Five World Cup tactical trends to look out for

This World Cup is unlike any other for many reasons.

on the pitch, Leeds United head coach and The Athletic guest writer Jesse Marsh described international and club football as “almost two different sports”.

Much has been made of club seasons, player fatigue and limited preparation time with the physiological effects of playing and training conditions in the Middle Eastern heat in the week leading up to the opening game, but what does it all mean tactically?

Four games a day for almost every part of the group stage makes it easy to get bogged down in football. To help you navigate, The Athletic Our detailed eight-team guide breaks down the five tactical trends you need to keep an eye on.

  • Group A: Netherlands, Senegal, Ecuador, Qatar
  • Group B: England, USA, Iran, Wales
  • Group C: Mexico, Argentina, Poland, Saudi Arabia
  • Group D: France, Denmark, Tunisia, Australia
  • Group E: Spain, Costa Rica, Germany, Japan
  • Group F: Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia
  • Group G: Cameroon, Serbia, Brazil, Switzerland
  • Group H: South Korea, Portugal, Uruguay, Ghana

The Rebirth and Resurgence of #10

Juan Mata reported in 2019 The Athletic The number 10 role is “perhaps not extinct, but not used as much as before”.



The death of #10? Keep going, Dad

But such is the cyclical nature of football that this World Cup seems to be the tournament for No.10.

Gareth Southgate’s rationale for selecting Leicester City’s in-form playmaker James Maddison in the final 26: “There were times when we (England) were playing 4-3-3, there’s no No.10-type profile and that’s not right. “.

Maddison is unlikely to start in Qatar, although a slight knee injury could keep him out of England’s opener against Iran, despite many having fielded their squad 10th among the 32 nations.

The most obvious of these is Brazil, with Neymar given license to roam, dropping deeper to find gaps between the lines or receive passes from central defenders.

This was shown in his assist for Richarlison against Ghana in September – starting high, he delayed Thiago Silva’s midfield pass…

…and finds Richarlison who scores.

Japan switched from the 4-3-3 in qualifying to a 4-2-3-1 for a friendly against the USA in September. Head coach Hajime Moriyasu said it was “seeing how we can bring out the best in each player.” Eintracht Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada looks set to be their first-choice No.10, but former Liverpool striker Takumi Minamino, who joined Monaco in the summer, could also play there.

Germany are short on attacking midfielders, with Jamal Musiala and Thomas Müller two of the top contenders for the No.10 spot in Hansi Flick’s squad.

Christian Eriksen feels like the most authentic No.10 to ever play for Qatar.

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For Denmark’s opening goal in their Nations League meeting with world champions France in September, he is in Eduardo Camavinga’s blind spot before going into space to collect Pierre-Emile Hoiberg’s pass…

…and a diagonal switch play to left winger Mikkel Damsgaard.

While those No.10s have thrived in teams that play with a back four, the role of back three sides has been reinvented.

Dusan Tadic and Cody Gakpo are 10th for Serbia and the Netherlands, who play in a 3-4-1-2 formation. They still have the same creative and goal-setting duties, but more importantly play the role of a link between the central midfielders and the forward wing-backs.

Belgium and Canada use a back three with twin No.10s playing in front of a double midfield pivot, although the latter are more tactically flexible. Often, their midfielders are not positionally tight, with No.10s dropping deeper to receive passes and positional rotations. The tactical benefit of this is the numerical advantage it offers against teams with a three-man midfield.

Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne and Canada’s Alphonso Davies stand out and have their most devastating moments when receiving passes in the half-space.

Below, Canada play in a back three (passes are shown as solid white arrows on the holders), before left-sided centre-back Kamal Miller splits Uruguay’s midfield with an angled pass to Davies (blue arrow).

Belgium and Canada face each other in the Group E opener on Wednesday, which could make for an interesting tactical battle for the No.10.

Not to be overlooked: Neymar (Brazil), Eriksen (Denmark), Kamada (Japan), Muller (Germany), Davies and Junior Hoilett (Canada), De Bruyne and Eden Hazard (Belgium).

Marked piece advantage

The 2018 World Cup was famous for its record-breaking kits and this seemed to underline their importance at domestic level, where many clubs employ coaches.

Despite this being the first VAR World Cup, Russia have scored more than one goal per quarter from set pieces in three of the four major continental tournaments since 2018.

Setting goals in major tournaments


Percentage of targets set

America’s Cup 2021


Gold Cup 2021


Euro 2020


Asian Cup 2019


World Cup 2018


FIFA’s technical team called the return of goals for 2018 “easy to practice, hard to defend”, making them a legitimately taught way to create coincidences.

Ecuador were the leading South American qualifiers, delivering from both sides — right-footed Angel Mena and left-footed Pervis Estupinan.

