The All-Russia 2018 is at the end, but I've got a few things to get off my chest before we get there.
The art of making your work look really hard and thus yourself a paragon of Weberian virtue, or why it was worse than it looked with Olivier Giroud.
Much has been made of the seeming haplessness demonstrated by Olivier Giroud’s inability to score during the World Cup, and more cuttingly, the failure to place a shot on goal in seven matches (six as the starting #9). Perhaps Giroud deserves a bit of slack, though, here: it was his shot that careened off of Peruvian keeper, only to be tapped over the line by Kylian Mbappe for the winner, and if not for the superb sliding intervention by Moussa Dembele, he might well have converted the finish off the brilliant Mbappe back heel pass against Belgium. Some of his misses were staggering, but he was not wholly hapless as a shooter; he had at least a scintilla of hap.
While I’ll cut him a little slack there, the rush to defend his importance otherwise has struck me as grossly overblown and in some cases pure sleight of hand. Conor Laird’s argument repeats the conventional wisdom that was part and parcel of the Fox dogma: “In Giroud’s defence, though he didn’t find the net or even hit the target once over the last month, the veteran hitman did prove a crucial presence up top for Didier Deschamps’ men, with his hold-up play and presence as an outlet having proven invaluable to the fortunes of the world champions.”
This is wildly at odds with what I saw. Giroud’s impression of an outlet delivering “hold-up” play for France was a great illusion, as if one still saw turnpike toll booths as providing the same slowdown as in the days of yore, when in fact cars are blowing through on their digital fast passes. There was barely any hold-up play. Little of a target that was actually hit. No bevy of aerial duels won or flicks that created chances; fouls against which relieved pressure and created their own dangerous set pieces. And perhaps the greatest illusion of all: a work rate that made a difference on the press.
Now to be clear, I’ve got nothing personal against Giroud; I’ve watched him a lot while rooting for Arsenal, and he’s always been a classy guy, team-first, gives it everything he’s got. The Gooners loved to sing the anthemic refrain of “Hey Jude” rephrased as “...Na-na-na-na, Gi-rouuuuuuuuud!”, which was always a charmer. He’s a likable fellow, not bad when set up on a platter as he’s cruising to the near post on his left foot, occasionally good for a header of note, not bad with Arsenal when the ball is played into his feet. Sometimes you need a tall body for set pieces (mind you, height doesn’t=aerial results); and clearly France were far more effective with Mbappe on the wing than in the center; someone thus had to play up front. Maybe you need an old, reliable hand among youth. The French side clearly benefited from unity, and he seems like he’s a unifying guy. But France’s success had little to do with what is being ascribed to Giroud, who has left in his wake a stream of exculpatory pundits.
Giroud did a bit better in the final, where he managed to make 6 passes to Griezmann, but most of the balls lobbed at him (10 from Lloris, 6 from Hernandez) came to nothing. He offered little combination play (Griezmann and Pogba found him once, Mbappe not at all). Giroud completed 15 of 28 passes in the last game, won less aerial duels than Griezmann, drew no fouls, had 1 headed clearance (same as Griezmann), and tied with Kante for most fouls committed. Indeed, he was a fouling machine, turning offensive opportunity into mandates to defend for France.
The passing stats from the Belgium game are likewise instructive:
Lukaku to Hazard: 8
Hazard to Lukaku: 7
Pavard to Mbappe: 15
Pavard to Pogba: 8
Matuidi to Giroud: 5
Lloris to Giroud: 4
Giroud to Griezmann: 2
Giroud to Pogba : 1
Giroud to Mbappe: 0
Lastly, Giroud was 10th of all World Cup players in average “Bad Control Per Game,” marking times when his touch let him down.
Soccer is a difficult game to boil down to statistics, but these match the eye test. Giroud didn’t win many of the balls lobbed at him, and wasn’t even the preferred outlet for France on many occasions. He combined far too little with the key players in France’s attack and gave the ball away cheaply. On that note, he fouls rather incessantly and boorishly; few fouls are high-risk, high-reward options, or ones that need to be committed because immediate danger lurks.
Giroud gives a great effort, yes, but is so slow and tires so readily that it is often to little effect. He can’t draw many defenders with a bold diagonal run, doesn’t require double teaming when he gets the ball, and offers no pace to threaten a high line. He just doesn’t stretch the defense.
France was very poor at pressing the opposition, which was definitely due to the game plan, but this put the back 7--and especially the back 4--was under immense pressure throughout the last two games. They delivered in spades. But Giroud was lauded for his work rate simply because looks exhausted and burdened while he’s doing it. Indeed, I think Giroud and I have something in common here: if you look haggard while performing your job, people will think that you are just working yourself to the bone, and praise your diligence, while the perkier sort (think the bouncing Griezmann) are more associated with frivolity, when indeed they cover far more ground. While Giroud gives you everything he’s got, I’m not convinced it’s that much.
