Welcome to The Front Six. Every Monday for the duration of the World Cup, we’ll be publishing this column, which will offer six takeaways from the previous weekend’s action and beyond. We’re four days into the tournament, and everyone is terrible—except for Russia.
1. Nothing Easy
In trying to wrap our heads around a wild first four days of the World Cup, we must turn to a replacement-level NBA big man from the nation of Georgia:
Zaza was right — the level of competency across international soccer is higher than it’s ever been, and as a result, only one of the eight pre-tournament favorites has won its opening game. (As of publication, England and Belgium still have to play.) Spain and Portugal drew, France squeaked by Australia thanks to the Video Assistant Referee and a deflected winner, Argentina crashed into a stalemate with Iceland, Germany were vaporized by Chucky Lozano and Mexico, and Brazil couldn’t find a winner against Switzerland’s Neymar-directed violence.
Four days in, we’re left staring at a succession of results that spits out the following factoid: Russia and Croatia are the only teams in the tournament with a goal differential higher than one. As Omar Chaudhuri, director of football intelligence at the consultancy 21st Club, told me back when the world was grappling with the qualification failures of Italy, the Netherlands, Chile, and the United States, “It’s clear that the best players in each country are now able to get access to the best coaching globally.” The middle-income trap might be real, but it’s making the group stages as competitive as ever.
Compared with club soccer, the quality of play in the international game still lags far behind. For anyone who pushed through Saturday’s four-game marathon, Croatia-Nigeria was a pure hit of tryptophan dressed up in fancy kits. But the excitement of uncertainty has begun to bridge the aesthetic gulf. In the Premier League, a matchup between the top-rated side in the league and the 14th-place team looks like a 4-0 win for Manchester City over Watford. But at the World Cup, it’s a competitive draw between the Brazilians and the Swiss. In other words: Watch your ass, England.
2. And Yet the Favorites Are Still the Favorites
Despite the match-to-match variance, the top level still hasn’t changed all that much. Per FiveThirtyEight’s projections, there was a 73 percent chance that one of the eight nations that have already won a World Cup would win again in 2018. After the weekend, that number sits at 68 percent.
At the peak, Brazil came into the tournament with a 19 percent chance, and after the draw against Switzerland, their odds slipped to 18 percent. It never felt like Brazil pushed too far beyond first gear in their opener, and they still held their opponents to just six shots. Neymar suffered 10 fouls and generally struggled. In Ligue 1 this season, he completed 67 percent of all the dribbles he attempted, and against Switzerland, he went just 5-for-11. But there were no clear systemic issues—Switzerland’s goal came after a push in the back that typically gets called—and Philippe Coutinho looked like the guy who was the best player in the Premier League for the first half of the 2016-17 season. Fine-tune a few things—maybe drop Paulinho from the starting 11 since he doesn’t contribute much when he isn’t scoring—and they should be fine.
Spain fired their head coach less than a week ago and gave up three goals in their first match, but all things considered, they should be feeling pretty good! The first goal against Portugal came from a penalty. The second came when the best keeper in the freaking world made an awful error. And the third saw Cristiano Ronaldo finally admit that he could not, in fact, reverse the forces of gravity, as he gave up on the knuckleball that had led to 44 consecutive misses and finessed one into the upper corner:
Thankfully, Ronaldo is allowed to play for only one team, and outside of an all-time great putting up an all-time great performance, Spain mostly looked like the quick-passing, suffocating side that’s defined the past decade of international soccer. There were a couple un-Spain-like moments—Diego Costa bullying through the Portuguese back line by himself and scoring, Diego Costa getting on the end of a beautiful scripted set piece—but that speaks more to an added dimension rather than a lost identity. Although manager Fernando Hierro has been in the job for only five days, the Portugal match didn’t do anything to suggest that he wasn’t up to the task.
An opening draw won’t ease any nerves for Brazil and Spain, but the vital signs for two of the three pre-tournament favorites still seem mostly healthy.
3. Well, Except for Germany
Here’s some advice for relatively large nations with high per-capita GDPs: If you want to win a World Cup, never win a World Cup. Italy and Spain, the winners in 2006 and 2010, got dumped out in the knockout stages of the subsequent tournament, and now Germany is one more loss away from joining them. Sure, it was just a 1-0 loss to an impressively prepared Mexico side—manager Juan Carlos Osorio said that he’d been prepping for this specific match for six months—and yes, Die Mannschaft outshot El Tri 26 to 13. But if Mexico hadn’t screwed up a couple of simple final passes during wildly lopsided counterattacks, this could’ve been ugly.
