Push Notification

2022 FIFA World Cup Tactical Preview: Serbia

There seems to be a modern trend at major international tournaments, in that we usually see a team filling the role of “underdog” or “dark horse” but putting on displays that capture the hearts and minds of football fans around the world. From Greece in the 2004 Euros to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup, we always seem to get at least one nation upsetting the apple cart that is the group of favourites.

One country that could fall into that category in Qatar is Serbia, a team who have recently topped their group in the UEFA Nations League, and also topped their FIFA World Cup qualification group, finishing above Portugal to do so. Serbia’s World Cup debut as just Serbia (not part of Yugoslavia or Serbia & Montenegro) was in 2010, but they are officially recognised as the successor of Yugoslavia, meaning they inherited all of the Yugoslavian records and history. 

As Serbia, they have qualified for two World Cups so far, failing to get past the group stage. However, they are enjoying arguably the most successful time in their short history, and many fancy them to get through the group stage, in which they face Brazil, Switzerland, and Cameroon. 

Current manager Dragan Stojković has been at the helm since 2021 and can take a lot of credit for his team’s form, winning 13 of his 20 games in charge so far. His squad has a good balance of youth and experience, as we will see with the visuals that follow in this tactical analysis.

Predicted Starting XI

For some time now, Stojković has favoured a three-at-the-back system but likes to switch the overall shape based on the players he has available but also the opposition. In many of the recent Nations League matches, they played a system of 3-4-2-1, with Aleksandar Mitrović leading the line alone. However, he has also experimented with 3-5-2 which allows for Dušan Vlahović to join Mitrović in attack to create a frightening partnership. 

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics

The number one goalkeeper spot really is up for grabs, with Serbia giving minutes to three different keepers in recent times. We predict that Vanja Milinković-Savić will be the first choice, but Predrag Rajkovic could also claim the number one spot.

We will likely see a back three of Milos Veljkovic, Stefan Mitrović and Strahinja Pavlovic, with Filip Kostić and Andrija Zivkovic operating on the flanks offering support both in and out of possession. Skipper Dusan Tadić will operate in an attacking midfielder role, with the creative freedom to drift into wide areas in build-up phases.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics

Above is a representation of the age range in the Serbia squad, with players who we believe could be in the squad — goalkeepers down to attackers. As we can see, there is a variety of youth and experience, with the majority of the players falling in the 24-30 age range — around the time when players often reach their peak years as a player. 

Experienced figures like Dusan Tadić and Stefan Mitrović could be very influential players both on the field and in the dressing room, while younger faces like Juventus star Dušan Vlahović and Strahinja Pavlovic could offer a youthful sense to the squad.

Attacking Phase

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics

Historically, Serbia have been a team that’s relied upon the physical side of the game rather than the technical side. However, they have some players that bring the balance to that, giving them another dimension in the threat department.

As expected, due to their physical ability as a side, they rate highly in the set-piece efficiency, coming in at 81.8 on the percentile rank. Their attacking unit that boasts strength and height certainly contributes to this.

They also enjoy a high attacking presence, shown by their percentile rank of 69.6 for touches in penalty area per match, along with their rank for shots per match; they are a team that likes to take advantage of being in the opposition half.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics
Serbia will look to progress with confidence and a high presence further up the pitch.

While Serbia like to utilise the width of the pitch with the eventual aim of getting crosses into the box, they are not the one-dimensional, long-ball team that some people may have once thought. They have displayed an element of patience in their approach play which has allowed them to commit more players forward.

We see this above as they look to play out of defence to reach the midfield third with the chance of breaking into the attacking third. They have a high presence between the opposition back line and midfield unit, with options scattered from left to right.

 

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics
Serbia will look to attack from wide and utilise their physical presence in the box.

Their approach play when reaching the midfield against a deeper defence has good variation, but wing play is still their end game. To begin the move, they hold a passage of play in a central area, almost lulling the opponents into a false sense of security. As a result, the opponents adopt a narrow shape, giving space to Serbia’s wide men — that is when the pass is executed.

