Authors: Manav Jain, Matthew Hobbs, Colin Wong, Alex Madden, Stefan D’Ippolito
Player Cards: Colin Wong
Editor: Manav Jain
The 2022 World Cup is here! Despite untraditional circumstances, with the tournament taking place in the middle of the season, the top teams are here to play – seeking to bring home the biggest trophy in all of sport. The QSAO team is here to break down the five biggest contenders in this tournament. According to an average of 16 data-driven models predicting the World Cup (assembled by Jan Van Harren), there is a 57.47% chance that one of Argentina, Brazil, England, France, or Spain will reign victorious. Let’s have a look at how the sides stack up.
Championship Probability: 12.42%
Having a well-rounded team that just last year, won their first international trophy since 1993, Argentina are looking like legitimate contenders. Add on the important element that this will be the last World Cup for their captain and all time leading scorer, Lionel Messi, the Albicelestes should be more than up for making a deep run in the 2022 World Cup.
Argentina’s manager Lionel Scaloni took over the side after their Round of 16 exit in the 2018 World Cup. Since then, Argentina have only suffered defeat in four of the 50 games they have played, being unbeaten for over three years.
Unlike Argentina’s sides of the past that have focused on fitting in as many of their talented attackers as possible, this team is focused on creating a strong and secure defensive foundation and running their attacks through Lionel Messi. Without the ball, Argentina tend to maintain a 4-4-2 formation, with their intense midfielders and attack picking moments to press the opposition while relieving Messi of such responsibilities. In their own half, Argentina are very compact and tough to break through, sitting in a 4-4-1-1 formation, and leaving Messi free for any counter attacking opportunities.
Argentina’s Projected Starting XI and Key Substitutes
Argentina’s forward play is flexible, their attacking style is a mix of intricate passing buildups, as well as direct counter-attacks. Rather than being focused on a distinct method of attacking, Scaloni sets up his side to give his talented attackers the freedom of picking their opportunities to attack in different ways. Their formation in attack shifts to more of a 4-3-3, with the left sided midfielder tucking in and Ángel Di María pushing forward. Typically, the left back, Nicolás Tagliafico is given more license to get forward and overlap than his right sided equivalent.
Argentina’s build up play is variable, with the side willing to take both direct or measured approaches.
Liam Tharme/The Athletic
Since Scaloni has taken over, Argentina’s style has been focused on getting the best out of their star man, Lionel Messi. He enjoyed a fantastic 2021 Copa América campaign where he had 4 goals and 5 assists in 7 games. Lionel Messi’s strike partner for Argentina, whether it be Lautaro Martínez or Julián Álvarez will be intense defensively, picking up Messi’s defensive duties. In attack, Messi is at the centre of everything Argentina creates, and his performance in this World Cup will be a large amount of what decides Argentina’s fate. La Pulga is a complete attacking threat, ranking in the 99th percentile for dribbles completed, 98th percentile for non-penalty expected goals, and 97th percentile for expected assists .
Giovani Lo Celso has been an important part of Scaloni’s Argentina side, playing a hybrid role between being a defensively responsible left midfielder and defense, while being able to move into midfield when Argentina have possession. However, a muscle tear and a subsequent surgery has resulted in Lo Celso being ruled out of the World Cup, leaving an important gap in Argentina’s midfield. Filling this hole will likely be Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister who will be tasked with the responsibility of balancing his attacking and defensive responsibilities while playing a role he is not too familiar with. Mac Allister has enjoyed a fantastic start to the 2022-23 season with Brighton, albeit as more of a deep-lying playmaker. His ability to rise to the challenge in perform in this new role will be influential on how well Argentina will fare in this World Cup.
Championship Probability: 19.52%
The tournament favourites, Brazil are in fine form ahead of their 2022 World Cup campaign, having gone unbeaten in the qualifiers for the tournament through 17 games, and conceding just 5 goals over that span.
