We’re a week into the World Cup! So, it’s time to check in on our pre-tournament top 10 and rank them in order of who we’re feeling best about and worst about.
This team might just be terrible, and the performance against Croatia was simply a complete embarrassment. Argentina got a point from their first game, and there’s a decent chance that, if they beat Nigeria in their final match, they could end up even with Iceland on four points. The first tiebreaker is goal differential, and look at the apathy from these dudes on Croatia’s third goal!
Rakitic adds insult to injury with an easy tap in to make it 3-0 for Croatia! pic.twitter.com/aOQgNTiUG6— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 21, 2018
Argentina came into the tournament with the oldest team, and they’ve looked like it: stagnant, sterile passing, no ideas beyond “let Messi do everything,” a defense with the resilience of a rotting piece of driftwood, and a keeper with the self-control of a first-time skydiver. Manager Jorge Sampaoli—the man who led Chile to swashbuckling international success and briefly turned Sevilla into one of the most exciting teams in Europe—was supposed to sort things out, but the most recent straw he grasped for was “bench all of my best players,” as he left Ángel Di María, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuaín, Éver Banega, and Giovani Lo Celso—all of whom start for teams that made the Champions League knockout stages—out of the starting lineup against Croatia.
The team seemingly has been “built”—and I’m using that term generously, as the squad has obviously been tinkered with to the point of destruction—upon the notion that Messi will just save it. He needs to be a superhero to keep this team afloat, let alone for it to compete for a World Cup trophy, and that just hasn’t happened. At this point, just let Iceland go through to the round of 16. At least they know what they’re doing.
First off: My sincerest apologies to anyone who was foolish enough to ignore my initial bit of advice from the video below—i.e., don’t ever bet on soccer—and instead latched onto the part later when I said that Colombia would not be a terrible dark-horse pick if we lived in a world in which betting on soccer was anything other than a terrible idea.
Alas, we do not live in that world, and Colombia’s opener against Japan was proof that the beautiful game is still governed by a cruel, unpredictable, and perhaps even vengeful god. First, James Rodríguez—the 2014 golden boot winner, Colombia’s one true superstar, and one of the most versatile attacking midfielders in the world—did not start the game because of a calf injury. Then, midfielder Carlos Sánchez suffered the double ignominy of getting red-carded and giving up a penalty kick in an effort to block a sure goal from going in. Here’s some advice: Unless you’re about 10 minutes away from the final whistle, just let the ball go into the damn net, man.
Kagawa slots home the penalty to give Japan the early lead after Carlos Sanchez's handball in the box! pic.twitter.com/Y9HXuLvGOV— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 19, 2018
Any prediction for an underdog to make a run through a knockout tournament presupposes that said team will experience a fair amount of positive luck. The sheer amount of bad luck suffered by Los Cafeteros within the first six minutes of their 2-1 loss against Japan means that to make a run they’ll now require an even wilder amount of good fortune than any of their backers had assumed in the first place. Colombia’s tournament isn’t over, and the early red card turned Monday’s game into a write-off rather than anything worth analyzing, but even if they climb out of this early hole, there’s likely going to be something scary standing on the outside. Per FiveThirtyEight, Colombia still has a 39 percent chance of advancing, but just an 11 percent chance of finishing first. If they finish second, they’ll get a round of 16 match against either England or Belgium and then a projected quarterfinal game with—gulp—Brazil or Germany.
Before the tournament, I’d heard a lot about this so-called new Uruguay. The one that wanted the ball, the one that could pass the ball, the one that didn’t treat the ball as if it were a mutant species of invasive rodent. With a group of young midfielders now leading the way—Juventus’s Rodrigo Bentancur, Inter Milan’s Matías Vecino, and Sampdoria’s Lucas Torreira—I’d been told that this team would actually try to find goals rather than attempt to batter the concept of scoring so far out of existence that FIFA would have no choice but to start awarding wins to whichever team committed the most potentially criminal tackles over the course of 90 minutes.
As someone who enjoys proactive solutions to the problems this sport poses, I was interested in seeing this team play. However, I have instead discovered that this team does not, in fact, exist:
Uruguay have won both of their matches at this #WorldCup by 1-0 scorelines, with both of the winning goals coming from set pieces— STATS On The Pitch (@STATSOnThePitch) June 20, 2018
Thanks to a historically easy draw, Uruguay are already through to the round of 16. With that defense and with Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani—an aging duo, but still two of the 10 best attacking players in the world since the last World Cup—they can beat anyone. Except, they can also lose to anyone. But I guess we already knew that.
