Group B: Belgium, Denmark, Russia, Finland

Group B is a group that has teams; no one could possibly debate that. You could say that my excitement for Group B is relatively low compared to the rest, and it’s not hard to understand why. Belgium is clearly the class of the group; the number 1 ranked team in the World always has lofty expectations before any big tournament, but they’ve rarely lived up to the hype. Denmark has some high-quality players, but their lack of depth is a concern. Russia and Finland are there as well. Let’s get into our 3 questions for each team. 

Belgium

Are they good?:

Belgium are objectively an excellent side. That doesn’t mean they don’t have concerns, and probably their biggest concern is their dearth of in-form wingers.

Eden Hazard’s dream move to Real Madrid has been nothing but a nightmare that’s lasted for two years. When he isn’t injured, he’s coming to training overweight, and when he’s not doing that, he’s struggling to have an impact at all on the pitch. It’s sad to see the career of one of the most electrifying players of the past decade fizzle away like this, but maybe the Euro’s is the motivation Hazard needs to regain some form; Belgium sure hopes so. Jeremy Doku had a promising Ligue 1 season at just 18 years old and turns 19 next week. He’s a fantastic dribbler, as shown by the fact that he ranks in the 97th percentile in Europe in progressive carries. He also is in the 96th percentile in dribbles completed. However, Doku’s inability to get on the scoresheet more than every now and then means he shouldn’t be relied upon to do much more than provide a spark off the bench. Doku only had 2 goals and 2 assists for Rennes this season. 

Yannick Carrasco, Nacer Chadli and Leandro Trossard can undoubtedly do a job, but they don’t match the attackers that teams like England or France have. 

Belgium’s weakness out wide might not matter if manager Roberto Martinez decides to utilize a 3-4-2-1 formation. A formation that would allow Belgium’s 3 best players to flourish. Of course, I’m talking about Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens. De Bruyne, in what was candidly not a great year by his standards, still finished with 5 goals and 11 assists and usually thrives in Belgium’s setup. Mertens had another fine year at the heart of Napoli’s attack, scoring 9 from open play, and assisting 8, despite his playtime being cut in half with the arrival of Victor Oshimen.

Finally, the man who will lead the line for the Red Devils, Romelu Lukaku, was second in the Serie A in non-penalty expected goals and scored 17 non-penalty goals. With De Bruyne’s ability to transport the ball from deep in a variety of ways, Mertens knack for finding open space in the final 3rd, and Lukaku’s pure goal-scoring ability, Belgium should have no problems scoring and scoring a lot.

In terms of keeping the ball out of their net, they shouldn’t struggle too much during group play. Toby Alderweireld is clearly in the “past his prime” phase of his career, but playing in a back 3 suits his style of play just fine. Jason Denayer has gone under the radar in the grand discourse of the world’s best centrebacks, but he’s had back-to-back quality seasons for Lyon.

It seems that Martinez trusts the experience and the left foot of Jan Vertonghen, and it’d be hard to argue otherwise when looking at his options. Vertonghen’s absence of any pace is easier to deal with in a back 3, and he’s still a fine ballplayer. In between the sticks, Thibaut Courtois had another fantastic season for Real, ranking 3rd in La Liga post-shot xG minus goals allowed, a stat that simplifies goalies abilities to shot stop. He had a tremendous World Cup 3 years ago as well. 

Youri Tielemans inconsistency has been a concern, but he’s clearly Belgium’s best central midfielder on the ball when playing at his best. A partnership with the defensive-minded Axel Witsel in midfield could get exposed come the later rounds, but again will be good enough to top the group easily.

On the whole, I don’t think they’re favourites to win the tournament, but they’re definitely legitimate contenders to take home the trophy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if De Bruyne takes home Player of the Tournament.

Are they fun?:

To be honest, Roberto Martinez played a very pragmatic style relying on individual talent to get his team through to the Semi-Finals of the last World Cup, and I can’t see him changing. Belgium was still fun to watch 3 years ago, but that was primarily due to just how good Hazard and KDB were playing. They’re definitely a team worth watching because of their talent, but they wouldn’t be at the top of my list in terms of playing style and tactically.

Are they underdogs?:

They’re the number 1 ranked team in the world.

Denmark

Are they good?:

Denmark is filled with players with tons of experience playing in Europe and in European competitions. They’re like that album that is like 18 songs long, but 7 of them are good. It’s okay, you like the album, but you wouldn’t classify it as anything more than “a pretty good album.” That might not make any sense, but not much of what I say does. The point is they’re good enough to make games interesting but not good enough to really matter in the grand scheme of the tournament. 

Denmark’s strengths revolve around their midfield trio of Christian Eriksen, Pierre-Emilie Hojbjerg and Thomas Delaney. Eriksen is another former Spurs player that has seen better years, but it would be silly to say he’s lost his god-given talent to create for his teammates. Hojbjerg and Delaney combine to sit in front of and protect the back 4, and although neither is particularly good on the ball, they both are aggressive, determined ball winners.  Their job is to get the ball to Eriksen. 

Arguably Denmark’s most exciting player, Joakim Maehle, is usually a right-back for club side Atalanta, but he fills in admirably at left-back for Denmark. He’s your typical speedy wingback and was signed by Atalanta in the summer. If Atalanta wants you, it’s usually a pretty good sign that you’re a great player, and Maehle is no different. The runs in behind that he commonly makes will be critical for Denmark when they’re struggling to break down teams like Finland and Russia. Beside him, the Danes have one centre-back who is admittedly imperfect at basically everything other than passing the ball and another centre-back who is nearly the exact opposite. Andreas Christensen and Simon Kjaer aren’t what I’d call an authoritative pairing, but it’s the best Denmark can muster. Although, don’t be surprised if Jannik Vestergaard gets a look if they struggle against Finland in game 1.

Jonas Wind plays as Denmark’s lone striker, and respectfully, I don’t really have much to say about him as, sadly, my subscription to the Danish Superliga channel expired before this year. I am very keen to watch him play though, his stats are pretty funny. Wind scored 15 goals for FC Copenhagen this year, but 9 of them were penalties. However, he also added 7 assists, so he’s clearly got some attacking ability. Yussuf Poulsen will also be expected to help Wind carry the goalscoring load, but he has had back-to-back years with just 5 Bundesliga goals after scoring 15 in 18-19.

Are they fun?:

Denmark’s as entertaining as a free video game that you play when all the other sports games are at the end of their cycle, and you think the cover looks really cool; So you try it and pretend to like it for like a week, and then you get tired of it and uninstall it because it’s actually kind of boring. Denmark will be fun to watch early on as the excitement of just having the Euro’s back hasn’t worn off yet, but by the time the quarters come around, you’re sorta begging they lose.

Are they underdogs?:

I’d say Denmark aren’t really underdogs. I mean, they’re 10th in the World rankings for whatever that’s worth, but they’ve also just been around too much in the last decade to be true underdogs. They have a small population, but they’re clearly making the most of their minimal player pool.

Russia

Are they good?:

No. They’re not. That doesn’t mean they won’t perform well; it just means that on the surface, they don’t look like they have the talent needed to go far in the tournament. Only 3 of Russia’s players on their provisional 29 man squad play outside of Russia, so if you don’t know many of their players, it’s hard to blame you. 

The main man for Russia is Aleksander Golovin, who plays for Monaco. The midfielder got a massive move to Ligue 1 on the back of his World Cup performances, which many thought were nothing more than just a flash in the pan. Those people have been proven to be right for the most part, as Golovin had struggled to make an impact in a Monaco team that had undergone severe turmoil since he joined. 

But, surprisingly, Golovin had his best season for Monaco by far this year, totalling 14 goals and assists. He only made 11 starts, though, due to numerous injury problems; hopefully, he’s all healthy and ready to go come June. He’ll be at the heart of most of Russia’s attacks and will dominate the ball whenever they manage to have it for a prolonged period. His quickness on the ball and two-footed ability will make him the sole focus of any opposition’s defensive game plan.  On the surface

Another one of those 3 players is Aleksei Miranchuk, the Atalanta attacker played just 671 minutes this season in Serie A this year, but his stats were off the charts. Remember, small sample size, but he can do things that no one else in this Russia squad can. 

Big, burly striker Artem Dzyuba led the Russian Premier League in goals this year with 20, and he’ll try to annoy opposing centre-backs as much as humanly possible. Denis Makarov is another one to watch out for. This season, the 23-year-old winger netted 7 times for Rubin Kazan and should play a prominent role in Russia’s wide attack.

Are they fun:

Fuck no. They play some dreadful soccer, and barely any of their players are good technically. They’re probably the worst team to watch in this entire tournament. 

Are they underdogs?:

Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner! Russia has scored “No” in all 3 categories. Calling Russia an underdog in literally anything is akin to saying Pep Guardiola has hair. It’s just flat-out wrong, and it’s a disgrace to people who do have hair to even say such a thing.

Finland

Are they good?:

Sadly, no. Finland isn’t a football nation, that much is clear, but they have made serious strides over the past couple of years. Led by captain and striker Teemu Pukki, it’s never a bad thing to have your best player being the one who scores the goals. And that’s all Teemu Pukki does. The Norwich player scored 29 goals in 18-19, 11 in the Premier League last year, and then led Norwich back to the Premier League this season scoring 21 non-penalty goals. He’ll be feeding off scraps for the most part, but his finishing is good enough that he won’t need too many chances to find the back of the net. 

Besides Pukki, Finland will hope that Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky can stand on his head as much as possible. Hradecky has had back-to-back lovely seasons for Leverkusen rankings 1st and 4th in PSxG minus goals allowed in 19/20 and 20/21 respectively. Most cinderella sides have a goalie that is able to make every ridiculous save needed to keep his team in the game, and Hradecky will try to be no different.

Rangers Glen Kamara will try to hold down the midfield for the Finns, coming off a league title-winning season with the Scottish club. He’s tough and reads the game well, making 1.5 interceptions per 90 minutes. 

Finland will be up against it, they just lack the quality of nearly every other team in the competition, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a team you should be rooting for!

Are they fun?:

Finland won’t really get the chance to be fun. They’re not going to have really any of the ball realistically, and they’ll have to rely on the counterattack. They play a 5-3-2 formation usually, which doesn’t normally make for exhilarating football. It will be fun to see how long they can hold off Denmark or Belgium from scoring, and if they are able to get a lead, then it will be thrilling to watch how the match ends.

Are they underdogs?:

They are the most underdogs, like by far. Finland has never competed in either a World Cup or a Euro’s in the history of their national team. They have an incredibly passionate fanbase, and they’re just an all-around great team to root for. Managing to even get a point, let alone making the knockouts, would be a great achievement for the Nordic side.

MVP of the Group: Kevin De Bruyne

U-23 Players to Watch: Jeremy Doku, Jonas Wind, Marcus Forss

Group B predictions 

  1. Belgium
  2. Denmark
  3. Finland
  4. Russia