Brazil played in several different formations in qualifying, but have looked their best playing a 4-2-3-1. They will tend to switch to a 4-2-4 when attacking, with Neymar shifting from a traditional number 10 role into a more advanced position alongside the other striker, who was most often Richarlison. They can easily transition from defence to attack through their double pivot of Casemiro and Fred, the former having been a key in numerous Champions League-winning Real Madrid sides. The fullbacks tend to stay quite narrow and don’t typically push on, whereas the wingers like to stay high and wide, often hugging the touchlines. These tactics allow Brazil to get the best from their star man Neymar who can drop deep to get a pass or drift wide and collect from one of the fullbacks.
Brazil attempts to keep the ball in the midfield third, forcing the opposition to push up the pitch, after which they play balls for their attackers to run onto.
As far as the Starting XI goes, most players seem nailed on, but both ST and LB seem to be up for debate. Tite has seemed to prefer playing Richarlison up top, however, there is a question of whether Jesus’ excellent form for Premier League leaders Arsenal be enough for him to get into the Starting XI. A key element Jesus brings over Richarlison is his playmaking which might be necessary to break teams down. Alex Sandro seems the more likely left-back to start. However, his recent form might leave a spot for Telles in the lineup.
Brazil’s Projected Starting XI and Key Substitutes
Although it might be the most obvious pick, Neymar is certainly Brazil’s star player, and their success will rely primarily on getting the best out of him. His 8 goals and 8 assists in 10 matches led Brazil in both categories as he looks to continue that form into what he said could be his last World Cup. He ranks in the 99th percentile for Shot-Creating Actions per 90 (6.59) and Progressive Passes (6.59) per 90 showing his influence in Brazil’s attacking efforts as he often is involved in bringing the ball toward the goal or creating a shot opportunity for his teammates as well as scoring numerous himself.
A problem Brazil could find themselves in is needing something past the hour mark in a match, considering it would be expected that most teams will sit back against them. Thus, a fresh set of legs will be very important and as far as super subs go, Rodrygo finds himself right at the top of that list. Although the 21-year-old has not had many chances to play for Brazil in the qualifiers, his form at Real Madrid this season might be enough for him to make appearances off the bench for Brazil. His famous double against Manchester City in the latter stages of the 2nd leg of the Champions League semi-final still comes to mind as one of the most clutch performances in recent history. The right-winger ranks in the 96th percentile for Touches in the opponent’s penalty area per 90 with 6.72 as well as the 93rd percentile for pass completion % per 90 with 83.9%. The winger also averages over 3 shots per 90, meaning his intent towards goal could be vital in getting Brazil a late goal.
John Walton/PA Images/Imago Images
Championship Probability: 6.98%
England’s recent international form is a topic of great discussion approaching the world’s biggest sporting event. With two recent losses to Hungary, one to Italy and relegation in the Nations League Gareth Southgate’s job relies on a strong result in this World Cup.
Gareth Southgate’s brand of football is not very popular amongst fans. Many have said that England’s style of play is very boring and defensive. It is no secret that England plays a style of football that allows the opposing team to play onto them. While maintaining the pace of play, the side most often finds themselves in their own half, building up slowly and meticulously. With this in mind, England is forced to solely play on the counter and attack from set pieces. They ranked 1st in UEFA for set piece goals and 2nd in set piece xG during the World Cup Qualifiers. Another fair criticism heading Southgate’s way is their habit of parking the bus after taking leads in big games. Such was the case in the Euro 2020 Final, World Cup 2018 Semi-final, and the quarter-final in which they all failed to hold onto 1-0 leads.
Formation wise this World Cup, we will likely be seeing England play in a 4-3-3 formation with one defensive midfielder and two central midfielders. England can play very dynamically as sometimes they transition into a 4-2-3-1 with either Mount or Grealish taking the role of the number ten. During the European Championship, they also played a hybrid of 3-4-3 where Kyle Walker slipped into a centre-back role and Kieran Tripper into a right-wingback role. This will likely be the case in certain games later in the tournament where England faces higher-quality opposition. England can be very creative in attacking midfield as they have many players to fill the roles such as Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, and Mason Mount. All three can play on the wing as well.
England’s Projected Starting XI and Key Substitutes
The only place where England is non-negotiable is up front where Captain Harry Kane has featured in most games for the squad in the last 5 years. For both his goal-scoring ability and his creativity, Harry Kane is the man to lead England into Qatar. Second in all-time scoring for England at 51 goals, Kane’s finishing has been elite for years. He is also an incredible asset in the air, which plays to England’s liking of set pieces. Kane, scoring 16 of 19 senior England penalties is also an elite penalty taker, almost guaranteeing conversion for England in key moments.
With a burst of recent form from Arsenal’s wonder boy, Bukayo Saka is heading in the right direction to make a big impact for England in Qatar. Saka is a very busy attacker who gets tons of touches in the attacking third and will hopefully pair up well with Sterling and Kane as he does with Gabriel Jesus and Martinelli back in London. He is in the top 25% for all expected goals, assists, non-penalty goals, and total shots. His killer instinct in front of goal this year has been a key to Arsenal’s recent success as well as his ability to create big chances. Saka continuing his club form onto the international level will be crucial for England’s World Cup chances.
James Hill/New York Times
Championship Probability: 9.41%
As the reigning World Cup winners, France will be looking to become the first nation since Brazil (1958, 1962) to win back-to-back World Cup titles. Les Bleus will also be looking to end a World Cup champions’ curse dating back to 1998. Since 1998 there have been four World Cup winners from Europe (France 1998, Italy 2006, Spain 2010, and Germany 2014), all of whom have failed to progress from the group stage of the following tournament.
Injuries to key players Pogba, Kante, and Benzema have created chances for several less-established players like Tchouameni and Rabiot to step into the starting XI.
Benzema’s injury, in particular, will change the way that France will look to attack. Instead of Coach Didier Deschamps’ preferred 4-3-1-2 formation with fluid movement between the front three of Benzema, Mbappe, and Griezmann up top, he will likely shift to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Giroud leading the line and the trio of Mbappe, Griezmann, and Dembele behind him in support. Alternatively, Deschamps could lineup more defensively in a 4-3-3 shape, replacing one of his front four (likely Giroud or Dembele) with the more defensive-minded Camavinga or Guendouzi.
Statistically, Giroud and Benzema profile as very different players, highlighted by Giroud’s lack of involvement in build-up play as seen by his 22.15 passes attempted per 90 minutes (47th percentile), 0.84 progressive passes (16th percentile) and 0.2 dribbles completed (2nd percentile). Meanwhile, Benzema averages 44.61 passes attempted per 90 minutes (98th percentile), 3.78 progressive passes (96th percentile), and 0.89 dribbles completed (54th percentile).
Giroud likes to play as more of a target man, looking to get involved around the box often with his back to goal with balls played to feet or in the air, with the trio of players behind him looking to run into the space past him or to receive the ball in nearby positions with a short layoff. France will not rely on Giroud to score goals; in fact, he failed to score a goal or to even register a shot on target in the 2018 World Cup, the burden will instead be placed on the combination of Mbappe, Griezmann and Dembele.
France’s Projected Starting XI and Key Substitutes
With the Ballon D’or winning Benzema having to pull out of the French squad due to injury, France will need Mbappe to step up and score goals to go deep in the tournament. Mbappe comes into this World Cup looking to build on his last, where he scored 4 goals as a teenager and was awarded the Best Young Player Award. The now 23-year-old Frenchman has netted 12 goals in 14 Ligue 1 appearances this season for his club side PSG, ranking him in the 99th percentile of forwards in Europe’s Big 5 leagues for goals per 90 minutes, and has additionally ranked in the 99th percentile for total shots, non-penalty expected goals + assists, touches in the opposition box, and progressive passes received. The average of 11.76 progressive passes received per 90 minutes is a good representation of how Mbappe likes to play. He will be expected to exploit the spaces in behind opposition defences with frequent runs beyond the striker Giroud.
