Four of the pre-tournament powerhouses — Argentina, Brazil, France and Germany — mustered just one narrow win and two draws between them in their opening group games at the World Cup. Here’s a look at their early shortcomings.
Argentina’s problem seems obvious: profligacy. Iceland took an absolute hammering in the sides’ 1-1 draw, facing down 27 shots from some of the world’s best attackers. Argentina also had 10 corners, 25 crosses, 78 per cent possession and made 751 passes, but could not find a way through for a second goal.
The biggest culprit was also the side’s biggest talisman. Lionel Messi had 11 shots without scoring — including his saved penalty — which was the most taken fruitlessly at a World Cup finals since 1970.
Maybe it was just one of those days for Messi, but — as ever where Barcelona’s forward is concerned — you wonder what influence Cristiano Ronaldo’s own display the previous night for Portugal against Spain might have had on him. Was he trying too hard, attempting to replicate the impact of his Real Madrid rival’s hat-trick? If so, he needs to detach and relax. The more he tried against Iceland, the more he seemed to struggle.
In their next game, against Croatia on Thursday, they cannot be so wasteful.
Brazil had 21 shots taken by 11 different players in their draw against Switzerland at the weekend, as well as seven corners, but their one concern in attack is with Neymar and how he was stifled.
The Paris St-Germain striker became the most fouled player in a World Cup match in 20 years: of Switzerland’s 19 fouls in the game, 10 were on Neymar. Valon Behrami was chief enforcer in Rostov, tracking the forward all over the pitch, eventually running out of steam by 70 minutes.
Part of the problem stemmed from Neymar taking on too much responsibility. He attempted 11 dribbles but completed just five. He needs more support.
Brazil did not dominate the game to the same extent as some of their big rivals in the opening matches, with negligible territorial advantage over the 90 minutes and less possession in the first half. They lost the ball 124 times — just less than Switzerland’s 130.
Casemiro needs to take these games by the scruff of the neck from his role in midfield, as he did so well for Real Madrid in Europe last season. Their next test will come on Friday against the compact Costa Rica, but Brazil have the talent to unpick the midfield.
France scraped past Australia, relying on the video assistant referee and goal-line technology to win 2-1. The squad has been feted as the most valuable in the tournament, worth 950 million pounds (about $1.7 billion), but there are question marks over how Didier Deschamps deployed the front three of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe.
The 4-3-3 formation was unfamiliar — Deschamps had used 4-4-2 in qualifying and 4-3-1-2 in the warm-up friendlies — and it showed.
The heat map for Griezmann, Dembele and Mbappe shows how lopsided France were, with too much emphasis on their left-hand flank.
Dembele did not take a shot in 70 minutes and lost the ball 14 times. Griezmann did not make a tackle and lost it 13 times, but did have three shots on target, including a goal from the penalty spot. Mbappe had one shot.
Peru and Denmark should provide stronger opposition than Australia but, with France’s depth and obvious ability, the group stage should still be easily navigated.
Joshua Kimmich was hailed as the best right-back in the world after his Euro 2016 performances, playing in the position vacated by the retired Philipp Lahm. In the defeat by Mexico, he had just 18 touches in his own half and spent most of his time bombing forward.
He lost the ball 19 times, the second-most in the team, and did not make a tackle. This irked Mats Hummels, playing in central defence, who did not hold back when he said: “If seven or eight players attack, then it’s clear the offensive force is greater than the defensive stability.”
In midfield, the blame was shared. Mesut Ozil won only one of his seven duels and did not make a tackle. Thomas Muller did not muster a shot and had a pass completion rate of 71 per cent. He gave the ball away 22 times. Sami Khedira, taken off after an hour, did not make a tackle and gave the ball away for Mexico’s goal.
Germany have plenty of European and World Cup winners, but they badly underperformed. Defensive discipline and midfield steel are required in their remaining group games.