Two teams at this World Cup appear gloriously unpredictable: you wouldn’t be surprised if they reached the semi-finals; equally, crashing out at the group phase is eminently possible. The first is Portugal, and the second is Argentina. The link is obvious: underwhelming sides with plenty of defensive question marks, but captained by an all-time great.
But whereas Cristiano Ronaldo tasted success with Portugal at the European Championship two years ago, Leo Messi is still searching for a first taste of international glory – the Olympics notwithstanding – for Argentina.
Three defeats in the World Cup final of 2014 and then the Copa America finals of 2015 and 2016 pushed him into brief international retirement, but he’s returned and Argentina will base their side entirely around him.
That’s been the case for much of the last decade, although the complication is that Argentina now have a genuinely exciting, innovative manager in Jorge Sampaoli, who rarely bases his sides around a single star individual. Messi, however, has forced a re-think.
Sampaoli also needs to modify his usual approach, which is based around heavy pressing and a high defensive line. Argentina have neither the energetic attackers nor the mobile defenders to play in that manner, and Argentina’s 6-1 friendly defeat to Spain in March, when their high line was repeatedly breached, showed the dangers of playing in that manner. Sampaoli will use a more cautious philosophy, albeit considerably more technical and adventurous than the system used by Alejandro Sabella four years ago.
The formation, though, could be absolutely anything. Sampaoli previously loved a three-man defence but has switched to a back four in something approaching 4-2-3-1, although when Argentina have faced minnows this has been depicted as things like 2-3-5 and 2-3-3-2, such is the movement and fluidity from the attackers.
The key is Messi. He will start in a number 10 position, but wants freedom to drift right to find space. This means Argentina’s right-sided player will effectively play a balancing role, providing width or drifting inside in turn.
Manuel Lanzini, a hard-working and tactically disciplined attacking midfielder, finds himself higher up the pecking order than one might expect, ahead of Paulo Dybala, because he can play that way.
Messi also wants forward movement ahead of him, and Samapoli has a choice between Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero, who have rarely replicated their club form for their national side.
Higuain is the more likely starter, primarily because he’s better at bringing a partner – ie Messi – into play. Angel Di Maria will, as ever, play in a peculiar role between left-wing and central midfield.
There are several question marks in deeper positions. Javier Mascherano, the best defensive player at the last World Cup, has declined significantly in the last couple of years.
Lucas Biglia is another defensive option, Ever Banega provides inconsistent passing quality, Maximiliano Meza is something of an all-rounder and Giovani Lo Celso offers a blend of energy and technical qualities but lacks experience.
At the back, Nicolas Tagliafico and Federico Fazio can be exposed for pace, which will be a major issue if forced to play in a high line, and Nicolas Otamendi can be dragged out of position too easily. In goal, Sergio Romero’s absence means Willy Caballero, who made his international debut this year at the age of 36, seems first-choice.
It’s difficult to see Argentina keeping clean sheets, and realistically this side probably needs a back-to-basics manager who gets Argentina solid in two banks of four to hide defensive weaknesses.
Sampaoli wants something more positive, and the brilliance of Messi means Argentina might be thrilling. You can’t help feeling, however, that this story will end badly, and that 6-1 friendly defeat to Spain is a serious warning sign.
One of Argentina’s problems is the fact they’ve been drawn in a strong group – even Iceland, widely considered the group’s outsiders, showed their ability to upset bigger sides with a run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals. They will provide Argentina’s first opponents, which should be a classic attack-versus-defence clash.
Iceland have overachieved to a staggering degree in recent years, in part because they’re entirely happy playing unfashionable, defensive and direct football.
Heimir Hallgrimson generally used a 4-4-2 system in qualification, although may switch to 4-2-3-1 here, introducing an extra holding midfielder to allow Gylfi Sigurdsson to play higher up the pitch. That said, sometimes Iceland struggle to enjoy long spells of possession, and Sigurdsson is better off in a withdrawn role where he can help Iceland build from deep.
Either way, Iceland can depend upon a solid, well-organised back four accustomed to playing together, and the midfield quartet retreat quickly to protect them.
Their attacking is somewhat rudimentary, depending upon direct passes into attack, and they also offer arguably the greatest set-piece threat in this competition. Sigurdsson is superb free-kick taker, and the long throws of holding midfielder Aron Gunnarsson will provide a unique threat. It seems unlikely to take them into the knockout phase, but Iceland stand a good chance of frustrating opponents.
That feels especially likely considering Iceland finished above one of their Group D opponents, Croatia, in qualification.
While Croatia won the first match 2-0, a last-minute goal handed Iceland a 1-0 victory in the return game, which was effectively the result that meant Iceland qualified automatically and Croatia were forced into the playoffs. Could Iceland frustrate Croatia again?
That fixture might be the greatest stylistic contrast of the entire group stage. Whereas Iceland are about long balls and set-pieces, Croatia can count upon one of the most technically gifted midfields in the competition, with Luka Modric now playing as a number 10, and Ivan Rakitic a little deeper.
Marcelo Brozovic should complete the trio, with Milan Badelj, Mateo Kovacic and Marko Rog options from the bench. Few nations produce as many technically gifted playmakers.
Croatia also have the reliable presence of Mario Mandzukic upfront, plus Ivan Rakitic – who often plays well at tournaments – offering counter-attacking presence from the left. On paper, this is an excellent side.
On the pitch, however, there’s little evidence that Croatia are as good as the sum of their parts. Ance Cacic was sacked as coach before the play-offs, and Zlatko Dalic was appointed to steady the ship.
As such, Croatia are still relatively unaccustomed to his approach, which appears more cautious and not necessarily suited to Croatia’s midfield talents. There are also problems between the fans, players and national federation involving an ongoing corruption charge – Croatia certainly can’t match Iceland in terms of team spirit and togetherness.
There are also weaknesses in defence. Vedran Corluka is, amazingly, only 32 but has always been slow and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic is prone to needless mistakes and unconvincing saves.
At recent tournaments Croatia have looked excellent in spells before being eliminated after feeble performances, and are probably being overestimated based upon the calibre of a couple of stars.
This is an interesting group featuring four different styles: Argentina are based around one star individual, Croatia are a possession side, Iceland will depend upon set-pieces – which leaves Nigeria, best cast as a counter-attacking team.
The likes of Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses and Kelechi Iheanacho, three Premier League players, offer speed and trickery, and this could work excellently against an Argentina side playing too high up, and a Croatia team that wants to dominate. Iceland will be tougher to counter-attack against, and Nigeria might be found wanting when forced to dominate.
There is quality in midfield, however, with Jon Obi Mikel pulling the strings and Wilfried Ndidi a fine ball-winner. Defensively,
Nigeria are solid with an intriguingly international quartet: Elderson Echiejile plays alongside Netherlands-born William Troost-Ekong, German-born Leon Balogun and Russian-born Brian Idowu. It’s also worth considering that organisational problems which have affected the national side at previous tournaments don’t appear to be an issue this time around.
But the goalkeeping position is a worry. Vincent Enyeama is now out of the picture, Carl Ikeme is unavailable because of serious illness and therefore Gernot Rohr must choose between Ikechukwu Ezenwa or Francis Uzoho, neither of whom have convinced. This is a major weakness, which partly explains Nigeria’s odds to qualify are very long – otherwise, this is a strong side.
See all of Michael's other group previews here:
Group A - Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay
Group B - Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain
Group C - Australia, Denmark, France, Peru
Group E - Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland
Group F - Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden
Group G - Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia
Group H - Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal