Even though this will be Iceland‘s first World Cup, the squad have plenty of experience in terms of years and international caps won together. The smallest nation to play in the finals found their form in stunning fashion shortly after Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson took charge at the end of 2011, and the team has been largely based on the same group of players, formation and strategy since. These players aim to surprise the world this summer, just as they did by reaching the quarter-finals at Euro 2016.
“Our aim is clear and that is to qualify from the group. When we qualify we will not have to fear any possible opponent because we will have left two of Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria out,“ Hallgrímsson said when he announced the World Cup squad.
While Lagerbäck – who quit after Euro 2016 – was wed to a 4-4-2 formation, Hallgrímsson has been shifting towards 4-5-1 against stronger nations. This gives the captain, Aron Gunnarsson, more help in defending with the calm and confident passer Emil Hallfreðsson by his side, and also gives the sharp-shooting Gylfi Sigurðsson a free role in front of them. Gunnarsson and Sigurðsson, arguably the team’s two most important players, have made the perfect midfield pair for years but both have grappled with injuries coming into the World Cup. Being without one of them would be a blow for Iceland, but Hallfreðsson and Birkir Bjarnason have shown they can step in.
Barring injuries, Bjarnason and Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson will play on the wings. Guðmundsson is always a threat with his good left foot but Bjarnason also has an eye for goal, and both are very disciplined defensively. That goes for the whole team, even the main strikers Jón Dadi Bödvarsson, who never stops running, and Alfred Finnbogason of Augsburg, who is one of the Bundesliga‘s best goalscorers. Iceland will play defensively, but seek to punish opponents with well-worked counterattacks and from set pieces, not least the long throw-ins of Gunnarsson. They aim to form the best-organised and most disciplined team in the world but also have great individual qualities in a golden generation of midfielders and strikers that should be reaching the peak of their careers.
Hannes Pór Halldórsson has been solid as Iceland‘s first-choice goalkeeper for the past six years, with central defenders and best friends Kári Árnason and Ragnar Sigurðsson in front of him. The pair attracted much attention in Euro 2016 but since then Sverrir Ingi Ingason has moved very near to taking one of their spots. Hörður Magnússon, aged 25, is a tall but technical left-back and the youngest player in the starting lineup. The speedy Birkir Már Sævarsson is first pick at right-back.
Probable starting eleven: (4-4-1-1)
Sævarsson Árnason R Sigurðsson Magnússon
Guðmundsson Gunnarsson Hallfreðsson Bjarnason
Likely to surprise: Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson. Guðmundsson has become increasingly valuable to the Iceland team in recent years and his left foot is likely to turn heads in Russia. He arrives off the back of a terrific season with Burnley, where he had a big influence in earning the Clarets a Europa League spot. Everyone expects Gylfi Sigurdsson to lead Iceland‘s attacking game but Gudmundsson might take over and has the whole package with his speed, technique, shooting and passing, along with good defensive awareness.
Likely to disappoint: Birkir Már Sævarsson. Sævarsson chose to come home and play for Valur in Iceland’s semi-pro local league, which might affect his game in Russia. He has also had little or no competition for the right-back role and might feel a little bit too comfortable. Solid in almost every match up until now, but might prove a weak link against some of the best wingers in the world in Russia.
Realistic aim: Qualification for the knock-out stage is a realistic aim for Iceland but there is no room for error. The downside of having a team that has played for so long together, who know each other inside-out, is that much depends on these players being fit and ready.