In the end, give the guy credit for being mentally strong to withstand a heap of criticism (even in victory), and for being a consummate team-first, stand-up fellow. In the end, the team around him was so strong that this is all they needed. I’d even cut him a little slack for not scoring. But perhaps his greatest skill is a master of illusions: there wasn’t any meaning hold up play, target-man heroics, combination play, or defensive pressure that led to dispossessions.
Raheem the Redeemer?: The English parallel to the Giroud debates, nobody split opinions more widely than Raheem Sterling. In my England Preview, I suggested that his profligacy around the goal was likely to be a bigger problem when he wasn’t being fed buckets of chances from the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, and indeed this was the case. As Barney Ronay classically captured in his depiction of a Sterling miss against Tunisia, Sterling would get into the greatest positions and then utterly fumble the key line:
With three minutes gone a lovely little knot of passes left Raheem Sterling in front of goal, all on his own, ball at his feet. Sterling did not just miss it, he double-missed it. He seemed to be trying to tap dance on top of the ball, to ride it like bicycle, striking it with both feet while haring in at top speed in such a way the ball was left trickling with a sickly, taunting little roll wide of a post.
Sterling continued his pattern of non-delivery by botching a 1 v. 1 against the Swedish keeper, and passing up on a chance to shoot when Strinic coughed up the ball against Croatia. There’s something eerily star-crossed about how he misses, as if all his brilliance is cursed once within the penalty box. With Marcus Rashford, another speed demon who hints at a greater appearance of ruthlessness on the bench, it was hard to argue that Sterling should keep his place, and that’s what I thought going into the Sweden match.
Looking back though, a few things are clear: When he left the pitch against Colombia and Croatia, England completely buckled. No one else could replace the running that he did, and the opposition backlines became far steadier. Sweden and Croatia were both turned inside out by him in the first halves of those games, and had Harry Kane buried the bad-angle open net shot against Croatia, England go to the final and Sterling’s rampages would have been noted as key to the undoing of the checkerboard juggernaut. While I’m not biting on the exculpatory case for Giroud, I’ve come around to the one for Sterling, even with misses that were more spectacular than those of the French striker. England simply didn’t look very good when he wasn’t on the pitch. This might seem wildly inconsistent, but I"m convinced another #9 could have done as well as Giroud did for France, while that's not clearly the case with England and Sterling.
Player that Grows On You Award: I watched Blaise Matuidi a few times with PSG and France before this Cup, and came away without any lasting impression. Silly me. Over the few games this time--including his absences--one could see some immense qualities. Essentially, I came to see him as a second Kante, deployed a bit higher up the pitch, but a similar ball-hawking, space-eating machine who allowed Mbappe to be less engaged in defensive work, and helped jam the midfield as well. His passes were quick and purposeful, and he was the Man of the Match for me against Belgium, playing a key role in shackling De Bruyne. France have far more exciting players (Lemar, Dembele, and Tolisso), but I don’t know if they beat Belgium without him. Certainly others caught my eye but Matuidi was emblematic of this experience.
The First Goal and the Croatian Exception: Getting on top was everything, really. No great surprise here, but it was key to every upset: Mexico over Germany; Sweden over Mexico; Belgium over Brazil; France over Belgium and everyone. Teams like Uruguay and Denmark thrived on not being behind and eventually finding their moment, while dangerous teams like Peru and Morocco struggled mightily without the first goal. If Brazil scores first against Belgium--say Silva’s touch off the post goes in rather than Kompany’s flick off Fernandinho--and Alderweireld’s great spin-shot or Caceres’s header aren’t clawed away by Lloris, those games change radically. France did have to come from behind against Argentina, but that was against a ridiculously weak defensive team. Belgium’s comeback against Japan was epic, but nobody can hold a candle to Croatia, who were down in every knockout game (Denmark, Russia, England, and France) and levelled them all. It’s a phenomenal achievement when one considers how many teams were utterly incapable of changing the result once they were in the hole.
Death by Legacy: I had a sense going in that age--and in particular the overbearing gravity of the faded star player--would play a role in sinking some teams. I was spot-on about Argentina, whom I thought would simply be too slow to defend, but didn’t catch that Germany was the real poster child for this phenomenon. What we wouldn’t give to see Leroy Sane in Thomas Muller’s place, and someone else in Khedira’s? Or Pekerman moving away from Carlos Sanchez? Meanwhile, England was finally out from a nearly 20-year curse of being beholden to aged stars, from Beckham to Gerrard to Rooney, and France’s youth revolution of course won the day. It’s hard to move past the legends of a national side, but the imperative to a ruthless disdain for sentimentalism is key. Perhaps only Oscar Tabarez has really escaped the curse of the long-term manager who plays one too many hands with the same deck. It's football's "Innovator's Dilemma," (with apologies to Jill Lepore) where a manager has to be willing to jettison what made a team great in the past.
