The quick transition from club football to an international tournament was unprecedented this year, with a matter of days between the domestic league season grinding to a halt and the World Cup kicking off.
For those who pine for club football, we’ve got just the thing for you. The Athletic has looked at each of the 16 countries who have qualified for the knockout stage and found their analogue at club level.
Some comparisons are informed by similarities between the teams’ tactical approaches, some are (loosely) informed by data. Other comparisons are wholly tentative and you may find yourself rolling your eyes, but stick around for the fun.
Look out for some additional honourable mentions among the teams who didn’t advance through to the knockouts — oh, how we spoil you.
In no particular order, let’s begin…
One of the key components of France’s tactical make-up is speed in wide areas. When you have players with the pace of Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, you’re bound to maximise those strengths. Arsenal similarly utilise the pace and trickery of Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka on either flank, but the similarity does not end there.
France’s 4-2-3-1 has got the best out of Antoine Griezmann in a No 10 role, able to be a central creative hub in a similar way that Arsenal’s Martin Odegaard operates, with the cover of two defensive midfielders behind.
A more adventurous left-back with a right-back more naturally defensive, there are plenty of parallels the more you think about it.
The United States are… Brighton & Hove Albion
They pass. They press. They never score quite as much as they probably should.
They’re not one of the best teams, but they play enough like an elite team for stretches that it’s kind of cool to talk about how you admire their football.
Yup, the United States are Brighton.
Gregg Berhalter’s mission to “change the way the world views American soccer” has transformed a traditional counter-attacking underdog into a team on the rise thanks to a tactically flexible positional game. Sound familiar? The process has looked a lot like Brighton’s evolution under Graham Potter and now Roberto De Zerbi.
The US definitely aren’t afraid to dip into Jesse Marsch’s transition playbook (they’ve got Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson, after all), but their ideal form is as a well-coached passing side that makes up for its relative lack of talent with an adjustable possession structure that helps them win the ball back when they lose it.
Bald eagles are really just overgrown seagulls anyway, right?
More specifically, the Real Madrid that won the Champions League last season. Why? Well that team managed to consistently fight back and progress through each stage even when they weren’t firing on all cylinders. After a shaky first two games, Argentina similarly fought back to advance to the knockout stages by topping the group.
Madrid were not the most coherent side in the Champions League, but had players who were able to change the course of a game in moments — led by the unstoppable Karim Benzema. Argentina have a similar feel to them in Qatar. They are proven winners — having lifted the Copa America last season — and you trust the quality of the squad, but they have not been the most convincing in their performances across the group stage.
What will always make them dangerous is similarly having those “moment” players even when the performance might be lacking. Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Lautaro Martinez et al. could do something special in an instant, you just can’t look away in case it happens.
There is an elegant symmetry between Brazil’s start to the World Cup and Real Madrid’s start to the 2022-23 season. Madrid made a great start to the campaign and were unfortunate to lose Ballon D’Or winning Karim Benzema to injury for a handful of games. For Brazil, a convincing victory over Serbia was marred by an ankle sprain to the mercurial Neymar, who they hope to have back during the knockout phase.
On both occasions, the creative responsibility has fallen to Vinicius Junior, tasked with being the key to unlock the opposition defence from the left side of attack. There are few players in world football who have hit such dizzy heights in the past 18 months, so there are worse people to turn to. For club and country, he simply flies past his man with his blistering speed before you can say “Joga Bonito”.
No, not because of the Bruno Fernandes and (now former Manchester United) Cristiano Ronaldo links. It is largely because Portugal have such a wealth of talent within their squad — enough to steamroll a lot of the teams that they come up against. However, considering this talent, you rarely see wholly entertaining performances to match it.
Portugal manager Fernando Santos is someone who would prefer a 1-0 win to a 4-3 win, so we are unlikely to see the handbrake fully off anytime soon. But given the quality of their squad on paper, you would perhaps expect more free-flowing football.
This feels similar to United. Granted, they look to be in the ascendancy under Erik ten Hag, but you could still argue that they should have been doing better with the players they have. Both are shy of the real elite at the moment, but do have the quality to push on.
Pedri, Gavi, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Ferran Torres, Alejandro Balde, Eric Garcia and Ansu Fati, all coached by Luis Enrique… Spain’s got to be Barcelona, right?
Nope, look a little farther north.
When some former Barcelona executives and Pep Guardiola set about recreating the Catalan club at Manchester City, they built a team that plays a similar possession game but in a more structured way. Luis Enrique’s positional 4-3-3 with Spain looks like nothing so much as Guardiola’s City.
Even the Barca players do things a little bit differently when they’re with the national team. Instead of pushing high to isolate wingers for one-v-ones, the way Xavi’s Barcelona plays, Pedri and Gavi stay more connected to Busquets for midfield passing triangles that would make Pep proud.
The clear shape and practised rotations suit Spain’s players from other clubs, and no-one has been more important to their passing in group stage than Rodri, running the show out of position at centre-back. Wonder where he learned his trade?
A back three system can often be thought of as a defensive approach, but when you have technically gifted players, you can use your wing-backs to get high and wide to create more of a front five than a back five, and Denzel Dumfries is a link between these two sides.
The Netherlands and Inter Milan set up in a back three to do exactly this, and while there are nuances between Inter’s 3-5-2 and the Dutch 3-4-1-2 system, the balance between the two sides are similar — with two strikers supported by creative attacking midfielders who can drift into dangerous areas to score themselves.
Dependence on wide areas? Battling midfielders and hard to break down through the centre of the pitch? Is this Senegal or Crystal Palace?
Hard to differentiate really. Both aren’t the most flashy teams in terms of their possession game – despite Palace improving under Patrick Vieira – and depend heavily on their wingers, whether that’s Ismaila Sarr or Wilfried Zaha.
