Predicting the entire 2022 World Cup, from Qatar vs. Ecuador to the final

Predicting the entire 2022 World Cup, from Qatar vs. Ecuador to the final

"Players can get injured, players can play poorly, players can appear out of nowhere, managers can quit their jobs -- the list of complicating factors is endless."

So, with this added information, we're running it back and predicting all the matches from Nov. 21 through Dec. 18 -- again. Some of the predictions and analysis from the first time around will not change, while other parts will read very differently. Like last time, all of the stats mentioned in the piece come from Stats Perform, but unlike last time, we are only looking at data from competitive matches played since August 1, 2021..

And also like last time, I've employed the help of the consultancy Twenty First Group, which has built a model that combines individual player ratings and team performance to create a rating for every international team. With international soccer, there aren't enough games to truly judge a team based on its recent results, and the rosters are always changing, so this player-based method attempts to address those problems. I'll reference their ratings throughout this journey; it's just another tool to help guide us from start to finish.

Despite some fun talent, Ecuador don't seem all that good -- they barely eked out a positive goal differential in qualifying -- but they should cruise in this one.

Gab & Juls preview Group A at the 2022 World Cup, which contains hosts Qatar, Netherlands, Senegal and Ecuador.

After Spain, England are the slowest team in the tournament, moving the ball upfield at a crawl's pace of 0.96 meters per second. And while Iran can't score, they've always been tough to score against. This one, especially the first half, could be a slog for the Three Lions.

When a team wins, they score 2.3 goals and concede 0.6. When it's a draw, the scores, very nicely, add up to 1.0 goals for and 1.0 goals against. So roughly, the average win at the World Cup is a 2-1 margin, and the average draw is 1-1.

The U.S. truly do have more talent than Wales, but their Day 1 opponents will present a tactical puzzle that Gregg Berhalter's team haven't yet solved.

Gab & Juls preview Group B at the 2022 World Cup, with Marcotti wondering if England can finally go all the way.

The level of coaching at this tournament and at international soccer in general will vary widely, but Kasper Hjulmand showed an ability to build a really fun, interesting and flexible side last summer. The Danes are still lacking a truly standout goal scorer, but they're one of the more cohesive and well-thought-out teams in the event. They'll smash the set-piece button, too.

France will probably play this more conservatively than they should, but hey, it worked last time, didn't it?

Gab & Juls preview Group C at the 2022 World Cup, with Argentina expected to cruise into the knockout rounds.

Among tournament sides, Croatia rank 10th according to Twenty First Group, while the Moroccans sit 17th. INCREDIBLY MINOR UPSET ALERT.

In the sample of games mentioned in the intro, Germany had the best expected-goal differential per game, while Japan were sixth. By hiring former Bayern manager Hansi Flick, the Germans have basically doubled down on the push-everyone-forward high-wire act that saw them get dumped out in the group stages in 2018; all of their matches are a must-watch.

That being said, Spain mopped the floor with Italy in the semifinals of the Euros only to lose in a shootout, and the team is built around a core of young, dynamic, flexible winger/attacker/midfielder/whatever types that have produced some really intricate and club-team-like possession play.

Costa Rica, meanwhile, might be the oldest team at the tournament. I'm not buying their late surge in CONCACAF or their win over New Zealand, either.

The Belgians might overwhelm Canada with possession, but it's really hard to imagine any pattern to this game that doesn't involve David and Davies streaking up the field into wide-open space at least a couple of times.

Sebastian Salazar and Herculez Gomez take a look at which CONCACAF players make ESPN FC's World Cup rank.

April me: "Sorry, but I just can't get excited about a team that (A) is managed by a coach who was fired by the worst club in MLS, (B) conceded as many goals as it scored in qualifying and (C) still relies on a pair of 35-year-old strikers. This will be South Korea's last World Cup with Son Heung-Min somewhere near his peak. I like that a little better."

It can work when all the players are world class -- elite players can figure out the fit on the fly -- but the standard of the Dutch attackers this cycle is a couple of ticks below the Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben generation. The lack of talent is why the Twenty First Group model isn't so high on them, either.

Despite all of the exciting attacking talent on both sides, both teams are much better defensively than they are going forward. It's a weird matchup, and that's going beyond the anxieties and emotional complexes both nations have developed against, and in concert with, each other over the past 300 years. England should be able to dominate with the ball more than they typically do, while the USMNT have typically fared better without the ball despite wanting the ball more often. Am I talking myself into both teams swapping managers before the tournament starts? I asked this question in April, and I'm still asking it today.

This is also a matchup between perhaps the two most out-of-form teams in the tournament; England have dropped eight spots in the Elo ratings over the past year, while the U.S. tumbled nine places. There are still all kinds of ways to overthink this one, but despite a pretty volatile seven months for both sides, I'm sticking with the reasoning I went with back in April: "The more talented team wins."

Gab Marcotti says he has no idea what to expect from defending champions France at the 2022 World Cup.

If they can't, they'll just bop crosses into the box and shoot from range -- two specialties of Ivan Perisic -- opting for a more industrial Plan B the U.S. never resorted to.

