Elephant graveyards are mythical places where old elephants instinctively come to die. Historically, the World Cup has been an elephant graveyard for football giants. From Italy’s Catenaccio to Netherlands’ 'Total Football', football philosophies have suffered deathly blows to their identities at this tournament. At the same time, out of obscurity, maddening methods and luck, managers have found the World Cup to also be a sanctuary for newer tactical templates.
We explore the methods of top teams we believe are likely to brandish their style on the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup – France, Portugal, Brazil, Spain, and Germany.
Manager: Didier Deschamps
Likely formation: 4-3-3
Possible XI: Loris, Sidibe, Varane, Umtiti, Mendy, Kante, Pogba, Matuidi, Griezmann, Mbappe, Lemar.
There is no question if there is fire in Paul Pogba’s belly, but critics will point at his big-match temperament and speculate that he may struggle in this tournament. On paper that shouldn’t be the case. Didier Deschamps is likely to field a variation of a 4-3-3. N’Golo Kante and France’s most under-rated midfielder of the last decade, Blaise Matuidi will play the role sheet anchors when Manchester United man, Pogba’s boat may rock in stormy seas.
The double-pivot Kante and Matuidi may prove to be France’s most integral players both in attack and defensive phases of play. In attack, the duo forms the chassis where the trebuchets of Pogba, Griezmann, Mbappe and Lemar fire from. When hit on the counter, they’ll be plugging in holes left by their attackers.
However, expect Deschamps to switch to a 4-4-2 in the later part of the tournament when France face opponents that demand caution.
As a World Cup winning defensive midfielder for France, and Zidane’s water carrier, Deschamps fully understands the scope and potential of this team. If France can get their balance right, and hit their stride, there could be as many as five players on the overload.
Unlike the other contenders for the title, France’s style is yet to be defined. The reason for that is a lack of consistency and personality to go the extra mile. The coming weeks could be the defining moment of France’s new golden generation.
Manager: Fernando Santos
Likely formation: 4-4-2.
Possible XI: Rui Patricio, Soares, Pepe, Alves, Guerreiro, Bernardo Silva, Moutinho, William Carvalho, Joao Mario, Andre Silva, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Portugal will finally get to play their football with their shoulders thrown back and chest puffed. Winning the latest edition of the European Championships has buried the tag of the perennial underachievers. Dark horses no more, they head into the tournament with an appetite.
Some teams have a positional curse pinned upon them. For England, it is the position of the goalkeeper for over two-three decades. For Portugal – the center forward positions that have shown all the potency of a slice of wet bread being chucked in anger. Andre Silva will look to redeem the ineffectiveness of the likes of Danny and Hugo Almeida over the years. Cristiano Ronaldo may finally have Benzema he required for the national team.
The clue to how they will play is present in Fernando Santos’s soundbites: “We’re here to win. And we play with our weapons. That’s what I want. I can’t understand the idea of a team that loses but delivers a great game. It makes me confused.”
He is a pragmatist. While many managers have the bad habit of throwing a monkey wrench into the machinations of a perfectly working formation by wanting to be more adventurous – Fernando Santos does not have that problem. The tactical template will be the same no-nonsense 4-4-2 that won Portugal their first ever major trophy. If playing conservative football gets them the World Cup, so be it.
A deep-line defence, swashbuckling breaks on the counter and Bernardo Silva’s playmaking decisiveness will be the feature of Portugal’s play. Pepe is not getting any younger and there will be weakness at the back for the opponents to exploit.
Likely formation: 4-3-3
Possible XI: Allison, Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo, Casemiro, Willian, Paulinho, Coutinho, Firmino, Gabriel Jesus.
Coming back from injury, Neymar may just be restricted to substitution appearances in the opening couple of fixtures. This leaves the door open to Roberto Firmino to stake his claim in the starting line-up.
Defensive midfielder Casemiro will have it all to do in a team whose default FIFA 18 tactics is stuck at ultra-attacking. Marcelo and Dani Alves will bomb forward to join in with the attack every opportunity they get. Casemiro will be helped by the work-rate Paulinho, Firmino and Willian offer.
The defensive line is held high up the pitch to squeeze the space and the attacking play forward. It’s a fine balance, and they seem to have struck it. In the last 10 fixtures, Brazil have conceded 2 and scored 19. This will suggest that the usual fear of defensive frailty has been subsided.
In Neymar, Ederson, Fernandinho, Marquinhos and Douglas Costa, Brazil have options on the bench to rival Spain’s.
Manager: Joachim Loew
Likely formation: 4-2-3-1
Possible XI: Neuer, Kimmich, Hummels, Boateng, Hector, Kroos, Khedira, Reus, Draxler, Muller, Werner.
Few teams do tactics better and more efficiently and ruthlessly than Germany. Their commitment to their plans has been highlighted with the non-selection of Leroy Sane, Mario Gotze and Emre Can.
Look closely and you'll notice how the German team under Loew, like great Italian teams of yore, play in phases according to the minute on the clock: they start off with high-possession so as to take the edge off the opponents who have an impetus to start quickly. Once settled into a rhythm, and the other team tires, the will quickly look to break on the counters.
Kimmich has unflinchingly taken over from Lahm. The multifaceted Draxler, Muller, Reus and Werner will prove pivotal to the transitions and interchanging of play, which should leave defenders wondering whom to mark.
With the perfect blend of German precision and balance, this team has the look of defending World Champions.
Manager: Julen Lopetegui
Likely formation: 4-2-3-1.
Possible XI: De Gea, Carvajal, Pique, Ramos, Alba, David Silva, Busquets, Thiago, Isco, Iniesta, Diego Costa.
Exhibited in the 6-1 win over Argentina, Spain are back to being a televisual symphony again. The maestros in Iniesta, Isco, David Silva, and Thiago Alcantara have all found the perfect scale coming into the tournament.
Credit goes to manager Julen Lopetegui. The easier option would have been to start anew than with a team which exited vs Italy in the 2016 European Championships. Taking over from living legend Vicente Del Bosque – the consolidator of the tiki-taka football philosophy, where possession is king – Lopetegui, who used to manage Spain’s U19 and U21 sides, has brought in new techniques to reinvigorate the national style.
Expect Thiago and Iniesta to keep interchanging roles on the wide left. David Silva, as he traditionally does, will tuck in and accompany Isco as the men to play the final pass.
In attack, this formation will resemble a narrow 4-2-2-2. Spain will play the ball around in front of the box looking to carve out opportunities with their patient play.
Updated Date: Jun 09, 2018 16:02 PM