Those Kalidou Koulbaly long passes and great distribution feels like Joachim Andersen too. What more similarities do you want?
Poland are… Werder Bremen
Poland’s style is direct, and they have rarely concerned themselves with long passages of play — averaging one of the lowest possession shares in the tournament. Instead, they play to their strengths at the top end of the field. When your team is spearheaded by one of the best strikers in the world in Robert Lewandowski, you look to get it to him — with Piotr Zielinski, Arkadiusz Milik and Krzysztof Piatek offering support in attack.
In a similar fashion, Werder Bremen rarely dominate possession against their opponents, but they know that they have an old school, clinical striker to feed in Nicholas Fullkrug — who himself has caught the headlines for Germany in Qatar. Fullkrug’s 10 Bundesliga goals are the joint-second highest in the league, so the task is similarly to get the ball fed into him as quickly as possible.
Australia are…West Ham United
Perhaps not the West Ham United in the early parts of this Premier League season, but Australia’s success has been built upon good organisation at both ends of the pitch. Sure, you are unlikely to see a goalfest when you watch them play, but Graham Arnold’s men are disciplined — with two clean sheets in their three games, both by a 1-0 margin.
In possession, both Australia and West Ham have one of the highest long ball pass rates among their competitors, but it would be an oversimplification to label them as a long ball side.
Out of possession, they rank among the lowest for pressing intensity, preferring to stay in a mid-to-low block and rely on structure rather than chaos.
Morocco are… Wydad AC
Walid Regragui’s cautious approach with Morocco means that they have only conceded once since his arrival as national team coach. Despite the attacking profiles of his players, Morocco’s key differentiator this World Cup has been their off-ball organisation in open play.
Anyone synonymous with Regragui’s last post at Wydad AC will know that this style served him well before. Last season he managed to win the domestic league and the CAF Champions League with the Moroccan side, only conceding seven goals from the group stages onwards.
As for those set pieces against Belgium, we have seen them before…
Good defensive organisation, comfortable with the opposition having more of the ball but devastating in attack. Sound familiar? Perhaps Japan have been at the extreme end of conceding possession against Germany and Spain, but their efficiency in counter-attacking on both occasions with a rotating cast of Daichi Kamada, Junya Ito, Takuma Asano, Kaoru Mitoma and others shocking their opponent with their directness and clinical finishing.
Tottenham’s direct attacks are a key feature of their play under Conte, and the attacking wing-backs is a feature that Hajime Moriyasu shares with the Spurs manager.
It might not be a possession masterclass from either side, but they have great discipline off the ball and spring forward with great purpose when they regain the ball.
Croatia are… Barcelona
Well, it would be too obvious to compare Spain with Barcelona, wouldn’t it?
This one may sound unlikely, but few countries in world football have the strength to dictate the game from midfield in the manner that Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic and Luka Modric are able to. Dominating the ball is what Croatia are good at, much like Barcelona — who boast the highest possession share (64 per cent) in La Liga.
Sure, it’s not like-for-like in midfield, but Barcelona’s approach is much the same in terms of dominating that central third of the pitch.
Pedri is a ball carrier, much like Kovacic. Gavi’s appreciation of space has an analogue with Modric. Plus the anchoring attributes of Brozovic could fall into the “Busquets” category.
Dictating the tempo of the game is particularly important in the knockout phase of the tournament. There are few players better at it than in that Croatia midfield.
Switzerland’s 4-2-3-1 system differs from Newcastle’s higher intensity 4-3-3 under Eddie Howe this season, but there are still parallels to be found in their play.
Strong defensive organisation, rarely giving up high quality chances. Check.
A highly capable shot-stopper who will keep you in the game on the odd occasion when the defensive line is broken. Check.
Maximising set pieces as a form of chance creation. Definite tick.
Lone striker Breel Embolo can carry the attack and pop up in highly valuable areas — as he has shown already in this tournament — much in the same way that Callum Wilson often sniffs out a goal.
Similar to Newcastle, you might not expect to see Switzerland among the elite contenders, but they are no pushovers.
Rather specific, that’s true. Allow us to explain.
South Korea are very much set on a 4-2-3-1 system and have players with enough technical quality to implement a high possession style with Hwang In-beom and Jung Woo-young patrolling the midfield. They also pose a dangerous counter-attacking threat, with dynamic wingers — most notably, Son Heung-min.
While Wolves’s return to the Premier League saw them largely set up in a 3-4-3, their approach of controlling midfield with strength in wide areas wa a key feature of their game. Crosses for prime a Raul Jimenez to feed off with Diogo Jota in support — many underestimated Wolves’s threat, just as people have with South Korea.
Oh, and who scored South Korea’s winner to send them through in the final group game? Hwang Hee-chan. Who does he play for? You guessed it.
Among the honourable mentions, we have to include Qatar who play like… Al Sadd. No, really. Precisely half of Qatar’s players play their club football at Al Sadd, with the remaining half of the squad dominated by players from Al-Duhail. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to progress through from Group A, but you cannot say that Qatar did not have strong team cohesion.
Denmark failed to progress through to the final 16, but they are… Brentford. No, not just because of Thomas Frank’s Danish connections, but both sides have good defensive organisation, strength from good set pieces and a good width with their use of wing-backs. They are flexible in changing between a 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 system.
Finally, Mexico — an easy comparison could be their similarity to Atletico Madrid. Why? A healthy amount of s**thousery across the squad, combined with a great goalkeeper between the posts. Who else were we going to choose?
(Additional contributors: Ahmed Walid, Michael Cox)
(Photos: Getty Images/Sam Richardson)
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