The World Cup fever is well and truly taking over, as Qatar is all set to host a tournament amid the conflicts and storminess surrounding the footballing world. The likes of Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and France certainly have a monumental history in the competition and are rightly termed favorites. Apart from these ‘favorite’ sides, there is always a hint of a question mark surrounding the underdogs or the ‘dark horses’ when a World Cup takes place.
As much as people love football, they also admire an underdog story, especially on the grandest of stages. Take Croatia’s run to the final during the 2018 World Cup, for example, or the Cameroon team of the 1990 World Cup Final that almost knocked England out of their path in the quarterfinals. The 2022 World Cup comprises a few teams who are more than capable of upsetting the bigger nations and one of those looking to punch above their weight are Serbia.
After failing to qualify for the Euro 2020, Serbia hired Dragan Stojkovic to oversee their transformation. Well, the new manager has imprinted his authority and has made his country brimming with hope ahead of their exploits in Qatar. Serbia have struggled on the big stage as they have only qualified four times since the 1998 World Cup. Moreover, in their previous three outings, the nation barely set the world alight and were knocked from the group stages.
Surprisingly, Serbia will come up against the same three opponents they faced in the 2018 World Cup. The Eagles, as they are known, won their first game against Costa Rica, but suffered defeats at the hands of Brazil and Switzerland. This time, however, they will attempt to redeem themselves with a far more balanced squad than their previous outing.
The likes of Ivanovic and Kolarov have retired, but their new era undoubtedly looks strong on paper. In fact, they topped their World Cup qualifying group consisting of Portugal and were undefeated as well. Further, they are having an excellent Nations League campaign so far. Stojkovic has reverted to a 3-4-1-2 formation but has also shown flexibility by using a 4-2-3-1 system against certain opponents. But the former remains his go-to structure, and he is expected to continue with the back three formation in Qatar.
Attack has become the key for Serbia with Aleksandar Mitrovic, and Dusan Vlahovic forming an extraordinary partnership upfront. Luka Jovic, Nemanja Radonjic, and Filip Duricic are able backups to the front two that have looked devastating since Stojkovic arrived. Dusan Tadic, meanwhile, is the centerpiece of this side as he slots into a free number 10 role behind the two strikers and the creative burden will fall on him.
Behind Tadic, Sergej Milinkovic Savic acts as the orchestrator of the side as he links the midfield and the attack. He’s playing a more reserved role for his national team compared to his club, but the Lazio man is more than content to take the responsibility of providing the balance. Nemanja Gudelj has been paired with Savic in the double pivot and has been a revelation in the role. However, with Gudelj’s injuries, Sasa Lukic has taken the opportunity in both hands and could start ahead of Gudelj in the opening games against Brazil and Switzerland.
Marko Grujic and Ivan Ilic are unquestionably great talents and provide the much-needed cover in central midfield going into the tournament. Juventus’ Filip Kostic and Andrija Zivkovic operate as wing-backs. The two wide men are explosive players who provide the width and have the potential to deliver dangerous crosses to the forwards. The backline includes Stefan Mitrovic, Nikola Milenkovic, and Strahinja Pavlovic who usually start as the center-backs, but Stojkovic has also provided opportunities for Milos Veljkovic and Srdan Babic.
Defense is perhaps one area Serbia seems weak compared to their depth in other positions, but the back three complement each other well and have been solid since the new manager took over. Goalkeeping has also been another problematic area for the Eagles. Vanja Milinkovic Savic is expected to start between the sticks, while Sevilla’s backup keeper – Marko Dmitrovic could also get the nod ahead of their game against Brazil.
Tactics – Attacking approach and easy on the eye
In Serbia’s 3-4-1-2 system, their 3-2 structure in possession during the first phase is the primary thing to notice. The right and left-sided center-backs are necessarily split and occupy positions near the touchline, whilst the double pivot stay compact and deep. The wide center-backs are tasked with carrying the ball, therefore luring the press from their opponents, although the two central midfielders are the ones who play a crucial part in progression.
Milinkovic Savic and Lukic have been at the heart of it, constantly dropping deep and receiving the ball from the center-backs. They usually stay behind and let the front five showcase their talent, but Lukic in particular is known to make late runs into the box to create overloads.
The wingbacks, meanwhile, stay very high up the pitch, as Serbia form a 3-2-5 shape in possession with the wing-backs providing the width. Sometimes, the right wing-back (Zivkovic) drops deeper, but Kostic certainly operates like a winger on the other side. In the situation below, Serbia’s double pivot are close to each other as they carry the ball, before switching it to the right wingback. Zivkovic receives the ball and immediately delivers a cross with four men (including Kostic) waiting to pounce. Mitrovic eventually scores.
While the role of the wingbacks and the double pivot is clearly established, Dusan Tadic, who starts as a number 10, is allowed complete freedom to roam the pitch. He is the creative outlet of the team and often drifts between the lines to receive the pass from the center-backs or the midfielders. As you can see from the below image, the wingbacks hold the width, while Tadic drops deep from the half space looking to receive a pass and influence the play.
As the play carries on, Tadic is now positioned in the right half-space while Mitrovic drops behind, making himself an option for the pass. Lukic ultimately picks Zivkovic on the far side and now Tadic identifies the space and makes a run in behind Norway’s fullback.
He receives the pass and delivers a cross into Mitrovic, who makes a late run into the box. Notice how Norway’s central defenders are completely ball-watching and do not realize the arrival of Mitrovic. This is because he dropped deep earlier and the center-back did not track him. As a result, he is unmarked when he arrives in the box, but his header was saved brilliantly by the goalkeeper. The front three, especially Mitrovic and Tadic, are very fluid in possession and can constantly interchange positions.
Tadic also links up extremely well on the left side with Kostic, often positioning in the half spaces and looking to deliver cutting-edge passes. Vlahovic’s opening goal against Norway certainly shows the connection the two players have and also displays the outstanding box movement both Mitrovic and Vlahovic possess.
What makes Serbia exciting is their dynamic approach. They can hit direct long balls to the front two, who are both extremely good in the air or use the technical ability of their midfielders to play short and quick passes to lure the opponents. Additionally, they can create chances both from the wide areas via the wing-backs and centrally through Tadic. It is hard to stop Serbia when they are in a flow and their clinical nature in front of goal could cause massive problems for their opponents.
However, Mitrovic’s foot injury for the past month could pose an enormous block. Vlahovic is also coming into the tournament with a knock. Moreover, their defense still remains a question mark since they face two tough sides in Brazil and Switzerland. Stojkovic will hope that both his strikers can be fit ahead of the game against Brazil, but the Eagles certainly have the firepower to go deep into the tournament and are potentially a dark horse who could have a say in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.