Professor of Islamic history Jonathan Brown gives the definitive pronunciation of Qatar with Gio Reyna, Reggie Cannon and Sam Vines.

Uruguay knocked Portugal out in the round of 16, but these two teams are in very different places four years later -- even if the headline names remain the same.

It was the same exact situation when Senegal played Colombia in the final group stage game in 2018 -- and lost. Four years later, they've learned their lesson.

In April, I wrote: "Hopefully you're sensing a theme here ... and hopefully Gregg Berhalter is too. While, paradoxically, it seemed like the U.S. might match up better against better competition come the World Cup -- less of the ball, but more transition opportunities, and more space in the attacking third -- they've drawn a collection of teams who also function better without it. Figuring out how to break these teams down -- hint, hint, set pieces! -- should be the goal of the next seven months."

Spoiler: They did not figure it out over the next seven months. However, I am now dangerously close to proclaiming, "The USMNT is better against good teams than bad teams," and that's step too cute, even for me. This seems likely to be a very frustrating three-match slate for American fans, but after a tense first half, the U.S. breaks through -- and then breaks through again as Iran now have to push forward to stay alive.

Gab & Juls preview Group E at the 2022 World Cup, home to heavyweights Germany and Spain.

Gab & Juls wonder if 2022 is finally the year for Belgium's "golden generation" to come good.

While typically Uruguay would benefit from playing an already-eliminated team, Ghana should be up for this one with the opportunity to eliminate the team that eliminated them, tragically, 12 years ago. I see this one getting really weird and emotional. It ends with lots of goals -- just enough for Uruguay to sneak past South Korea via tiebreaker.

Switzerland has the slightly better -- and more balanced -- team, but this would be an electric match.

Gab & Juls explain what we can expect to see from Neymar and Brazil at the 2022 World Cup.

The ESPN FC crew debate who will have the best World Cup out of Jude Bellingham, Federico Valverde and Pedri.

Tite has turned Brazil into the best defensive team on the globe, and that's been true for the better part of a decade. Since he took over as coach, they've allowed 3.7 goals -- per year. Meanwhile, Luis Enrique has Spain playing like an elite club team: pressing high and dominating games with complex positional rotations in possession. This would be a title fight, but I think this is where Enrique's refusal to mine for edges -- leaving talented veterans off the squad, laughing away set pieces -- comes back to bite him.

In 2014, E60 went to Qatar to report on the plight of migrant workers there. This spring, they went back, to see what has changed, and not changed, in the last eight years.

The latter gets you out of the group stages; the former gets you to the World Cup semifinals.

Denmark really were worthy semifinalists in the summer of 2021, dominating the balance of chances in every match they played ... until England showed up.

Although it went to extra time, England outshot the Danes 20-6, putting nine on target to their opponent's three. The game was in England, of course, but England might have even more talent in Qatar than they had at the Euros. They overwhelmed Denmark last time, and the bounces didn't quite go their way until extra time.

For a number of reasons, this World Cup is going to be unlike anything we've seen, and so I think we should all just be way less confident in our predictions, in general. He says, after predicting every game in the tournament? Rather, I mean that I think there's more room for an underdog run and for big teams going down early than there has been in any other modern edition of the tournament. And so, the Danes get their revenge.

Gab & Juls preview Group H at the 2022 World Cup, with Portugal, Uruguay, Ghana and South Korea fighting to qualify.

This one shouldn't be any different. It'll be decided by a single moment or two that everyone in both countries will remember forever. Since it hasn't really happened for them since 2002, Brazil seems due for a few of those to go their way.

Among qualifiers from Europe, Denmark's matches featured the most possessions per team (93.5), while Germany were essentially the same (93.4). They both won roughly seven possessions per match in the attacking third -- both ranking behind only Japan in that regard. And they both moved the ball upfield at almost exactly the same speed: Denmark at 1.24 meters per second, Germany at 1.23.

It's 1 vs. 2 in the Twenty First Group ratings; it's the best defense vs. the best attack.

However, there's also a larger narrative at play in this one: Influenced by a number of innovations that began or were popularized in the Bundesliga, the European club game has become the global epicenter of the world's most popular sport. The best players and coaches and trainers and executives all tend to work in Europe. Pressing is Germany's major tactical export, and the national team does it as aggressively as anyone. Only Morocco and Senegal held their opponents to a lower pass-completion percentage than Flick's team (72.5%). Brazil, meanwhile, stand in refutation of the dominant trend, as they've allowed 82.7% of opposition passes to be completed -- a higher number than everyone in the tournament other than Costa Rica and France.

While there was supposed to be a global leveling in the international game, it seems like it's actually going in the other direction, with European sides becoming ever more dominant thanks to their proximity to the highest echelon of the sport. Among the past 12 top-three finishers at the World Cup, just one (Argentina, in 2014) comes from outside of Europe.

A win for Brazil would be a welcome, if temporary, reversal of where the game is going. Of course, if they do win, they'll be doing it with a roster composed almost completely of players who all work in the same place: Western Europe.