Visions of Sampaoli Have Conquered My Mind: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet,” Bob Dylan once wrote in a line that certainly must describe the poor Argentinian ex-coach, a loud man reduced to wordless horror for long stretches in Russia. Nothing compared to the Edward Munch looks of horror that progressively took over the Argentinian manager’s face as he watched everything come crashing down against Croatia. It was painfully visceral to watch, and it encapsulated the true sense of living a nightmare that can arise in a Cup competition. Each time we see a team come undone (Spain in 2014, France in 2010, Brazil against Germany in 2014, England pretty much every Cup this century until this one) it is wrenching,, but none unfolded so spectacularly, with such grandiose hubris, as Sampaoli’s project did at the hands of the Bike Messenger King. It was if the manager had leapt off of the mountain, Icarus-winged, but unlike the mythic figure’s solo journey, he was roped to some of the game’s most illustrious players, an entire team, and an entire nation, the concatenation all being dragged into the sea, wings and dignity melted. That they crawled out in spectacular fashion against Nigeria, and gasped for air--and even the chalice briefly in hand-- against France, was a spectacular recovery, but somehow the horror of Sampaoli’s face is indelibly etched into my mind. It’s a helpless feeling when a coach’s grand scheme is utterly exposed. I’ve known that feeling, but a beard is good for concealing those feelings.
Yellow Accumulations Mattered: Two obvious ones stand out here: Brazil missing Casemiro against Belgium, and Belgium missing Thomas Meunier against France. I’d really love to see a replay of those two games with both teams at full strength. The Swiss missing their right flank of defense (Lichsteiner and the impressive Schar) against Sweden, and Mexico missing the excellent Hector Moreno against Brazil were also consequential, and I'd wager a Switzerland-Croatia semi-final if they'd been around.
VAR: Briefly, as this is probably an epic tome somewhere: overall, a positive. It helped referees not have to make snap decisions that were irrevocable, and it gave them some space from haranguing hordes of players (only Colombia really crossed this line with the in-over-his-head Mark Geiger in the England match). A referee could simply say “they’re checking upstairs” if there was anything to check. While it didn’t truly cut down on diving (no one was carded post-haste), it gave referees more carte blanche to ignore the iffy call, and it was critical in a game that might have changed everything: Davinson Sanchez’s ridiculously good tackle on Sadio Mane seemed certain to be a PK in the Colombia-Senegal match, and there was no way the referee could see it as anything but, yet when seen from the opposite angle, one could see it was brilliant. Colombia probably don’t go through without the benefit of the technology.
Of course it’s not perfect, but the United States has delivered an improvement to the game, in my opinion. We can add VAR to shaving cream for free kicks and a few damn good keepers (Howard, Keller, and Friedel) to our admittedly meager contributions.
Last shout outs:
To Peru, the best team not to make it out of the group stage, and the squad that probably gave France its toughest match.
To Brazil’s Tite, a charming coach whose team was probably the best of the lot, but couldn’t quite dig it out against an excellent Belgian team at their best. His subs were right on, too. This was by far the best Brazilian team I recall since 2002, and really more entertaining than that one.
To Aliou Cisse’s Senegal, who played it classy throughout, and with the greatest of ironies, went out on Fair Play points to a Japan team that did not try to win its final group stage game.
To James Rodriguez, whose calf short-circuited what looked like the beginning of an electric run by the Colombia side.
To Morocco, who absolutely took it to their Iberian neighbors. There’s a base for future and I hope we see them back in four years.
To the Colombian and Peruvian fans, who absolutely vibrated their stadia.
To the noble Japanese side, who after the utter heartbreak of losing a 2-0, barnstorming lead, left their dressing room spotless.
To Russia, who put on a hell of a tournament by all accounts, devoid of hooliganism and racist chanting that often accompany its league matches. I was a skeptic and remain deeply critical of the lawless regime of grand kleptocrats, but they delivered a great atmosphere, and were rewarded by a team who went above and beyond where their talents should have delivered them.