Yes, the defending champs are already on the brink of elimination. Against Mexico, the Germans attempted to play the entire game in the opposition’s final third, but they’d seemingly worked out only half of the game plan. Every turnover from Die Mannschaft turned into a crisis, as El Tri counterattacked through a clueless counterpress that seemingly hadn’t been prepped for the possibility that the other team might try to score goals, too. Surely manager Jogi Löw will change his team’s approach for the next match, or perhaps it won’t matter against a Sweden team that struggles to generate any direct attacks. But there are some issues that can’t be solved with tactical tinkering:
Soccer players typically enter their primes earlier than you might think. While it depends on the position, according to this study from Michael Caley, most players peak somewhere between the ages of 25 and 28. Of the 14 players Germany used against Mexico, nine of them sit on the edge of or outside of that bracket. And of that older group, six of them played in the 2014 final and seven of them were on the 2010 World Cup team. Now, Germany still has one of the deepest squads in the field, and they’re still third-favorites to lift the trophy despite holding just a 64 percent chance at getting out of their group. But if the Germans go home early—either after the group stage or after a potential round of 16 matchup with Brazil—we’ll likely look back on this tournament as the one where Germany hung onto some of its World Cup winners for a cycle too long.
They took care of business on Matchday 1, which is more than 60 percent of the teams on this list can say, but they did it against a team that’s rated as the second-worst side in the tournament, by FiveThirtyEight’s SPI. Belgium pulverized an inferior opponent, and that doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know.
Before the tournament, I asked Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at the consultancy 21st Club, which of the big sides he thought might be overrated. “It will be interesting to see how Belgium get on,” he said. “They’re one of the few sides who are clearly a very attacking unit, thanks in part to [manager] Roberto Martínez. But attacking football leaves you vulnerable to better teams, so while they’ll probably blow away the likes of Tunisia and Panama, they may come unstuck in matches where they need to keep it tight and create a bit of an upset, in the later rounds.”
The other reason to hold off on letting your 8-year-old cousin bleach your hair so it ends up looking like whatever it is Dries Mertens has up there: Belgium might win the group … and then face a path that includes Colombia in the round of 16, Brazil/Germany in the quarters, France in the semis, and Spain in the final. Belgium could win the World Cup—but it’s a long shot if the games line up like that. For now, though, let’s just watch Kevin De Bruyne turn soccer into a board game:
On the one hand: [blows vuvuzela, as if it were a ram’s horn] THIS IS NOT SUSTAINABLE.
Cristiano Ronaldo shot conversion rates (2017/18 season)— Stats Zone (@StatsZone) June 20, 2018
- La Liga: 15% (26 goals from 178 shots)
- Champions League: 18% (15/82)
- 2018 World Cup so far: 40% (4/10) pic.twitter.com/JWOTcYfltK
On the other: Portugal literally did this two years ago, and it worked even without Ronaldo at his world-destroying best. In fact, he’s already scored more goals at this World Cup than he scored in the entirety of Euro 2016. En route to winning the European championship two years ago, Portugal as a whole scored only nine goals in seven games, but they were carried by a defense that conceded just five. Whether or not they should play a more expansive style that would’ve allowed them to register more than five shots on target through two games is an open question, but Fernando Santos’s approach of pairing 2004 Greece with the greatest striker of the modern era has already led to international success. With a settled and unambitious defensive structure that’s filled with solid-but-risk-averse midfielders, Portugal basically turns every game into a coin flip and hopes that Ronaldo is enough to edge the odds in their direction.
Also, he has a goatee now because, uh, why the hell not? Bet against him at your own peril.
Go back and reread that previous section, replace “Portugal” with “France” and “Cristiano Ronaldo” with “Paul Pogba” and you’ll have a pretty good sense of where things stand for Les Bleus.
France hasn’t really impressed in either game, but they have the most talented midfielder in the world, and that’s been enough. They’ve scored three goals across their two wins, and the first one came from a Pogba through ball that led to an Antoine Griezmann penalty. The second came when Pogba played give-and-gos through a bunch of traffic cones draped in Australia jerseys:
What a run by Paul Pogba to finish off a pretty team goal! pic.twitter.com/xfPqDQDyDU— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 16, 2018
And the third was the result of Pogba bouncing on a Peruvian midfielder, winning a tackle, and slipping a through ball to Olivier Giroud:
What do you do when you become the youngest French goalscorer in FIFA World Cup history?— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 21, 2018
Shrug on em. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ pic.twitter.com/ZOb054WNxf
Because of Didier Deschamps’s decisions to pay four natural center backs in both games and a defensive midfielder, Blaise Matuidi, as a left winger against Peru, France just haven’t generated the amount of shots you’d expect from an elite team: At just 12 per game, they rank 16th out of 32 teams. But save for the penalty conceded to Australia after Samuel Umtiti’s inexplicable decision to punch the ball out of the air, the defense has been unbreakable, conceding just 0.5 expected goals through two games. Given all the talent on this roster, they’re definitely not coming close to reaching their attacking potential. But with this midfield duo—the omnipotent N’Golo Kanté shutting the door on any opposing attacks and Pogba battering it down on the other end—they might not ever have to.