And according to Germany center back Mats Hummels, Mats Hummels was worried this might happen:
Hummels pin-points why Germany lost: "If 7 or 8 players attack, then it's clear the offensive force is greater than the defensive stability. That's what I often talk about internally, to no affect. Our cover wasn't good, too often it was just Jerome and I at the back." #MEXGER— Bundesliga_reporter (@rylandjames) June 17, 2018
Airing out your manager to the press is typically reserved for the French, but Hummels wasn’t wrong. Germany wants to play like a top-tier club team: pin their opponents back with sustained deep possession, win the ball back as soon as they lose it, and run the pattern back on a 90-minute loop. Coming into the tournament, they trailed only Spain in the number of goals preceded by 10 passes and the number of deep turnovers they forced per game. Against Mexico, though, the chain broke apart at the first link. The two-man midfield of Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira combined to not intercept a single pass and to win just one of the 10 tackles they attempted. As soon as the Mexicans would win the ball, they’d run rampant with it at their feet, providing a stark contrast to a German team with a lack of dynamic one-on-one players. If only Germany had a young attacker who played for a top-tier pressing team and could dribble past three defenders all at once ...
Germany lost four percentage points on their championship odds, dropping from 13 to nine, and they’re now at only 66 percent to advance out of the group. Oh yeah, and if they finish second, they’ll likely draw Brazil in the round of 16. The Germans should still advance, but an aggressive press is the best way to dominate a match, and since he doesn’t really have the personnel, Jogi Löw might have to give up on that approach—and lower his team’s ceiling—if he doesn’t want the bottom to fall out.
4. Messi Still Needs Help
Unsurprisingly, much of the weekend discussion on Fox and at other outlets like ESPN has focused on the question of whether or not Lionel Messi is better or worse than Cristiano Ronaldo because the former missed a penalty kick against Iceland. Two thoughts: (1) This is the last World Cup we’ll ever get with both Messi and Ronaldo at the top of the world-soccer food chain. Let’s just enjoy what both of them are doing instead of creating an imaginary horse race between two players with totally different roles on totally different teams with totally different expectations. (2) The missed penalty doesn’t tell us anything, so how about we try to look at what Messi’s full 90 minutes can tell us about Argentina moving forward?
We knew this already, but it was stark on Saturday: Messi has to do it all for Argentina. Javier Mascherano completed more passes than Iceland’s entire team, but look at how many of them were sideways or backward:
To break down an organized and determined defense like Iceland’s—they didn’t attempt a shot in the second half—a team needs midfielders who are willing to play passes through gaps and into the feet of attackers. Instead, they had midfielders like Mascherano and Ángel Di María, who played just five of his 33 total passes toward the Icelandic goal. For much of the 90 minutes, Messi had to drop deep in order to drive the team forward with an aggressive vertical ball, but when that happened, it meant that the most devastating attacking player of his generation would then be 35 or 45 yards from the other team’s goal.
Despite dictating play from deep, Messi also managed 11 shots (more than anyone in the tournament), completed eight take-ons (second-most), and created three chances. Éver Banega, one of the few midfielders on Argentina’s roster willing to play a difficult pass or dribble through traffic, came on for Lucas Biglia for the final 36 minutes, and from then on, La Albiceleste created as many shots from inside the penalty area as it did in the 54 minutes prior.
Given the struggles of the other favorites, a lopsided draw—based on the balance of chances, Argentina wins this match more often than not—isn’t a reason to panic. Even though Messi can do everything, manager Jorge Sampaoli doesn’t have to ask him to. Freeing Banega would be a good start.
5. France Still Haven’t Figured it Out
This was the most disappointing performance of the opening few days. Three points is three points is three points, but Didier Deschamps opted for the fun and free-flowing France lineup—speedster Ousmane Dembélé over aerial threat Olivier Giroud in attack, creative passer Corentin Tolisso over defensive workman Blaise Matuidi—and it didn’t really work out. Crosses are typically the weapon of less-talented teams that can’t work the ball through the crowded center of the field, but coming into the tournament, France relied on crosses more than about half the teams at the World Cup. This lineup was supposed to solve that issue and unleash a world-beating attack. Instead, they took just 12 shots (fewer than 10 other teams) against what was supposed to be one of the five-worst teams in the tournament. Much to the chagrin of half of the professional sportswriters living in the United Kingdom, Paul Pogba (and VAR) ultimately bailed them out.
What a run by Paul Pogba to finish off a pretty team goal! pic.twitter.com/xfPqDQDyDU— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 16, 2018
Over his tenure in charge of Les Bleus, Deschamps has typically been way too conservative with his team choices despite the incredible talent at his disposal. So if I were a French fan who wanted to worry about something beyond the crushing meaninglessness of an absurd world, it wouldn’t be that this lineup failed to cohere. It would be that the manager has already given up on it.
6. Shoot the Right Shot
Amid all the narrative chaos, there’s one big on-field takeaway from the opening 11 games:
The underdogs, not the favorites, are the ones who’ve been taking the best shots so far. Despite getting pummeled with attempts, Switzerland, Mexico, and Iceland created five big chances—defined by data company Opta as a shot when “a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range”—and conceded only three.
Part of the reason the top teams have struggled is that they’ve settled for half chances. Of those 74 shots from Argentina, Germany, and Brazil, exactly half (37) came from outside the penalty area. That’s not a ratio for success—no matter how cool it looks.