Welcome to the latest in a B/R series where we will take a tactical dive and explore each and every one of the 32 qualified World Cup teams.
Next up is Russia, a team which qualified first from Group F with 22 points, seven wins, one draw and two losses. Their consistent grip on the top spot forced Portugal into a dicey play-off with Sweden for a place in the finals.
Russia sealed qualification on the final day with a 1-1 draw with lowly Azerbaijan, but don't let that fool you: They were in pole position throughout the process.
They won their first four games in a row without conceding a single goal, including a tone-setting victory over Portugal in Moscow thanks to an Alexander Kerzhakov goal.
The Seleccao regained that ground not long after with a win in Lisbon but they couldn't match Russia's consistent winning habit and ended up a point shy.
Fabio Capello tried a number of players throughout qualifying but seems to have a very static first XI in mind already.
Formation and Style
Capello has crafted a solid system and careful playing style that utilises just one striker, a packed midfield and quick, direct counterattacks.
Russia are good on the ball—they showed that at Euro 2012 under Dick Advocaat in a free-flowing 4-3-3 formation—and while that's a product of individual skill, the familiarity factor in the squad is a big plus.
With only five goals conceded during qualifying (albeit against mostly lesser teams), Capello has stayed true to his Italian roots and crafted a clever defence and appropriate midfield shield ahead of them.
The line, led by CSKA Moscow stalwart Sergei Ignashevich, drops and pushes up very fluidly, picking up lose balls easily and dropping to create angles for periods of possession.
Working in their favour is a supremely energetic, hardworking midfield three, who close, snap and harry at the opponents' feet in every phase of the pitch. Even the lone striker, Kerzhakov, or perhaps Aleksandr Kokorin, works his tail off to pressure the opposition's deep-midfield playmakers.
There are very few samples worth using when checking on Russia's system and skill, as two games against Portugal (in qualifying) and an assortment of challenging friendlies have been the only true tests.
Capello will certainly settle on a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 formation for the finals ahead—perhaps venturing toward a 4-2-3-1 against weaker teams—but no matter the shape change, the discipline, work ethic and approach will remain the same.
Against Brazil Capello tried Kokorin and Kerzhakov together, and Russia nearly came away with a brilliant win.
Reasons for Hope
The experience this squad boasts is remarkable, with nine potential starters at the finals boasting 40 caps or more. They're incredibly used to playing with each other given that Capello only calls up Russian-based players, and Zenit St. Petersburg form a large chunk of his side's spine.
In addition to know-how, they possess a burning desire to impress, given their embarrassing and surprising knockout in the group stage of Euro 2012.
They should have sailed through a group containing Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic but slipped up when it mattered the most.
Capello's mastery of defensive football, coupled with Ignashevich's leadership and the brilliance of Igor Akinfeev, has seen central defence and central midfield become the best areas of this squad. Roman Shirokov is an excellent, unsung player, and his partnership with Viktor Faizulin is organic.
Throughout qualification, Capello only had limited use of potential ace in the hole Alan Dzagoev, a veritable star two summers ago in Poland and Ukraine. If he can come into a bigger role and further boost the attack, he's a difference-maker for the Russians.
Overall, if they sense blood and build their confidence, they can form an overwhelming sea of red.
Reasons for Concern
Russia excel when playing at a high tempo, but struggle when subjected to it themselves.
Their energetic midfield and high-press nature gobble up slower, ball-playing teams and swarm them with bodies, but if teams run straight at their hearts they'll start to look vulnerable themselves.
That's to be expected when you have Cristiano Ronaldo running at you for 180 minutes, but far lesser players too often caused their full-backs and central midfielders nightmares.
Russia's top scorer in qualifying was Kerzhakov, an established striker, but he managed just five goals. He split time with Kokorin, in his defence, but neither are top-level talents.
Kokorin joined Anzhi Makhachkala last summer for €19 million before the chairman switched philosophies and sold the entire team, but that's not a true measure of his skill, more an encapsulation of the overpriced Russian domestic market.
If the midfield don't step up and score goals and they've come to rely on Shirokov a fair amount, they could be in trouble.
With experience and hunger under their belts, a solid defence, talented midfield and a clever coach, Russia have the opportunity to do a Croatia circa 1998.
They drew Belgium in their group, which is bad news; in 2010 a friendly between the clubs exposed many of Russia's shortcomings. However, they are a much-evolved side since that date.
South Korea will be their target, and if they can't beat them they can forget about qualifying.
Prediction: 3rd in Group H
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!