A nation’s prospects at the World Cup will surely be influenced by the experiences of their players during the preceding season, so we’ve analysed the squads of the eight favourites – according to our latest odds – to see who looks the best prepared for the rigours of the tournament.
The permutations of the draw mean that all eight could simultaneously make the quarter-finals, by which stage the margins between success and failure become fine enough for any edge to prove decisive.
To make things fair, we’ve trimmed the remaining provisional squads down to 23 men by removing their least-capped goalkeeper and then outfield players in ascending order until we hit the final squad limit.
If a winning mentality is contagious, then a squad whose players have scooped plenty of silverware this season will have an edge. Worryingly, England’s players are the least-decorated this season with just five medals between them: four of which came from Manchester City’s title win, with the other being Gary Cahill’s FA Cup medal. By comparison, players from Brazil, France and Spain have each had their hands on four times as many trophies between them and therefore have a far greater collective understanding of what it means to win a major competition. The Brazilians lead the way with 28 medals in total, including a whopping eight players who have won a double.
Silverware aside, we can also look at players’ overall performance as a clue for which national teams are heading to Russia in good form. In goalscoring terms this is unquestionably Argentina, who have 150 league goals between them this season. England actually rank joint third here on 106, trailing Brazil’s 114, thanks to strong campaigns from Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in particular.
On the creative side, it’s the Brazilians again who lead the way, having racked up 95 league assists between them. Close behind are the Germans on 90, while England’s 65 puts them second to last among the eight favourites with only Belgium’s tally worse.
Defensively it’s those Brazilians again who have shone the most, with a whopping 259 league clean sheets, so we’re unlikely to see a repeat of the 7-1 hiding they suffered on home soil four years ago. Belgium also sit last once more with 70 fewer than the previous hosts and – perhaps surprisingly – only five fewer than holders Germany.
Match sharpness should also be a factor at the World Cup, although too much could lead to players tiring as the tournament unfolds. Spain’s squad has racked up the most club minutes this season – with Brazil near the top again in second – while Belgium are bottom of the pile once more with around 100 fewer matches under their belts combined.
We’ve also looked at the number of players on each squad who have reached at least the quarter-final stage of a major continental competition this season – specifically the UEFA Champions League and its equivalents outside of Europe – to see which squads are least likely to be fazed by a big occasion. Once again we find Brazil leading the way with over half of their players (14) having reached the last eight of a big club tournament. Germany, Spain and Argentina are also into the double digits while England trail on six and Portugal have only two players with that sort of experience this season.
In pure age terms, the South American duo of Brazil and Argentina are the oldest of the favourites, with their former colonial rulers Spain and Portugal not far behind. England and France are the most youthful, with both teams clocking in at around 26 years old. With three of the last five winners clocking in at under 27, experience doesn’t appear an obvious prerequisite for success, although when we look at caps a different picture emerges.
If we scour the last five World Cup winners – back to France in 1998 – each successive champion has had more caps in their squad than the last. The young French team that triumphed on home soil in 1998 had just under 23 caps apiece, but this total has grown incrementally ever since and each of the last four winning squads have contained at least five players with 50 caps or more. Spain’s squad is the most experienced this time around with just over 40 appearances each on average, while England’s team are the least battle-hardened with fewer than 20.
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