From there, the presence in the box tries to find space and generally be a nuisance for the opposition as they await the cross — physicality and aerial superiority are two strong traits of this Serbian team in attack.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics
Serbia will look to attack quickly and break lines where possible.

This example encompasses the tactical elements of both previous examples. With the opposition parked inside their own half, this acts as an invitation to Serbia to play as they wish. They incorporate the element of high presence as previously discussed, again the attacking players’ locations varying rather than staying nearby.

A line-breaking pass is fired into Kostić as he finds himself in an unbelievable amount of space, giving Serbia the chance to take the attack to the next level. This is a strong skill of the Serbians — recognising a chance and taking advantage of opposition downfalls, punishing any mistake.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics
More wide play from Serbia with some clever movement.

From there, their attack is simple yet precise and effective. Everyone shows a tremendous understanding of the tactics and their individual roles. Good initial ball control on the half turn from Kostić allows the fluidity of the attack to remain, and he follows it with an accurate pass into space. The attack finishes with a neat cut-back cross before the ball is buried in the net.

Serbia are direct in their attacking approach, but not direct in the sense of just lumping the ball forward. Sure, we will see that from time to time, but their directness often lies in forward passes with a purpose, a genuine attacking intent.

Defensive Phase

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics
As we have seen, the Serbian tactics demand a certain level of consistent energy, which is present in some of their defensive percentile ranks. Out of possession, they look to smother the opposition, demonstrated by their rank of 84.8 for recoveries per match. They also perform efficiently in recoveries in the final third and interceptions.

However, there are questions relating to their defensive work. While they excel in defensive reactions in the opposition half/immediate actions, they apparently lack that same energy and quality when it comes to clearances and defensive duels won per match. If they look to progress into the latter rounds of the World Cup, they will have to learn to adjust in a way that blocks out the attacks of higher-quality sides.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics
A Serbian high press is likely a feature we will see during the World Cup

This first defensive analysis shows Serbia defending in the opposition’s half. As we know by now, they are a highly energetic team that gives very little away in the form of time and space. They like to press — even the slightest trigger can launch a press, and, similar to their attacking play, everyone involved in the press seems to understand their role.

This has proven to be an effective method off the ball against teams who would not be considered one of the World Cup favourites, so they would have to be extra careful if they execute such a tactic against one of those sides.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics
A typical Serbian set up out of possession when a high press is not available.

When defending in their own half, we see some interesting variations in shape. While the numbers sometimes differ, there is a pattern; they look to bring midfielder(s) into defensive action to create a compact back four (alternatively, the wingers will drop in to make a back five). 

This raises the presence in the centre, giving the opposition very little room to build an attack, and the narrow shape of the midfielders looks to force the opponents out wide. Interestingly, in between the makeshift back four and the midfield, the wingers sometimes operate, almost acting as protection to the narrow defence. A unique yet clever defensive method that leaves little in the way of space for the opponents.

Transitions

Serbia’s width in possession is obviously a part of their desire to attack the flanks in the final third and get crosses into the box, and this comes in extremely useful in the event of a turnover. Unless they are looking to see a game out, when they retrieve the ball, particularly in the midfield third, they look to break quickly with a strong attacking presence.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics
Serbia will look to break quickly when they regain possession.

After winning possession in their own half near the centre circle, the reaction of all and any Serbian player in front of the ball tells the story. Not one of them is caught on their heels as the team looks to hit the opposition quickly, taking advantage of any lack of shape. With multiple runners in the move, it is extremely difficult for the disorganised opponents to effectively shut down the move or mark the runners, which is where Serbia become deadly. Due to their highly aggressive players in attack, they could be one of the deadliest counterattacking teams at this year’s World Cup.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics
A counterpress will be Serbia’s go-to when they lose the ball.

In the event of a turnover where Serbia lose possession, their instinct is to win it back immediately. The aggression level of this counterpress depends on the location of the turnover. For example, the analysis above occurs in the opposition half, so Serbia look to swarm the Slovenian man and limit his options. Beyond the initial press, they also try to have at least one more midfielder behind offering protection.

