Germany, the defending World Cup champion, is one of the favorites to win the tournament — FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index ranks Die Mannschaft third behind only Brazil and Spain. Although their personnel may have evolved over the past few years, the Germans still maintain a style of methodical possession football that has been consistently successful on the world stage over the past 15 years. They don’t face any particularly fierce challenges in this relatively soft group; they were rather lucky to catch Mexico in a down year, a tame Swedish side and a South Korean team that is one of the weakest in the field.
Legit contender or paper tiger?
Germany’s style is similar to that of fellow contender Spain. The team deploys a host of midfielders and wingers who are comfortable in possession of the ball. It looks to strangle the game by keeping possession and using intricate passing moves to build dynamite chances for its attackers in the box. Only Spain creates more attacks from slow possessions (possessions that involve 10 or more passes before the ball is played into the attacking penalty area) than Germany’s 6.45 per game.
Germany’s lineup has shifted over the years to suit this style. Gone are the days of Bastian Schweinsteiger’s powerful runs from midfield. After Schweinsteiger’s retirement from the international game, Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan has taken over in midfield next to Sami Khedira. Gundogan’s strengths lie in ball retention and passing and movement. Similarly, such possession-oriented wingers as Julian Draxler and Julian Brandt were preferred for the squad over emerging Manchester City star Leroy Sane, whom manager Joachim Low left home despite his superior speed and dribbling prowess.
If the team has one concern, it’s on defense. The back five is extremely comfortable playing together: Four of the five expected starters — Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Joshua Kimmich and keeper Manuel Neuer (assuming he’s fully recovered from his foot injury) — play for Bayern Munich. Despite that, Germany’s expected goals conceded according to SPI is 0.52 — only seventh in the tournament. Germany keeps the ball and wins it back quickly after losing possession; it’s second only to Spain in turning opponents over deep in their own territory with 13.2 forced deep turnovers a match. But that means that whenever a team breaks that initial wave of pressure, it can attack Germany’s backline, which, while talented, is left exposed.
Underdog or also-ran?
Mexico has been eliminated in the round of 16 in the past six World Cups. That streak is likely to continue. If El Tri finishes as runner-up in Group F, it would be on track to face Brazil, which would likely bring its tournament to an end. Mexico is no lock to make it that far, either; it’s ranked 13th in the tournament in SPI, but Sweden is just behind at 15th. The main weakness of the Swedes, who are without their iconic frontman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is that they struggle to put together fast attacks. They create 3.77 direct attacks per game, the ninth fewest of any team at the World Cup.
The last team in the group, South Korea, is unlikely to make much of an impact at all. While striker Son Heung-min is a genuine star, coming off a fabulous season with Tottenham Hotspur, the team can’t seem to find a formation that will appropriately feature his combination of speed on the ball and danger in the box. Even now, manager Shin Tae-yong is struggling to decide on what tactical system to use — never a good sign in the run-up to a major tournament.
Player to watch
Mexico’s Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, a 22-year-old attacker, has the profile of a player who could have a breakout tournament. Lozano scored 17 goals and eight assists in his first season with Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven. He tied for the league lead in goals per 90 minutes played (among players with at least 20 appearances) with 0.7, and he was just outside the top 10 in assists with 0.3 per 90 minutes.
Mexico has an intriguing attacking corps but has also struggled to score. In its three friendlies in preparation for the tournament, it scored one goal combined against Scotland, Wales and Denmark. Mainstays for the team like Chicharito Hernandez and Raul Jimenez have struggled to make an impact leading the line, and even 34-year-old Oribe Peralta is getting minutes.
Mexico will need attacking thrust from many of its supporting midfielders and wingers. That group includes many well-known names, players like Carlos Vela, Giovani dos Santos and Jesus Corona, who have contributed to the Mexican setup for years. But it’s Lozano, with his ability to create from the wing both for himself and for others, who could be the difference maker.