To Europe, a land that seemed so fixed in its post-war ways, now swirling in an uncertainty that makes the post-war period seem more interregnum than prologue as future. Shaquiri and Xhaka’s double eagle salutes to...Kosovo? Greater Albania? A double middle finger to all Serbs? Or just the ones chanting about Radko Mladic and Srebenica? And finally, Croatia’s ever intriguing Domagoj Vida, who combined most intriguing looks (a Whitewalker from Game of Thrones, if you ask me) with most intriguing name (Domagoj means something along the lines of “nurturing home” in Serbo-Croatian). In between magisterial slide tackles and thumping headers, including what seemed to be a winner against Russia in extra time, Domagoj managed to become Public Enemy #1 or the Leader of the Free World, depending on whom you consult, for his “Glory to Ukraine” comments, an “in-your-face” statement to the Russian regime who’s getting a lot more used to milder responses to its efforts to re-establish Russia’s sphere of influence over its borderlands. Football creates international bonds, and one hopes that these might play some modest role in diminishing the xenophobic national identity movements that are rippling through Europe. France, Belgium, and England all saw highly diverse teams prosper, while Germany and Sweden dealt with ethnic divisions, though with the most admirable solidarity on the Swedish part. Let’s hope we’re moving forward, because we should know no good comes from going backwards to some mythic idea of national purity.
To Iniesta, still turning defenders into momentary jelly.
To Ronaldo and Messi, who delivered massive, indelible fireworks before departing the stage.
To Uruguay’s El Maestro Tabarez, all professorial dignity, fighting Guillan-Barre syndrome and inspiring--yet again--the most cohesive team in the tournament.
To Saudi Arabia, possibly the worst side I can recall seeing in a Cup, for turning it around and beating a half-decent Egyptian side.
Lastly, to the goalies, who pretty much dominated the tournament. There were a few mistakes but a lot more superlatives.
Goalkeeper: This was an incredible tournament of goalkeeping, unlike any Cup that I can recall. Usually there’s a few stars, an equal number of howlers, and often a team in the final with a goalie who’s a real question mark (France won with anxiety-inducing Fabien Barthez; Brazil has gone deep with Julio Cesar; Argentina made it in 2014 with Sergio Romero. We could go on….) Here there were a raft of spectacular keepers.
Kasper Schmeichel was a furiously intimidating backstop, who looked like he wanted to tear the heart out of anyone who would dare to take a PK--and undid Cueva and Modric along with a few Croatian shootout men). Schmeichel is on a short-list for a big move up (Real Madrid being one possibility if they can’t get Courtois) and here he showed a presence that definitely got into the minds of the attackers. Watching his dad--Manchester United’s great Peter Schmeichel--during PKs was a great bonus during the harrowing Croatia-Denmark shootout.
Thibault Courtois will be many a first choice for his heroics against Brazil and some excellent stops against France, though perhaps that second goal against Japan might have been stopped.
Jordan Pickford was spectacular nailing perhaps the save of the tournament from Uribe’s long-distance blast, and of course huge in those PKs and with game-saving saves against the Swedes. England’s had quite a poor run from its keepers for some years now, seemingly dating back to Ronaldinho’s chip of David Seaman in 2002, and like so much about this team, Pickford here reversed the curse.
Brazil’s Alisson had not too many big saves, but certainly inspired confidence (and has a record smashing transfer deal with Liverpool in line as this goes to press). One reason I thought Brazil would win was because of his (and Ederson’s) backstopping, and he didn’t disappoint. The world should be very worried that Brazil seems to be producing world class goalkeepers.
Memo Ochoa was everywhere for Mexico, stuffing Germany and showing that a little man can do wonders in the net.
Hugo Lloris’s flying saves against Caceres (Uruguay) and Alderweireld (Belgium) were both spectacular; if France go down a goal in either game, it’s a fair bet that they don’t win the Cup.
Croatia’s Danijel Subasic had not caught my attention through much of the tournament but outdueled the brilliant Schmeichel in PKs versus Denmark, and apparently saved his teamate Domagoj Vida from falling off the top of a bus in the celebration in Zagreb. Well done for the keeper who almost had to come out of the Russia game when they had no subs left.
They came young, and they came old. Let us not forget Nigeria’s 19-year old Francis Uzoho, who won’t turn 20 until late October. He’d barely played in La Liga, but was steady throughout for Nigeria, while Egypt’s 45-year old Essam Al-Hadary stopped a PK.
My choice, though, is the exceptional Yann Sommer, Switzerland’s #1, who was only beat on unstoppable strikes (Coutinho’s bending howitzer, Mitrovic’s and Waston’s glanced bullet headers, respectively, and the deflected shot by Emil Forsberg, along with a PK that bounced off his back and in because he guessed correctly). Sommer looks more like a movie star than a keeper, but he was superb every time I saw him, literally without blemish, and a huge part of why Switzerland was such a tough out. The Borussia Monchengladbach man is the hot rumor to be the next Arsenal goalie, and bully for them if they pull it off.
Right Back: I think the world is lacking in great fullbacks, and if I was playing Moneyball at the managerial level, I’d invest big in lads who might turn into great ones. There’s a few more right backs than left backs that pique interest here,
Kieran Trippier was superb, probably England’s best player throughout, able to deliver excellent crosses, nab what could have been a game-winner against Croatia with his free kick, and hold down his flank against a frisky Johan Mojica from Colombia. Many would go with this worthy choice.