Ecuador kits – WCQ 2022

They crowd the players around the penalty area, and the runners scatter in different directions to make a clean run for the ball, creating chaos. Center back Piero Hincapie is their biggest aerial threat.

Ecuador deploys a player towards the back post and uses a cluster near the penalty area as a trick.

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England (13) and Wales (10) were Europe’s top two teams for goals scored in qualifying and will meet in the Group B final next Tuesday. Rob Page’s Wales side didn’t just score themselves, they also scored against their opponents – they looked to start counter-attacks by keeping several players high when defending corners.

This can be seen against the Czech Republic in last October’s World Cup qualifier, when last goalscorer Aaron Ramsey hit Ethan Ampadu…

… Daniel James dribbled before passing to Neko Williams.

Williams then found Ramsey running in with an early cross – just 16 seconds elapsed between the Czech’s corner kick and their own goal.

American midfielder Weston McKenney offers the most promising long throw of the tournament. Coach Gregg Berhalter hasn’t used it often in qualifying, but it was evident in a 2-0 loss to Canada in January.

South Korea’s Son Hyun Min poses a threat on a direct free kick. He scored three goals for the national team this calendar year.

Specialists needed: Ecuador, USA, England, South Korea, Wales.

Wait for middle blocks through high pressing

To press effectively, you need two things: a consistent press structure — players know who to press, how and when to press — and lots of energy.

Since the group’s draw in April, analysts and coaches have had plenty of time to decipher their opponents’ formation patterns, formations and tendencies, but with limited time to physically prepare players, coaching the press would be difficult.

Either way, pushing the highs in this World Cup may not be a risk worth taking given the level of fatigue players face.

Instead, teams sit deeper and try to squeeze the middle third of the pitch – the middle block.

Teams can then get out of shape when opportunities arise, such as loose passes, but generally expect to see a more passive than active defense.

As shown below, Costa Rica, Tunisia and Qatar favor a central block, squeezing their wings together with central midfielders.

This can increase the frequency of set pieces: if more sides are defended deeper, teams are more likely to move the ball forward. This means more crosses and passes into the box, resulting in fouls (free kicks) closer to the goal and more corners and throw-ins.

Expected teams: Costa Rica, Tunisia, Wales, Ghana, Qatar.

Note the “finisher”.

It’s a term attributed to England rugby union coach Eddie Jones and Southgate cited it in reference to Jude Bellingham’s role at last year’s European Championships.

Having substitutes who can have a positive impact on the outcome is very important in tournament football. Given the increase in teams compared to four years ago (from 23 to 26) and the number of substitutions allowed per game (from three to five), it’s even more possible for players to have an impact off the bench.

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Sarina Wigman coached England to women’s European glory this summer.



Football ‘Finishers’: The Psychology and Tactics Behind Holding’s ‘Off’ Role

This is the first World Cup where coaches can use five units per game, and a sixth if a tie in the knockout stages goes to extra time.

Given that many players are fatigued entering this mid-season tournament, more substitutions than usual can be expected. This rule also lends itself to the romance of bringing in a specialist goalkeeper for penalty shootouts.

Brighton & Hove Albion’s Kaoru Mitoma scored twice in seven minutes to win Japan’s final and decisive qualifier away to Australia in March, making him famous as a finger forward.

Youngster Garang Kuol has made an impact as a substitute at club level in the A-League and also came off the bench to inspire Australia to victory over New Zealand in September.

Olivier Giroud is the second-highest goalscoring substitute in Premier League history (20) and should offer Didier Deschamps a reliable Plan B for France if he does not start after Karim Benzema was ruled out through injury. He could start for Wales, but Kieffer Moore is a similar target man/air threat profile.

Expected finishers: Mitoma (Japan), Kuole (Australia), Giroud (France), Moore (Wales)

Turn player patterns when playing from behind

The limited time to prepare for this World Cup should reduce the tactical complexity of the tournament, but many sides are making interesting use of the central midfielders to attack the goal.

For teams that play with a back four, dropping a midfield kick between the center backs creates a functional back three.

This relatively simple rotation can control the opposition’s defence, encouraging them to push forward. He offers wider passing angles to the midfielders and can give teams an extra body to build plays around, while also providing extra cover if a pass is intercepted.

It could be as simple as teams having the best ball-forwards playing in central midfield, but this pattern makes them drop more on the ball.

Under Berhalter, the U.S. regularly drops a flat player — that’s Tyler Adams below — pushing the full backs (marked by the yellow dots) forward between or next to the center backs.

Uruguay used Federico Valverde in this role in their last warm-up game against Canada last month…

…and it was Iddrisu Baba for Ghana against Nigeria in the World Cup play-offs in March…

…and Ellies Skhiri will do well in this quarterback-style role for Tunisia.

Places of interest: Tunisia, Uruguay, Ghana, USA.



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