The very best teams at the World Cup may make their opponents weak at the knees but, dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find that even the big boys are facing big questions.
Here we probe the elite’s frailties and potential solutions starting with the top contenders from Groups A through D: Spain, Portugal, France and Argentina.
Problem: Choosing the most effective striker
The era of Fernando Torres and David Villa this is decidedly not. Such is the murkiness around Spain’s best forward options that it was judged more than a mild shock that a misfiring Alvaro Morata was deemed surplus to requirements.
Diego Costa, Iago Aspas and Rodrigo have all had their moments in a Spain shirt but none of them fit like a glove around La Roja’s sleight of hand. Costa started the friendly draw with Switzerland and though he dwarfs his midfield minions in physicality, too often he scuppers attacks with a sub-par first touch.
Aspas – once a figure of fun at Liverpool, now a 20-plus goal-a-season marksman for Celta Vigo – and Valencia’s Rodrigo are both in their element when playing off the last man as opposed to playing pinball in the final third.
Solution: Start with a false No.9
Spain coach Julen Lopetegui could just adapt his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with a striker who isn’t truly there – the false No.9.
If any side are set up to do just that, it’s Spain. David Silva, Marco Asensio and Isco, with one of Thiago or Koke alongside Andres Iniesta, will be able to suck defenders into the abyss.
A free-roaming Isco can open up pockets of space – he’s Lionel Messi-lite for Spain – and then La Roja, so often accused of being one-dimensional, have a Plan B (Costa) and Plan C (Rodrigo/Aspas) off the bench.
Problem: Severe lack of pace in defence
The combined age of Pepe, Bruno Alves and Jose Fonte is 105. That’s enough to make us all feel young again.
Experience only makes up for so much of this. Pepe now plays for Besiktas, not Real Madrid, Fonte’s first game for Chinese club Dalian Yifang ended in an 8-0 defeat while Alves played just 20 league games for Rangers last season.
Protecting the centre-back pairing in midfield is William Carvalho, a brute of a man who is quietly skillful yet has not been blessed with pace.
This means the back-line has to sit deep with or without the ball – such is the risk they will be beaten over the top or slow to react to a sudden loss of possession.
Solution: Play Ruben Dias
On one hand the World Cup isn’t the ideal time to introduce the next generation. On the other hand four years is a long time to wonder what could have been.
Benfica centre-back Ruben Dias, who is just 21, earned his first cap last month and has been linked with a big-money move to Arsenal.
Tender in years he may be but he has swiftly been nicknamed ‘the Bodyguard’ given his manhandling of more experienced opponents.
Dias can make up for in athleticism what the wily Pepe lacks if played alongside him. Youth worked in Portugal’s favour with Renato Sanches two years ago – fingers crossed against a similar regression.
Problem: How to get the best out of Paul Pogba
While Paul Pogba gets a new haircut each week, many of his well-wishers simply tear their follicles out in frustration.
The player who threatened to be great at Juventus has not shown a single shred of consistency for Manchester United, and crucially for Didier Deschamps, France.
Too often apologists have claimed Pogba need only play in his favoured position on the left of a midfield three but he does so for Les Bleus on a regular basis and is just as likely to gallop around aimlessly as he is to make jaws drop in the right way.
Solution: Drop Pogba
If Deschamps needs reminding, he has a coterie of talent at his disposal. While it could be argued that Pogba is the most naturally gifted of the lot there are numerous players in the squad who have enjoyed far more productive seasons.
With N’Golo Kante the forager and Blaise Matuidi yo-yoing from box to box, France need someone who can consistently make the right decisions and speed play up for Antoine Griezmann et al.
Step forward Liverpool-bound Nabil Fekir, who arrives in Russia after an incredible season for Lyon that saw him score 18 goals and set up countless more.
It’s time to put ‘reputations’ to one side.
Problem: Fixing a disjointed attack
As foolish as it sounds to criticise an attacking line-up that boasts Messi, Argentina were simply hideous on the goals front during their qualification campaign.
Jorge Sampaoli’s side mustered 19 goals in 18 games. The situation was so dire that he was forced to drop serial Serie A goal-getters Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Mauro Icardi due to their ineffectiveness.
Only Icardi failed to make the cut but there are still concerns. Sampaoli has admitted Dybala occupies too many of the same spaces as Messi – while Higuain is now arguably past his peak as the spearhead.