Benjamin Pavard hit the wonderstrike against Argentina and impressed throughout, though Eden Hazard ate him for lunch in the first 25 minutes of the Belgium game.
Uruguay’s Martin Caceres was a beast of a right back, getting into dangerous places for his squad, wicked in the air (he’s normally a center back), and just relentless throughout. The quiet outing of Ronaldo owes something to his warm attention.
Croatia’s Sime Vrsaljko just kept coming. At 26, he’s been battling Juanfran for the right back spot at Atletico Madrid under the exacting Diego Simeone, and he was one of those players that looked better with each viewing, very steady under pressure and tough to break down.
Russia’s Mario Fernandes immediately jumped out as something special to me, and indeed, as the name suggests, not the average Russian, but of Brazilian parentage. I was keen to Fernandez’s attacking abilities at first when he helped polish off the Egyptian side, then impressed by his defense when they dispatched Spain, and finally wowed by the last gasp header that he beat Mario Mandzukic to put Russia into penalty kicks. It was a tour-de-force performance.
The winner, though, has to be Belgium’s Thomas Meunier, whose surging runs were key to Belgium’s attacks (and the two brilliant counterattack goals) and whose defensive work helped bottle up Neymar. I thought his absence might be decisive against France, given the lack of fullback options on the Belgian side, and indeed this was the case. Big, fast, bionic in fitness and precise in deliveries, Meunier was the indispensable piece to Clockwork Red, and when he wasn’t there, it all faltered. He’s the choice from a reasonably strong right flank, at least compared to the left.
Left Back: Man, this is tough. Parents, if you have a left-footer, turn him into a left-back. We’re in a crisis. Honestly, there’s Marcelo and everyone else--but Marcelo isn’t exactly a left back like everyone else, is he? He’s as much an attacking player, one who creates a back 3 by default, and he missed half the games Brazil played. Jordi Alba certainly didn’t deliver the goods going forward as he has for a few big tourneys, so he’s out. Honestly it’s a bit of a sad scene here: England played Ashley Young, a warmed-over 33 year old who’s almost always going to cut back to his right foot; Belgium simply had no one--full stop--and it cratered their chances. Croatia’s Strinic was fine, as your mom might say when trying to get you to stop messing with your veggies, and Germany simply had no one. So who are we left with:
Lucas Hernandez was a rock on defense for France. The Atletico Madrid man made things tough for the opposition, annoyed everyone who came his way, and got forward for the cross that led to his partner Pavard’s goal. He’s a deserving choice, but…
Diego Laxalt, Uruguay’s (and Genoa’s--as of this moment) left back brought a shot of adrenaline to the backline. His pace undid Russia (he drew the second yellow on the hapless Smolnikov), and he created problems throughout for Portugal. Mbappe was lightning in every game except this one, where he found the speedy Laxalt in his way.
Werder Bremen’s and Sweden’s Ludwig Augustinsson was a beast on the the left flank, where he wrecked Mexico and was a persistent wall to the opposition. At 24, he’s got a shot to leap to a big-name club; Fulham isn’t quite that but he’s been linked with them as they take the step back up to the Premiership.
Still, and I might be accused of having some Swissophilia, Ricardo Rodriguez was terrific throughout, as he was in 2014. At only 25 years old, he already has a wealth of World Cup experience, and is the rare two way player at this position, a tough man to beat and consistently impressive in getting to the line for crosses. The AC Milan first choice left back also takes free kicks as needed. I found myself particularly drawn to his performances, and he has to be the choice here.
Center Backs: This is ridiculously challenging, as there were several excellent pairs; no position is really harder to pick:
Sweden’s Lindelof and Grandqvist
Denmark’s Kjaer and Jorgensen
Croatia’s Vida and Lovren
England’s Stones, Maguire, and Walker
Brazil’s Thiago Silva and Miranda
Uruguay’s Godin and Gimenez
Colombia’s Mina and D. Sanchez
France’s Varane and Umtiti
Senegal’s Sane and Koulibaly
I decided to pick a pair, because so much of this is a complementary relationship, really the marriage at the heart of a larger family of a side.
England’s batch were very strong until the second half against Croatia, and then they all broke down. Up to that point, Stones had been exceptional, utterly untroubled by playing the ball out under pressure and a terror on corners, and Maguire did a great job taking the ball forward (maybe the most creative England player, which is not a good thing for the team, but still….). Walker’s speed helped the whole enterprise stay together, though he was the weak link over the tournament. They defied my predictions, Stones especially.
Denmark’s Jorgensen doesn’t really rate, but Kjaer was fantastic throughout, organizing, tackling, and hitting Poulsen again and again with superb outlet passes. Seriously, Kjaer was so good he could almost be paired with anyone and make this list.