Attackers

Serbia’s attack is probably the most predictable in the whole competition. Sure, some nations have a star striker but they also have impressive backup options that offer significant chances of damage in the final third. Serbia, however, lack some depth below Mitrović and Vlahović.

Mitrović has been present in English football for some time now but has only ever made a statement in the EFL Championship; this is not a reflection of his ability, but his team’s adjustment to top-tier football. He excels in a team that provides frequent chances in the box. 

Beyond those two, it is slim pickings in terms of quality. Concerning experience, they are layered. Luka Jović comes the closest to a quality replacement, but beyond that, their options dimmish somewhat. While Aleksandar Katai may possess the experience, his international record does not reflect that of a player who will make an impact. Meanwhile, the lesser-experienced options also have offered little in the way of a major attacking impact.

In total even with limited options, Serbia have one of the most, if not the most dangerous attacking partnerships in the whole competition. Keeping them both fit and in form is a task of their own and will rely on the performance of the rest of the team.

Midfielders

In recent fixtures, some notable names have either been absent or not featured as much as some would expect. There may be some behind-the-scenes motives powering this, or it may simply be down to the plethora of talent at their disposal. 

While the creativity and all-around solid nature of Sergej Milinković-Savić is essentially irreplaceable, there are other midfield figures they can bring in with a slight tactical alteration. Players who have been included in recent fixtures like Filip Đuričić and Ivan Ilić will offer another dynamic from the bench. 

One player whose place is questionable is the experienced Nemanja Gudelj, who would certainly bring an element of quality to the table if called upon; his versatility as a midfielder opens up various tactical approaches.

The Serbians rank well in forward passes which shows an attacking determination which can be seen in a variety of actions from their midfield unit; they can also take some credit for the impressive xG percentile.

Defenders

It would seem that Serbia’s back three essentially picks itself, based on recent fixtures. There has been little change, with the three names matching those in our predicted line-up early on in the report.

The main competitors in contention for squad places are Strahinja Eraković and Nikola Milenkovic; both have played parts in the Nations League and World Cup qualifiers triumphs.

Serbia boasted the best defensive record in the recent Nations League, conceding five goals in six fixtures — defensive form they will have to replicate if they are to navigate their way to the latter stages of the competition.

As Serbia are expected to field a three-at-the-back shape, their wide midfielders will be required to fill certain defensive responsibilities. In line with this, they have wingers who can perform per team needs, but one that stands out is Mihailo Ristić – predominantly a left-back at club level, but one who has been used as a winger for Serbia in recent times, offering a more defensive option in that area.

Key Player

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Serbia tactical analysis tactics

While there are arguments for players like Dušan Vlahović and Dusan Tadić could be considered key players for Serbia, we believe Aleksandar Mitrović will be the difference maker. His aggressive play style could benefit the Serbians in multiple areas, and his link-up play with the wingers could be a huge part of any success they have.

He excels in attacking involvement, which we can see in stats like non-penalty goals (0.77), xG per 90 (0.73), and shots per 90 (3.75) — all of which rank high on the percentile chart. He is a player that rarely drifts into wide areas, often tending to operate in central zones, which links to his average of 9.83 offensive duels per 90, and while his win rate of 31.12% may initially seem low to some but when a lot of those duels will be in the box against opposition defenders, that rate is actually impressive as it indicates a dangerous presence in the box.

When it comes to his passing, we see his ability, or his impact at least, vary. He contributes nicely with passes to the final third (2.45) and through passes per 90 (0.96) — stats that indicate his involvement in the build-up phase is more frequent than he gets credit for, and the percentile rank for both of those suggests a consistency to it. 

Tournament Prediction

There is somewhat of a hushed buzz about this Serbia side. We’ve seen the same energy/thoughts about Belgium in the past, as well as other hopeful nations, but Serbia will remain in the mid-card group of teams for many fans. They have players that can elevate them from this expectation and if they start the tournament on their own terms and manage to qualify, they could well upset proceedings and reach the semi-finals. Progressing from the group stage is likely a must in the Serbian camp.