To make matters worse Manuel Lanzini, a viable option as an inside forward or just behind, succumbed to a summer-ending knee injury on Friday.
Solution: Create width
Argentina have had a ramshackle build-up, playing just one warm-up game, but extra time on the training pitch should do them good (apart from the unfortunate Lanzini).
Let Messi do whatever he wants. He know better than you, me and Sampaoli. But the Chilean coach should hammer into his players the importance of width.
With Sampaoli veering towards a 4-4-2 formation, and Lanzini out, Di Maria and Dybala are now seemingly their best options on the wings.
They will naturally drift inside on occasion, of course, but not to the extent that they cross wires with Messi. And a few crosses out wide should help extract the best out of Higuain. It’ll be difficult on the right for either left-footed player. They should be talented enough to adapt.
How could a talent judged PFA Young Player of the Year for his searing exploits with the runaway Premier League champions be so swiftly judged expendable by Germany? Even for holders possessed of such depth of outstanding performers, the call appeared mystifying to dump the 22-year-old in favour of Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt.
“Leroy is a huge talent,” explained head coach Joachim Low. “He will be back again from September.
“He had not arrived in international matches yet. It was a very close decision.
“If it was a 100-metre race, it would have been a photo finish.”
These words, taken in isolation, do not prove why the £37 million (Dh179.4m) signing from Schalke 04 in August 2016 will be sitting out this summer’s major event. This is how Low came to his decision.
SANE’S STRONG CASE
It’s only fair to outline at this point just how exceptional Sane’s 2017/18 was.
His 15 assists from 32 run-outs put him just one behind colleague Kevin De Bruyne as the top creator in the English top flight. Indeed, the Belgium attacking midfielder was the only performer in Europe’s top-five leagues to tee up more.
Spain wizard and club-mate David Silva has long been considered the division’s leading creative force – he registered four fewer.
The addition of an impressive tally of 10 strikes means there will be no surprise to learn this was by far the most productive league campaign of his fledgling career.
To detail the startling jump in output from his debut season at Etihad Stadium in 2016/17, his goal count doubled (from five) and he set-up five-times more (from three) via only six fewer appearances.
On numbers alone, there is only one winner when contrasted with Brandt.
Sane’s fellow 22-year-old played 34 times in the Bundesliga for his fifth-placed employers.
From two more games than Sane, but 86 fewer minutes, he produced one less goal (nine) and 12 less assists (three).
Sane’s minutes per goal or assist in the Premier League was 96.9. For Brandt, this more than doubles to 194.8.
Why then did the former Wolfsburg youth product get the nod from Low?
CENTRE OF THE ISSUE
Sane has wreaked havoc at Man City by hugging the left touchline, getting 15 assists and six goals from that position in 29 2017/18 Champions League or Premier League appearances.
Enlightened club head coach Pep Guardiola decided his unrelenting pace and dribbling skills at speed would be best utilised away from the middle ground in his usual 4-3-3 formation.
At international level, no such individual accommodation exists.
In the 4-2-3-1 utilised by Low, pure wingers do not exist. They transform into forwards, tasked with cutting inside and providing link-up options with a central striker – most probably RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner.
Brandt, Borussia Dortmund’s resurgent Marco Reus, Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller and Paris Saint-Germain’s Julian Draxler regularly play this way at club level and will be expected to do the same for their country.
But when the space gets constricted, so does Sane’s output. His touch becomes uncertain under pressure, especially with his back to goal.
A final cameo for a World Cup spot came in Saturday’s 2-1 friendly defeat at Austria. He was hooked after 67 ineffective minutes for Reus, an attacker perfectly familiar with the demands of Low’s deployment.
All of Sane’s senior international caps have been won during the current regime. He is currently scoreless in 12 matches, getting just one assist for Bayern-bound Leon Goretzska during October’s 5-1 competitive routing of Azerbaijan.
Only 114 minutes were handed to Sane during Die Mannschaft’s charge to a perfect 30-point haul from qualifying.
Germany are now experiencing an unexpected five-match winless run in preparatory matches.
Sane started three of these (England 0-0 Germany, Germany 0-1 Brazil, Austria 2-1 Germany), came on as a substitute in another (Germany 1-1 Spain) and remained on the bench for one more (Germany 2-2 France). He featured for 237 of the available 450 minutes in this frustrating period, not even contributing an assist.
GERMANY’S SHOW OF STRENGTH
In fairness to Sane, only Muller – deployed on the right flank – managed to score during this fallow period.