Granqvist and Lindelof were silly good, bursting with confidence and winning every header in sight. One can argue that they were more important to their side than any team; outside the backline and Forsberg, this was really a dreadful side. One could hardly argue with them being the choice.
The Senegal pair (Koulibaly and Sane) were a physical lot who put the clamps on Lewandowski and Falcao, while Colombia’s Mina was the set-piece king and his partner Sanchez was excellent throughout, and made one of the best tackles I’ve ever seen on Sadio Mane to deny a goal. If they’d gotten another game, they’d merit serious attention.
Brazil’s Silva and Miranda were barely breached, only really hit legitimately on De Bruyne’s counter, and Uruguay’s Godin and Gimenez only got beat on set-pieces, and needed few moments of goaltending brilliance to keep their sheets clean. Godin’s the pick for a lot of folks, and I’ve read some tip Gimenez as the next great centerback. I think though, we have to bring it down to the finalists.
Domagoj Vida, Croatia’s left-side of the pair, caught the eye right away, first his terrifying appearance but pretty quickly for his excellence in reading the game and timing his tackles; the slides, in particular, were pure elegance. His partner Dejan Lovren managed to keep his usual fury balanced right on knife’s edge, and just dominated the air.
However, Varane and Umtiti pretty much won the crucial games for France, each notching a perfectly placed header against Uruguay and Belgium, respectively. They faced a massive onslaught of pressure, as France asked them to be Jedis swatting away a battering of crosses. For the most part, they made it look pretty easy. Varane was simply the best back (and maybe the best player) in the tournament, whose timely interventions on Hazard (flicking a net-bound shot over the bar in the first half, and a crushing penalty-line tackle as the Belgium man surged into the box) were crucial to France’s semi-final win. Vida, Sanchez, Godin, and Kjaer all have excellent claims on this other spot, but Umtiti’s a lefty who scored France’s most essential goal, so he gets the nod here. (It really does help to have a lefty on the left-side of a centerback pair.) At 24 and 25, they’ve got a lot of good years left, though look for PSG’s Presnel Kimpembe (all of 22) to press Umtiti for that spot in the future. An embarrassment of riches for Les Bleus.
I thought that this would be the hardest to pick, but not that many midfielders seem to have made a lasting impression on me. The first two picks are really quite simple: Modric and Kante. After that, it’s a terribly difficult choice between Pogba, Rakitic, De Bruyne and Coutinho.
Russia’s Aleksandr Golovin jumped right off the screen at first glance, quick, cutting, and able to navigate all the tight spaces. He’s about to get thrust on to a much bigger stage at club level, though the gyrations are furious between Chelsea and Barcelona at the moment. Russia were fun to watch when he was there, and dreadful when he wasn’t.
LAFC’s Carlos Vela deserves a mention here, exceptionally cool in possession and at the center of Mexico’s best moves, while the back end was handled quite well by Tijuana’s (and Porto’s) Hector Herrera.
Denmark’s Christian Eriksen didn’t see that much of the ball, but got it enough to punish Peru and Australia. He’s a great player but not at Tottenham level here.
Colombia’s Juan Quintero was brilliant at moments, as was James Rodriquez, but there just wasn’t enough time for either to stake their claim. Juan Uribe certainly caught my eye with his work, and fortunately Jordan Pickford’s early enough to launch himself to parry Uribe’s sudden lighting strike in the waning moments of regular time in the Colombia-England match.
Ivan Rakitic hit the final PK in two shootouts and was the yin to Modric’s yang all tourney, and was utterly commanding in the Argentina match. His ability to defend, create, shoot, and simply fill whatever role is necessary is superb. I’m all admiration, but he was not as influential in the last two matches.
Kevin De Bruyne, alas, was rarely deployed in the kind of role that makes him one of the world’s best eleven. Based on league play, he’s obviously there, and he was a killer on the counters and with that outside-of-the-foot assist to Lukaku for the goal that broke open the Panama game. If I was picking a team, I might start with him, but he was something of a victim to circumstance (whether because of Martinez’s choices or the lack of sufficient wide players for Belgium), and cannot go ahead of Pogba for me.
Coutinho did a great job in the gap between Neymar and Gabriel Jesus. Two great goals, two great assists. But he’s more of a wing, really, than a middie, certainly not the two-way player to rival Modric or Pogba. Still, he had a great World Cup, the most consistently high performer for the Selecao.
As a #6, who’s even close to N’golo Kante? Really, only Casemiro can challenge Kante, but he only played four matches to Kante’s seven. I’m a huge Nemanja Matic fan, and I think he played very well for Serbia, and Behrami was a sufficient wrecker though not much more for Switzerland, and Senegal’s Idris Gueye had an excellent tourney, but no one else is even in the conversation for me. The difference that Kante brings is that he just doesn’t need to foul much to get the job done. Ethereally calm, engine ever-cool but purring, Kante just makes it look easy (think of him as the anti-Giroud in this regard).
