing for the elite. Reaching the quarter finals would represent a good return for Southgate in his first tournament at senior level, with many on the roster not yet at their peak in terms of age. There would be no shame in losing to Germany or Brazil at that stage, and, with muted expectations and harmony in the camp, the near future looks bright for the Three Lions.