With injuries to established midfielders Pogba and Kante, France will be relying on Tchouameni to run the show in the midfield at this World Cup (and for many future tournaments). Having been signed for a reported €80 million fee last summer by Real Madrid (ESPN), expectations are high for the deep-lying midfielder. Tchouameni excels defensively both on the ground and in the air. According to FBREF, Tchouameni averages 2.72 interceptions per 90 minutes (99th percentile) and wins 2.19 aerial duels per 90 minutes (91 percentile). Tchouameni is also comfortable in possession and build-up play. The midfielder averages 5.61 progressive passes per 90 minutes (93rd percentile), completes an average of 68.4 passes per 90 minutes (91st percentile) and completes his passes at a rate of 88.3% (89th percentile). For France to go far in the tournament, a big performance from Tchouameni will be required. Expect Tchouameni to show why Real Madrid paid an initial fee of €80 million last summer to sign him from Monaco CF and to cement a place in the French starting XI moving forward.
Championship Probability: 9.14%
Spain has been a powerhouse in international football for many years with the heights of their power taking place from 2008-2012 when they won two Euros and one World Cup in succession. With the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas and many more in their prime, one can see why they were so dominant. Now with a fresh group of young and hungry Spaniards, the question remains, can they reach the heights that the legends of before achieved? With their strong showings in Euro 2020 and World Cup qualifiers one would be mistaken to think otherwise.
With the guidance of their manager, Luis Enrique, this young Spanish team encapsulates Spanish football to the fullest. They play high-possession football with their last time registering under 60% possession being in March 2020. Not only do they keep possession well, but they are one of the best-pressing teams in the tournament. In Euro 2020, Spain had a press success rate of 36.4%, rated first in the tournament. They also had the best Sequence Start Distance in the tournament at 47.3 meters, meaning they were winning the ball higher up the pitch than all the other teams. Spain tends to play in a 4-3-3 formation with one holding midfielder and two more creative outlets on either side of him. The four defenders usually play a high line to keep up with the press, with the fullback overlapping on occasion. With the fullbacks overlapping, the wingers tend to cut on the inside to allow space for them.
Spain’s Projected Starting XI and Key Substitutes
Despite only being 19 years old, Pedri has already established himself as a certified starter in Luis Enrique’s team. Pedri is essential in linking up the defence and the attack and he is in good form for Barcelona, where he plays his club football. Pedri is also an extremely effective transition player, averaging 5.42 progressive passes and receiving 4.57 progressive passes per 90 minutes played, which are in the 90th and 95th percentile respectively, of players in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Given Spain’s possession style of play, their midfield is of utmost importance in creating chances and organizing the press. This means Pedri will be tested on countless occasions but given what he has shown in his young career, there is every reason to believe he will continue to shine as Spain’s star player.
Even though Spain does an excellent job at keeping possession, they do not tend to put the ball in the back of the net as often as most would think. In World Cup qualifying, Spain averaged 1.87 goals per game. This does not seem awful, but when comparing Spain to the teams they were playing, such as when they put 4 goals past the 78th-ranked Georgia, this is not up to Spain’s standards. Also, when comparing them to other top nations, such as Germany, who averaged 3.6 goals per game and England, who averaged 3.9 goals per game, one can see the problem Spain has. Morata is key in fixing said problem and just might be the key to Spain winning the World Cup. Morata, like Spain, did not have a fantastic World Cup qualifying in terms of scoring. He averaged 0.37 goals per 90 minutes played. With that being said, Morata has enjoyed good club form this year averaging 0.53 goals per 90 in a very defensive Atletico Madrid side. If Morata can keep this form going, or even improve, then Spain has a very good chance at going all the way in this year’s World Cup.
With so many talented players and teams at the World Cup, results could go a number of ways. Sides that we have not even covered such as the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Uruguay, and more could all conceivably win the World Cup as well, it is tournament football after all. Let us know which side you think will triumph in 2022 on social media or the comment section below!
Data Sources: Jan Van Haaren, FBREF, The Athletic, ESPN, Tifo IRL, Transfermarkt