A Month of Modric!: Probably the best thing about the Cup was getting to watch Modric all over the pitch for a month. He was by far the most complete midfielder at the Cup; he demolished Argentina with his defense, thumped winners in from outside the box, found seams that were barely a wrinkle in time (the pass to Rebic against Denmark in the 116th minute that led to his ill-fated PK being particularly brilliant), and simply bossed the pitch until he finally ran into the French wall. The Bike Messenger King is constant motion, always probing, always patient, utterly untroubled by pressure, and with keen calibrative sense of when to choose the difficult pass. With a team of strong but not superstar players like he has alongside him at Real Madrid, one could see him rise to the occasion. A worthy Ballon D’Or Winner.
Finally, Paul Pogba: While I still feel that Pogba looks for the killer pass too frequently (unlike Modric) and that he can be careless in possession, his ability to hit that pass is among the very best in the world. That’s well acknowledged at this point. But what I hadn’t seen until this tournament was how hard Pogba worked to recover defensively, how attentive he was to his marks, and how much of the dirty work he was willing to shoulder. He was no prima donna here, but really a two-way player of massive import. It was great to see so much substance beyond the flash.
It’s fair to ask why Pogba over De Bruyne or Rakitic, or arguably Coutinho given his results (Brazil would have been in trouble without him!)? Here’s my logic: If you play with Modric, you’ve got to be able to flex into the defensive role, and De Bruyne really struggled with that; he was just too shackled when playing deep for Belgium. It’s not Coutinho’s thing at all; only Neymar keeps him from being the team’s left-sided attacker. Rakitic was great in the first half of the tourney, but the extra minutes wore him down, while Pogba was still bouncing like a deer at the end of the final match. There is no midfielder in the world who can take on huge aerial responsibilities but also see and execute killer balls like Pogba. Against Belgium, he dropped deep to stem the carnage that Hazard was causing, plugging the flood that threatened to wreck the French in the first half, while going toe-to-toe with Fellaini on set pieces and crosses. I thought he delivered the goods in this tournament, truly a complete middie.
With Kante, you get the ultimate platform, while no two midfielders can match the offensive thrust combined with defensive bite that Modric and Pogba offered. This allows for three very attack-minded forwards.
The case for the false #9 exists, and if it’s there, then one would have to entertain De Bruyne or Antoine Griezmann in that role. The latter is a perpetual motion machine, a guy whom his teammates really adore. Part of that is his joyful spirit and killer edge, but the man is a genius at finding seams, constantly creating new angles with his movement and wonderfully efficient in his touch (no one toe pokes more, it seems, just to move a pass along quickly). When it comes to free kicks/corners, his deliveries stand up to anyone’s. He was excellent.
Had De Bruyne gotten to play more here, we’d consider him, too, and his strike against Brazil was one of the tournament’s best.
But instead, we’re going to go with a legit #9, because there aren’t that many left in the world. Romelu Lukaku had a superb tournament. He had two brilliant goals against Panama, two more superb ones against Tunisia, and then gave us the world’s most consequential dummy against Japan before his hold-up play went rogue, and he dusted the Brazilian midfield to free De Bruyne up for his wonderstrike. Lukaku looked like the leader of the Belgian side to me, and it’s a shame that he didn’t play in the final. We’ve all known his fierce frame and strong results over the past four years, but here was irrefutable evidence of what a great footballing mind he has.
Harry Kane’s a terrific player with Tottenham but England rarely found him in regular play, and he absolutely wilted after 70 minutes against Colombia, Sweden, and Croatia. I’m not terribly interested in the PK/free kick prowess on this list, either. I don’t think Southgate got the best results here, something that’s been lost in the joy over his style and substance. Nearly lost in this was the great game that Diego Costa had in that scintillating opener against Portugal, but then he was lost in the miasmic Spanish flu that infected their offense over the next 3 outings. So, Lukaku, hands down.
While Lukaku had no peer as a #9, the wings are perhaps a bit more challenging to pick.
Xherdhan Shaquiri was the one Swiss attacker who really merited attention on the Swiss side, and even that wasn’t enough to stop him (and his Double Eagle antics) against Serbia
Youssef Poulsen was terrific, I thought, for Denmark, a true two-way player on the flank whose ability to win balls in the air (and often bring them down with his chest) gave the Danish much greater coherence and appeal than they would have had otherwise. He seems built for the Premiership.
Morocco’s Nordin Ambarat (he of headgear and concussion protocols carelessly tossed aside) was massive against Portugal, just bulling his way past the poor Guerreiro, and his shot against Spain was perhaps the tournament’s best. The cross bar indeed may be still be ringing.