His equaliser in March’s warm-up against Spain makes him stand alone among the other wide forwards who will make the trip to Russia. Reus, Brandt and Draxler contributed neither a goal or an assist.
But Low holds the belief that his way of playing is alien to Sane, and familiar to the others. The City man has been handed ample recent opportunity to show he can fit these parameters – and failed.
Germany’s talent pool is so deep that a player can be adjudged superfluous who would be in the top-three performers for most other nations.
Regardless of their current travails, this is an ominous message for all other contenders in Russia.
Spain’s slightly concerning 1-1 draw with Switzerland on Sunday night – plenty of possession but little punch – was mitigated by the absence of several important players.
Midfield lynchpin Sergio Busquets will return for the World Cup Finals to add his trademark combination of poise and precision, the centre of the defence will be strengthened by the presence of emblematic skipper Sergio Ramos, and the right-flank raiding of Dani Carvajal will provide a more regular supply of attacking threat from that wing (notwithstanding deputy Alvaro Odriozola’s fine goal).
Perhaps the most important player of all those missing on Sunday, however, was Real Madrid star Isco, who has the chance to play the vital role as the most incisive of all Spain’s gifted midfielders during the upcoming festivities in Russia – and by this weekend’s evidence, that ability will be pivotal to La Roja’s hopes.
The problem for Julen Lopetegui’s men against Switzerland was a simple one: although they produced plenty of silky approach play, too few of their players looked like scoring.
David Silva and Andres Iniesta are both marvellous players, of course, but they are more likely to weave past a couple of defenders on the edge of the box rather than delivering the final killer touch themselves.
Koke is also more effective deeper, creating with the ball and pressing the opposition when it is lost, and Busquets hardly ever contributes in the scoring column.
The frontman position is a real concern, with Diego Costa looking out of shape against Switzerland and Lopetegui appearing to be unconvinced by the other options provided by Rodrigo and Iago Aspas, who are both very inexperienced at international level with a combined total of just 14 caps.
Spain will look good at the World Cup, we know that much. But who will score their goals?
The answer could be Isco, who showed his ability to do just that when he last pulled on the national team jersey, recording a brilliant hat-trick in March’s 6-1 demolition of Argentina to take his overall tally to a respectable 10 goals in 27 international outings.
Isco, of course, is not a striker. He can line up anywhere in midfield, and is likely to occupy one of the wide positions in the front three – probably with Silva on the other side – when the serious action gets underway with a mouth-watering group opener against Portugal a week on Friday.
But he has always been a regular on the scoresheet, going right back to his early days with Malaga when he scored 12 goals from the left wing as the Andalusian team enjoyed an excellent 2012/13 season under Manuel Pellegrini, reaching the Champions League quarter-finals.
The goals have continued to flow freely during his five seasons with Real Madrid, where he has registered a total of 41 in 240 outings – a much better record than it sounds when you consider that around a third of total appearances have been brief incursions from the bench and that he has been subbed out in many other games.
During Spain’s excellent qualifying campaign, Isco’s five goals made him the team’s joint leading scorer – even though he was only on the pitch for a total of 399 minutes, less than four and a half full matches. And when you include his friendly goals against Argentina and England, the Madrid man has notched a total of nine goals in his last 11 outings.
Taken as a per-90 minutes ratio, Isco’s scoring record over the course of his career is not too far from one in every other game, and it is that kind of scoring rate – three or four over the course of a seven-game tournament – which could make all the difference to his team’s success in Russia.
So the numbers make it very clear that Isco’s goalscoring ability will be a major asset this summer, and it is also perhaps the biggest argument for including the powerful if erratic Costa as the starting striker ahead of the more nimble skills of Rodrigo and Aspas.
Costa, even when he is misfiring in front of goal, is such a dominant physical presence that he demands attention from opposing defenders, who know he will simply barge his way through to goal if he is left unhindered.
This, if nothing else, does one crucial thing: it creates space for his teammates. And it is that space which Isco, more than any other player in the Spain squad other than Aspas, can exploit to score.
These demands are somewhat new for Isco. With his club side, goals are a bonus rather than an expected part of his role, with others – notably Cristiano Ronaldo – picking up most of the burden in that department.
On the international scene, though, it’s a different matter and Spain’s relative lack of scoring options give more prominence to that aspect of Isco’s game.
If he can take his scoring boots to Russia, he could play a major role in his country becoming world champions.