The 2018 FIFA World Cup has officially kicked-off, and there was no shortage of goals in the first game … well, at least from the perspective of the host nation. Russia defeated Saudi Arabia 5-0, using a strong performance from their subs.
I thought Saudi Arabia would play better, even though I believed Russia would win the game. Saudi Arabia had plenty of time to prepare for this crucial first match. However, they played right into Russia’s strengths: mid-field pressure and counter-attacks. I was impressed with the pressure that the Russian midfield exerted. To me, it resembled an NBA-style, half-court trap. Their strikers collapsed back, the wingers pushed up, and the central midfielders pinched in, resulting in multiple Saudi turnovers and inaccurate passes. This strategy was perfect in this game, but a faster or better passing team should be able to break out against the Russians. After giving up a goal in the 12th minute, Saudi Arabia failed to sustain any meaningful possession, and Russia simply kept up the pressure.
I would have liked to see more out of Saudi Arabia, if only to evaluate the Russian defense. The goalie didn’t have much to do, and I’m not sure how he’ll handle a striker like Mohammed Salah of Egypt, or the combined offensive talent of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani of Uruguay. These three players are in the prime of their careers, and each is coming off a stellar season of scoring. I also wonder how the Russian defense will handle a technically superior team in Uruguay, and if they will employ a “bunker-and-counter” strategy. Russia started in a 4-5-1 (or a 4-2-3-1, if you’re really into tactics), and I wonder if they’ll keep the same formation over their next two matches. However, it might not truly matter against Uruguay, as Russia and Uruguay don’t meet until the third group stage game. If they both win their first two matches, their final match might only be for position in the knock-out round, and the coaches may choose to rest some of their regular starters.
With their first victory, Russia is in control of Group A. They have 3 points and are +5 in goal differential. With such an early advantage, they are free to play their style of soccer, and don’t have to worry about pressing for points (at least not yet). I still think Uruguay wins the group, as they are clearly the most talented team. What Russia really has done with this win is forced Egypt to beat both Saudi Arabia and Russia, and for Uruguay to try to overcome the goal differential if it desires to win the group. Uruguay opens against Egypt tomorrow, June 15, and can basically see themselves through with a win. They should beat Saudi Arabia in their second match, and then can take it easy against Russia in their final group stage game. This group schedule really shaped up nicely for Uruguay and Russia, assuming both teams win their opening games.
What else did you see? Who are your picks to advance? Please comment below and contact us with any other thoughts. I hope you all enjoyed the opening game and that you enjoy the rest of the tournament.