Mexico’s Chucky Lozano came in with a lot of hype and certainly lived up to it by notching the winner against Germany. I’d like to see more precision with his chances before getting on the bandwagon, but he served notice.
Poulsen’s Red Bull Leipzig teammate Emil Forsberg was the one bright spot in the Swedish attack, a swift, direct player who made the difference against Switzerland.
Senegal’s M’baye Niang, the massive winger, caused all sorts of trouble.
He only played for about 30 minutes, but Germany’s Julian Brandt hammered more good shots in that stint than most teams hit all tournament, including two woodwork rattlers. Brandt raised eyebrows at being picked above Leroy Sane, but it was clear that he not only belonged in the side, but should have been on the pitch much more.
Isco was the one Spaniard who really displayed that extra gear that was so lacking against Russia; he was quick, purposeful, and incisive, and looks ready to be the center of the next generation La Furia Roja.
Cavani and Suarez--they’re a handful, and I enjoyed few moments more than watching the two of them combine in the last 20 minutes of the Egypt match. I love that either can be creator or finisher, and I’ve written up the electric first goal against Portugal in my top 10 Goals. It was a shame that Cavani’s calf kept him out of the France match.
The Croatian Front 3 were formidable, especially in the last two games. Rebic was a revelation, seemingly able to run without limits; Perisic nicked in for the brilliant equalizer against England and the best goal of the final, a one-two punch of right footed chop to set up a left-footed laser that punctured France; and Mandzukic mixed power and guile as necessary, poaching the winner against England and the equalizer against Denmark. The trio had a lovely balance and got stronger as the tournament progressed.
Russia’s Cherysev hit two brilliant left-footed strikes, including the massive game-changer against Croatia when it appeared that the latter were going to walk all over the host nation.
Finally, a shout to the holy triumvirate: Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar
Ronaldo willed a drab Portugal side into the knockout stage through sheer brilliance. The hat-trick against Spain and the diving header winner against Morocco were epic. I’ve never liked the guy--like most--but you’re a fool if you can’t see he’s the one of the two best players of the decade, and he was great here, at least for two games.
Messi not only had the goal of the tournament for me, but notched two assists against France. Argentina set a new standard for shambolic World Cup outings, but tell me that ball to Aguero isn’t picture perfect? As screwed up as everything was, you’d still pick him to be on any team you assembled, except this one, alas.
Neymar. Lord, where to start? Neymar had more shots, created more chances, was fouled more than anyone, and was magisterial--in that deep Brazilian tradition--in breaking down Mexico’s defense for the first goal. It’s as mesmerizing as any individual moment in the tournament, an act of audacious hypnosis. As good as we think Coutinho was, it was Neymar who simply set him up on a platter for the equalizer against Belgium, and then Neymar was denied brilliantly by Courtois as well near the end of regular time. To reject Neymar’s brilliance is to register for the Flat Earth Society. That said, between the dives and theatrics, the desire to make marquee plays when they weren’t on, and the gumming up of the Brazilian attack at times, Neymar became his own worst enemy (who could trust any pain that he evinced?) and let his story become bigger than the team. He is the most gifted attacker in the world at the moment, but Brazil needed a more mature man than they got this time around.
The winners, then, are Kylian Mbappe and Eden Hazard.
Mbappe delivered both the biggest electrical jolts of the tourney and the concrete goods (4 goals), and showed that he can create as well as score with balls to Giroud that might have been put away (the latter--against Belgium--would have been the goal of the tournament). Mbappe brought me out of my seat more than any player in the Cup, most notably with the run that went straight for Argentina’s jugular (ending in a PK and nearly a red for Rojo) and the first 12 seconds of the match against Belgium, in which he induced Jan Vertonghen to leap confidently into the abyss while Mbappe torched the touchline, purring with menace. At 19, he played with seemingly burdenless brilliance and elan, while the older trio of superstars felt the weight of the clock hands, falling like guillotines on their time in the sun. No player just ripped seams into the opposition with the fluidity of a ballet principal; it was as if he was too fast for chaos to even descend upon the defense, but rather left a befuddlement at how he had left them all behind. I didn’t think he could work in the tight, non-countering spaces as well, but he proved me wrong. He’s going to become the most expensive player in the world, if he’s not already.
Eden Hazard must be the other starter, for he tormented the opposition in every match. Hazard pulled apart defenses in the group stage, and then created outlets against Brazil that effectively killed the match. Against France, he tore holes in their right flank and only a Varane tip kept his rocketed shot from crossing the line. We could easily be celebrating a Belgian championship with a few different bounces. Hazard was in peak form, incredibly consistent and a joy to watch; indeed, Neymar could learn so much from watching how this professional goes about his business, direct in asserting the attack and always surging into and out of attempts to bring him down.
So, that's it. Thanks for reading.