Slovenia – 4-4-2, hard-working, organised etc
In previous competitions, we might have Slovenia’s system as rather boring, but in a competition set to be dominated by 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3s and three-man defences, it’s quite nice to see someone persevering with the good old 4-4-2.
Without wanting to be patronising, there’s something delightfully simple about the way Matjaz Kek has assembled this Slovenia side. In terms of pure ability of the players, they are technically limited – arguably their most talented player is the goalkeeper, Samir Handanovic. But Slovenia have triumphed (for a country with two million people, qualifying for this tournament is a triumph) by doing the simple things well – defending with two banks of four, playing a targetman alongside a hard-working willing runner, and most importantly, being very well organised.
It’s hard to really judge their true quality based upon past results. They came second in the weakest group in the European section of qualification (the Czechs were the seeds, but are a shadow of their former self and were well out of it), but then they surprised everyone with their victory over Russia. That was the lowest-ranked side in the playoffs being drawn against the highest-ranked side, and the lowest-ranked side progressing – albeit thanks to a questionable refereeing display.
The first XI
As you might expect, Slovenia have one of the most settled first teams in the competition. Eight of the side started eight or more of their ten qualification games, and the line-up for the opening game against Algeria should be easy to predict.
The centre-back pairing of Bostjan Cesar and Marko Suller is everything you’d expect from an Eastern Europan side – they’re tall, physical players. The full-backs are fairly conservative – they get forward when possible, but their ability on the ball is nothing to write home about. Left-back Bojan Jokic is slightly better in this respect.
The midfield is most noted for a lack of flair. Aleksander Radosavljevic has the holding job, whilst Robert Koren has more license to attack – but he’s hardly the archetypal playmaker. Valter Birsa is expected to start on the right, but will cut in onto his preferred left foot, which is also a good weapon from set-pieces. On the opposite side will be Andraz Kirm, who has been warming Wisla Krakow’s bench in recent months.
Upfront, Mile Novakovic is the targetman, whilst Zlatko Dedic runs his legs off chasing second balls and drifting to the flanks. Again, it’s an old-fashioned approach – one wins the headers, the other goes for the flick-ons. It might sound simple for the World Cup, but think Niall Quinn and Robbie Keane for Ireland in 2002.
Slovenia should finish ahead of Algeria, although the Africans’ 3-5-2 shape should work rather nicely against a basic 4-4-2, so Slovenia might encounter problems in the midfield – they’ll need their full-backs to get forward more than they are accustomed to. They are, put simply, a weaker team than the USA, but they may have more chance than people expect.
The draw has been relatively kind to Slovenia – not just in terms of the teams they’re up against, but because of the schedule of their games. Here’s the thinking – they start against the weakest of the three sides they’ll face, Algeria, where they should pick up an early win. Then comes the crucial game against the United States. If Slovenia can pick up a draw there (4-4-2 v 4-4-2 means it’s certainly possible to make it a tight, boring game), and England have, as expected, beaten both the US and Algeria, the points situation would be England on 6, Slovenia on 4, the US on 1, and Algeria on 0.
That would leave a final day situation where England and Slovenia would both be content with a draw – England would win the group, Slovenia would qualify regardless of the US v Algeria result. England often get one below-par result in the group stage, and might be inclined to rest players having already qualified. OK, it depends on a lot of factors, but for Slovenia (200/1 and 23rd in the world) to finish above the US (66/1 and 14th in the world), it might be the best bet.Slovenia – 4-4-2, hard-working, organised etc