I will live to regret this because that’s how these things go, but man. Right now, what’s not to love about this team?
A unique tactical structure that helps to amplify the team’s strengths and cover up their weaknesses? Check.
A modern approach that employs capable passers all across the formation, creates an overwhelming number of high-quality chances, and allows all 10 outfield players to swarm the ball as soon as possession is lost? Yep.
INFLATABLE UNICORN RACES? YOU BET.
England’s opener against Tunisia was my favorite performance of the opening round. They created a ton of chances in the first half both through set plays and whip-quick interchanges between the front four of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, and Dele Alli. They finished only one, and then gave up an equalizer after a questionable penalty call against Kyle Walker. The attack slowed down in the second half, but rather than panicking or changing the system, manager Gareth Southgate made a bunch of like-for-like subs in the second half, and the breakthrough eventually came. On another day, they go into halftime up 3-0.
xG map for #Tun-#Eng. Thanks to the ref and the finishing of non-Harry Kane players, this was a very dramatic game. Over on Earth-2 it was 5-0 and people are wondering if this could be the year. pic.twitter.com/mmxEYtzww0— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) June 18, 2018
Unlike Germany, almost all of Southgate’s team is just entering its prime, and that was evident in just how dynamic the team looked against Tunisia. Since Belgium has the goal-difference advantage already, second place in the group seems likelier, but that might be a good thing: a round of 16 match against a non-Colombia team from Group H and then a quarterfinal matchup against Mexico or Switzerland/Serbia could await. The Three Lions would be favorites to make the semis in that scenario, and nothing we’ve seen so far suggests that Southgate’s side can’t hang with any of the pre-tournament favorites, either. Yes, it was only Tunisia (fourth-worst in SPI), but heartbreak is the likely endpoint for every team in Russia. Life is short and the World Cup is even shorter, so go crazy before it’s too late, England fans.
Two games in, and La Roja have scored from the following situations: Diego Costa briefly turning into Marshawn Lynch, a pre-scripted set piece, a backup fullback scoring the goal of his life, and a defender kicking the ball off of Costa’s shins and into his own net. There’s yet to be a signature Spain goal, where their ball movement writes a Gothic novella en route to a David Silva tap-in from 3 yards out, but no one else has exerted anywhere near the same kind of control over their matches as Fernando Hierro’s side.
From Game 1:
Game 1 Stats
|Non-Penalty Expected Goals
|Shots (On Target)
|Completed Final-Third Passes
And Game 2:
Game 2 Stats
|Non-Penalty Expected Goals
|Shots (On Target)
|Completed Final-Third Passes
Portugal are the defending European champs, and Iran hadn’t lost a competitive match in regulation since the 2014 World Cup. Even though it just looks like a draw and a one-goal win, we’re on the verge of getting back to where we were six years ago: If you’re picking against Spain, you’re basically just predicting that whoever they’re playing will happen to get hot in front of goal. Given that almost every player’s conversion rate regresses toward a historical norm, well, good luck with that.
Of the previous three World Cup winners, none won all of their group-stage matches: Germany and Italy both took seven points, while Spain won two of three but lost its opener to Switzerland—the same team that Brazil slumped into a draw against last weekend. As someone who told you that Brazil was going to win the whole thing, my faith in my favorites still hasn’t been shaken, mainly because of the order of the matches. Switzerland was the second-best team in this group (and the 12th-best team in the tournament, per SPI), so if Brazil was going to drop points in the group stages like most winners do, this was the match to do it.
Sure, there are still some questions: How fit is Neymar? Will they stop relying on him so heavily if he’s not 100 percent? Does playing your three ball-dominant attackers (Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, and Marcelo) on one side of the field make the team too predictable? Why did Tite sub off one defensive midfielder for another defensive midfielder after Switzerland tied the game? Has anyone figured out the point of Paulinho yet? But those are all still marginal concerns. No matter how likely they were to win the World Cup, Brazil weren’t likely to win all of their games. It just so happened that their one slip-up came right at the start.