Will the real World Cup Group B stand up? On the one hand, England’s pool is the only one in Qatar in which all of the teams inhabit the top 20 of Fifa’s world rankings.
On the other, Iran, the USA and Wales looks, on paper, like a kind draw for Gareth Southgate’s team. Today’s opening skirmishes should offer some clues as to its true quality.
There are also answers to be found in the teams’ World Cup qualifying campaigns and other recent competitive matches.
Using detailed scouting reports compiled by analytics company Sporting Risk, it is possible to highlight the strength and weaknesses of the four sides. The data illuminates the tendencies of England and Iran, who play this afternoon, and this evening’s opponents USA and Wales.
England have proven themselves to be expert at creating high-quality chances and capitalising on set-pieces.
During a comfortable World Cup qualifying campaign and the disappointing Nations League that followed, they had the highest percentage of their shots inside the penalty box and the highest expected goals (xG) per shot.
Together, it shows a tendency to craft good openings, and an attack built around Harry Kane often takes those chances. England had the second best shot conversion rate, 19 per cent, in those games, and averaged 2.69 goals per game against xG of 2.23.
If that doesn’t work then they can hurt teams with dead-ball situations. They ranked first in Europe for set-piece goals and second for penalties scored. Despite Kieran Trippier being deadly in those scenarios, they didn’t score a single direct free-kick in their 16 games.
Counter-attacking has not been their forte, however, ranking 50th out of 55 for counters. That may in part be because they were the dominant side in most games, but the same will likely be true in Group B.
Having taken them to the Euro 2020 final using 4-2-3-1, Gareth Southgate looks set to revert to the three-man defence he used at the 2018 World Cup, where they reached the semi-finals.
A 3-4-3 is expected to feature Trippier and Luke Shaw as wing-backs, a midfield anchored by Declan Rice, and Kane flanked by any two of several top class attacking players.
England’s first opponents offer a good contrast of styles, since Iran thrive on counter-attacking. In World Cup qualifying they scored 31 per cent of their goals from counters, the second highest proportion among the 45 Asian nations.
They also ranked second for distance dribbled forward, illustrating their preference for using the likes of former Brighton winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh to provide chances for Bayer Leverkusen forward Sardar Azmoun and Porto’s Mehdi Taremi in a 4-3-3 system.
Carlos Queiroz could ring the changes, having only returned for a second spell in charge of Iran earlier this year, but the system would appear to suit the cautious Portuguese coach, who has named four goalkeepers in his squad.
One of those keepers, No1 Alireza Beyranvand, can launch counters with his Guinness world record-breaking 60m throws. He is part of a miserly Iran defence, who averaged just 0.44 goals conceded against in qualifying.
Gregg Berhalter’s USA are among the biggest enigmas coming into this World Cup, having undergone a comprehensive overhaul of playing and coaching personnel since failing to qualify for the last World Cup.
Berhalter, a member of the American World Cup squads of 2002 and 2006 and one-time Crystal Palace centre-back, is not a big name, but his players, such as Barcelona’s Sergino Dest, Weston McKennie of Juventus, Valencia’s Yunus Musah, Christian Pulisic of Chelsea and Leeds United pair Tyler Roberts and Brenden Aaronson, increasingly are.
The USA are a modern, highly mobile side who favour driving upfield with the ball: they ranked fourth of 42 teams in the Concacaf region for ball carries and forward dribbles. They are dangerous in the air, ranking third for headed goals and fifth for accurate crosses.
Berhalter is unlikely to spring a tactical surprise, having used 4-3-3 in 89 per cent of recent games. But having only finished third behind Canada and Mexico in qualifying, the jury is out on how effective they will prove in Qatar.
Filled with players from English football, present at a third major tournament in four attempts and covered widely by British media, Wales are familiar foes.
It is fair to say Rob Page’s team are unlikely to pepper their opponents’ goal and rely instead on a sturdy defence allied to moments of brilliance from Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and new talents such as Brennan Johnson.
They ranked 47th out of 55 European nations for shots on target, hitting the goal with just a third of efforts, and do not throw men forward, committing an average of just 3.1 players to counter-attacks, placing them 41st.
Where Wales excel is at winning and executing set-pieces and penalties. They ranked third for goals from set-pieces, fourth for free-kicks won, fifth for penalties converted and seventh for goals from direct free-kicks.
At their first World Cup for 64 years, Page will likely line them up in either a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation. Their final Group B fixture, against England on 29 November, could decide whether at least one of the teams progresses to the last 16.
About Sporting Risk
Sporting Risk is a sports analytics company whose expertise lies in predictive analytics, forecasting and betting on football. The company leverages the predictive modelling of its data science team to generate outputs for the media, gaming and professional football sectors.
The predictive modelling is powered by the most extensive and granular data available, internally collected by the company’s tech team and qualitative analysts. The heritage of the company lies in the expertise of a betting syndicate run by one of the founding partners, which the company powers the pricing for.
The company’s data collection and predictive modelling originated in football. In recent years this has extended into US sports, meaning the company now holds an extensive pricing, product and content portfolio across a range of sports.