Three teams that have dominated the World Cup so far are Belgium, England and Croatia. Although there are other respectable candidates like Mexico and France, I find these three to be the most talented, dangerous teams of the group stage. They have vast differences, but they have one thing in common, they have a great collective strategy. This tournament proves that individualism has come to an end, and collective approaches prevail categorically. I argue that Belgium, England and Croatia are favorites of this tournament since they have this categorical difference from other teams.
First, let's start with Belgium, the team I find most enjoyable. Added to their world-class squad, they have a great coach, Roberto Martinez. Their offensive creativity and efficiency is what differentiates Belgium from other teams. They are able to score against any opponent regardless of their strength, because they have the deadly combo of a collective strategy with talented players in the front. Under Kevin de Bruyne's command, their attacks are intended to create time and space for Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard with quick counters or sudden long-balls. The latter is very important since it is a component that is found in England too. Sending sudden long-balls to shift wings proved to be extremely effective for Belgium.
However, Martinez's team has a rather vulnerable defensive line, as they conceded two goals against a barely attacking Tunisia. Since they play with three men on defense, Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier play very offensively in the wings. This leaves the back of Belgium's wings open to their opponents' wingers, effectively stretching Belgium's defensive line and creating more time and space in the penalty box. It would not be surprising to see that teams facing Belgium will drive the ball to the wings regularly.
Next stop is England, a team very similar to Belgium. Except the fact that Gareth Southgate's team plays with only one defensive midfielder, the two teams use the same formation. They also utilize quick counters and sudden long-balls, but not as well as Belgium. As the second half of their game against Tunisia showed, when their opponent opts for strict defense, England struggles to find opportunities. But apart from that, they infiltrate into their opponent's defense with great efficiency as Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli are key players on offense. They stretch their opponents with Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier going forward in the wings, and when their target men have enough time and space, they turn the ball into the middle.
Nevertheless, just as Belgium, they also have problems with three men defense and their wings are vulnerable against fast wingers. If an opponent can push Young and Trippier back into defense, they will not only push the game into England's half but also eliminate the dangerous offensive strategy of Southgate.
Finally, Croatia is probably the most balanced team of the World Cup. They certainly do not play like England and Belgium, and they use a strict and disciplined counter-attacking. What makes Croatia so powerful is that they can launch counters so fast without losing their defensive shape. They press their opponent in the final third and do not let them build their game. This allows Croatia to intercept the ball in a very dangerous zone with plenty of forward players. The defensive discipline of their forward players is key to their success, since they do more defensive work than defenders themselves. Against Argentina, the Croatian forward line did not allow Argentinian defenders to build their game and crippled Sampaoli's team around their penalty box. Thus, without having a direct offensive set-piece, Croatia finds opportunities through collective counter-pressing.
Their weakness could be their opponents using long-balls to evade counter-pressing. Although a chaotic strategy, without a strong build-up plan on defense, is the only way to evade counter-pressing. Teams like Belgium and England will be the biggest challenge to Croatia.
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