Football expert Michael Cox reviews Group E from the World Cup and provides his best tips.
Brazil have been somewhat unpredictable over the past 20 years: they were highly fancied ahead of 1998, 2006, 2010 and 2014 and failed to lift the trophy, but were widely written off in 2002 and then won seven straight matches. This time around, they’re generally considered favourites – so, if the previous pattern continues, they’ll presumably prove underwhelming again.
Brazil have looked very impressive since the appointment of Tite in 2016. He’s continued with the somewhat unBrazilian 4-3-3 introduced by his predecessor Dunga, and Brazil now use a functional midfield trio who keep their shape and allow the talented forwards to shine.
The front three will be comprised of Gabriel Jesus leading the line, Neymar drifting inside from his favoured inside-left position, and Philippe Coutinho in a right-sided role. All three are extremely talented players, and fully capable of linking smoothly.
There are question marks, however: Jesus is talented rather than proven at the highest level, Neymar has struggled with injury in recent months and might not be fully fit, and Coutinho is being played in a slightly unfamiliar position. There are other options, with Roberto Firmino unfortunate to be overlooked as first-choice centre-forward, and Douglas Costa able to provide width. Tite likes this trio, however, with Neymar obviously the main man.
The midfield is classically Brazilian – in other words, it’s about positional discipline rather than flair. Despite Brazil’s reputation for samba football, they’ve generally depended upon two solid midfielders over the years, and Tite is arguably using three. Paulinho plays the most attack-minded role, breaking forward into goalscoring positions in a workmanlike but unquestionably effective role, and he might be a decent outside bet for first goalscorer in tight matches.
Fernandinho plays in a more advanced role than he’s accustomed to at Manchester City these days, with Casemiro in the holding role. None of these three can be considered outright playmakers, but all are comfortable on the ball. Casemiro’s possession play has improved considerably over the last couple of years and he’ll play a key role here.
The defence, however, doesn’t look convincing. The injury suffered by Dani Alves means Danilo will probably beat Fagner to the right-back role, but he’s not the most solid player. On the opposite flank Marcelo is capable of brilliance but is also found wanting defensively – he was Brazil’s worst player in the infamous 7-1 loss to Germany four years ago, constantly vacating his position as Germany counter-attacked quickly. In the middle, Thiago Silva looks increasingly immobile, although his partnership with Marquinhos from PSG is clearly very useful. Alisson is a fine goalkeeper, too.
There are a surprising number of question marks, however, for a side now considered the favourites – a dependence upon Neymar, a lack of guile from deep, defensively questionable full-backs and perhaps some psychological scars from 2014 too. Germany and Spain both appear more cohesive, complete sides – Brazil will probably breeze into the quarter-finals, but they seem a little underpriced.
Brazil’s first opponents will be Switzerland, who arrive at this tournament in pretty much the same shape they’re always in, with no notable additions to the squad since Euro 2016.
The list of strengths and weaknesses is therefore entirely familiar. Switzerland have a good defensive record despite slightly below-par centre-backs, and their full-back duo of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez is amongst the best in the competition. Rodriguez’s left-footed set-piece delivery should be particularly handy.
In midfield Switzerland are combative and protect the defence well, but lack genuine creativity. Blerim Dzemaili looks set to play the most advanced role when he’s really more of a deep midfielder, which summarises the situation neatly. The creativity, of course, comes from Xherdan Shaqiri on the right, who has a habit of lightning up international tournaments, scoring a hattrick four years ago and a memorable bicycle kick at Euro 2016. He’ll drift inside with the slightly over-the-hill Lichtsteiner’s overlapping runs keeping the width.
There’s too much dependence upon Shaqiri, though. Breel Embolo is likely to provide the speed, probably from the left, but Haris Seferovic doesn’t score enough goals upfront, although his movement is often excellent. Switzerland reached the first knockout stage of both World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016 and will probably replicate that achievement in somewhat boring fashion.
Their main challengers are Serbia, who they’ll meet in a potentially crucial second group game in Kaliningrad on June 27th. Serbia have boasted a solid selection of defenders for the last decade, but now offer more attacking thrust too – at least on paper.
Branislav Ivanovic and Matija Nastasic will play at the back, with Aleksandar Kolarov bombing forward from the left. Like Switzerland’s Rodriguez, his set-piece delivery will be more important than his overlapping in open play. The holding midfield duo of Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic is excellent and could help Serbia to outplay the Swiss – and perhaps control the game in spells against Brazil.
Serbia certainly have talent going forward, although a lack of consistency. Dusan Tadic should play from the right, jinking past full-backs before crossing, but his end product is unreliable. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is a hugely vaunted young number 10, but he’s barely played for Serbia and therefore we can’t really judge his relationship with his teammates. Filip Kostic, on the left, could be useful in a group featuring unconvincing right-backs. Upfront, Aleksandar Mitorvic is an old-school number nine who might be suited to the slightly slower pace of international football.
But there are several question marks about Serbia. Coach Mladen Krstajic has only been in charge since October and has no previous coaching experience. There was a shift from a three-man defence to a back four, which has harmed cohesion at the back. There have been questions about the level of squad harmony after Ivanovic was stripped of the captaincy in favour of Kolarov, and there’s probably too much expectation upon Milinkovic-Savic considering his lack of experience at this level. Serbia look better on paper than on the pitch.
Costa Rica are the outsiders – and while they successfully overcame that tag to win a much harder group four years ago, a repeat performance seems unlikely this time around.
Costa Rica almost unchanged from their run to the World Cup 2014 quarter-finals, still using a 3-4-3 system. The defensive trio of Johnny Acosta, Oscar Duarte and Giancarlo Gonzalez work excellently together and hold a good offside line, with Bryan Oviedo and Christian Gamboa overlapping well. Carlo Borges and Yeltsin Tejeda are two technically gifted holding midfielders who will remain in their position and guard against counter-attacks.
Going forward there are two main threats: the speed of Joel Campbell, and the guile of Bryan Ruiz. They combine well on occasion, particularly on the break, but both have endured underwhelming periods at club level. Daniel Colindres or Rodney Wallace appear likely to complete the front three, providing width.
Progression from the group seems unlikely. But Costa Rica defeated the USA twice, and Mexico once, in qualification, their defensive record is good, and they collect a lot of draws, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them frustrating a disjointed Serbia side in their opening game.
See all of Michael's other group previews here:
Group D - Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
Group C - Australia, Denmark, France, Peru
Group B - Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain
Group A - Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay