Welcome to the second edition of the Front Six. The first two match days are now in the books, so what did we learn from this past weekend’s action?
1. England Are the Best Basketball Team at the World Cup
If you still weren’t convinced that game-to-game conversion rates fluctuate wildly across all levels of soccer, check out these Three Lions. In their first match against Tunisia, they took 18 shots, eight of which were on target, and they won only after a Harry Kane header in injury time to make it 2-1. Then, a little less than a week later against Panama, they took just 11 shots, and only seven of them were on target … and they went into halftime up 5-0, ultimately winning the match, 6-1. If you count penalties, which are worth about 0.75 expected goals (since they’re converted three-quarters of the time), England’s xG was almost exactly the same against Tunisia (2.93) and Panama (2.95). Highlighting the absurdity, Kane received just 12 passes in the Panama match and he didn’t take a shot from open play … and he ended up with a freaking hat trick.
Harry Kane may not have known much about it, but he gets his hat-trick! pic.twitter.com/uwhZ6HtoRo— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 24, 2018
No matter how hot or cold his team’s finishing has been, manager Gareth Southgate has essentially turned into Brad Stevens. And that’s not just a cross-sport comparison meant to make soccer purists mad. Here’s Football365’s Daniel Storey:
Southgate explained that the nature of basketball was interesting to him, because of the way it was five-on-five and yet players always managed to find space around the basket. He spoke to coaches about the timings of their runs and the way they could legally screen opposition players to create pockets of space, and studied footage to see if he could transpose that to football.
In particular, Southgate believed he could use similar theories with free-kicks from out wide and from corners. Players would offer dummy runs and feint in one direction before moving, each player having strict instructions and so too the set-piece taker. Watching England’s fourth goal on Sunday, you could see that theoretical plan in wonderful practicality.
That fourth goal looked like this:
Straight from the training ground!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 24, 2018
England executes beautifully on a free kick that ends in John Stones getting his second of the day. pic.twitter.com/ggYj22x06n
Set pieces are still soccer’s massively underexploited inefficiency. Any time a team creates a chance from open play, it’s the result of a chain of creative, coordinated, and improvisational decisions that line up in just the right way—a small miracle, really. But set pieces are the one spot where teams can create goals through a combination of planning and execution. I asked Ted Knutson, the founder of StatsBomb who’s also done set-piece consulting with a number of European clubs, how much value teams were leaving on the table by not developing more practiced free-kick routines.
“Somewhere between a quarter and half a goal per game on average is what it works out to at the league level,” he said. “However, in a shorter tournament, that number is leveraged. One goal changes everything, and who really knows how that impacts chances.”
Although they’ve scored just two goals from open play, Southgate’s team has four goals from set pieces, and now sits tied atop Group G in points and goal differential with Belgium. Whether or not that’s a good thing, well …
2. The Draw Is Getting Real Weird
Based on FiveThirtyEight’s projections, the round of 16 is on track to look like this:
- Russia vs. Portugal
- France vs. Argentina
- Brazil vs. Germany
- England vs. Colombia
- Spain vs. Uruguay
- Croatia vs. Denmark
- Mexico vs. Switzerland
- Japan vs. Belgium
In other words, we could have four of the top five in FiveThirtyEight’s pre-tournament SPI ratings and Elo’s pre-tournament rankings in one half of the bracket. That seems like potentially great news for Spain (or Portugal), who could make it to the final with just one knockout game against a team who came into the tournament ranked within the Elo top 10.
The other obvious implication: England and Belgium, who play each other on Thursday, will likely be better off finishing second in their group. If Japan or Senegal win Group H, the runner-up from Group G will be heavy favorites against them and against the subsequent winner of the potential Mexico-Switzerland match. Then, you’re in the semis, and if a couple of bounces go your way: boom, you’ve won the World Cup. Currently, with the same amount of goals scored and conceded, England and Belgium are tied all the way up to the final tiebreaker: which one has the fewest cards. (England currently has two, and Belgium has three.) Of course, the draw is unlikely to play out exactly like the projections suggest, but there’s a legitimate case to be made that both teams should field a bunch of backups, play for a draw, and try to pick up a bunch of yellow cards in order to ensure a second-place finish. It probably won’t play out this way, but one of the most anticipated games of the group stages could quickly devolve into a bunch of bench players fouling each other. Or, as my colleague Rodger Sherman suggested, they could all just take off their shirts.
3. Germany Are Alive—but for How Long?
You were so close, Sweden.
That Kroos goal from the stands. Blimey pic.twitter.com/lESuNV5gey— Thomas Kelly (@drrrop) June 23, 2018
Maybe this is the moment when Toni Kroos—who’s looked out of sorts through the majority of the past two games, seemingly misplacing more square passes at this tournament than he has in his entire career—saved Germany’s repeat. Every World Cup winner needs a bit of luck and a bit of decisive brilliance from its star, and maybe this was it. More likely, though, it seems like their last-second victory over Sweden was a temporary reprieve before the defending champs get sent home early.
Even the best teams run into a hot keeper, a bad referee, or some wayward finishing, but that hasn’t been the case with the Germans. After getting dissected by Mexico’s sudden counterattacks, they barely squeaked out a win against a relatively unspectacular Swedish team. Although manager Jogi Löw made multiple changes to the starting lineup for their second match, most notably replacing the fossilized Sami Khedira with a true defensive midfielder in Bayern Munich reserve Sebastian Rudy, the defensive instability remained. Before Rudy went off injured after taking a cleat to the face, a plodding Swedish attack, led by a pair of 31-year-old strikers, moseyed its way through the heart of Germany’s defense and should have been awarded a penalty when Marcus Berg was taken down from behind by Jérôme Boateng. Then, 18 minutes later, a Kroos turnover was flipped into a Sweden goal after a pair of simple forward passes put Ola Toivonen in on goal.
Uh oh, Germany...— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 23, 2018
Sweden take the 1-0 lead! pic.twitter.com/9QgclmDa8Y
The Swedes came into the tournament averaging fewer direct attacks than all but eight teams in Russia, but they still created plenty of high-quality chances against a reeling German defense. In their two games so far, Germany have recorded fewer expected goals (2.7 to 2.9) than their opponents, and that doesn’t include Berg’s unawarded penalty or any of the Mexican counterattacks that broke down before El Tri got a shot off. Despite constantly pushing eight or nine men into the opposition third, the German attack hasn’t quite clicked yet, and the defense continues to rely on its center backs to make impossible plays in 50 yards of space. Kroos’s goal was the moment of the tournament so far—a struggling superstar saving his shorthanded superteam. But with Brazil looming in the round of 16, there won’t be much more for the Germans to celebrate if something doesn’t change soon.
4. Belgium Look Like Group-Stage Champions
Through two games, Belgium have been the best team in the tournament—and I’m not sure that really means anything. While their attack against Panama was powered by whatever magical dust Dries Mertens and Kevin De Bruyne dipped their cleats into before the game, against Tunisia, we really saw how devastating these dudes could be when the system clicks. Michy Batshuayi played for only 26 minutes, but he legitimately could’ve come out of this one with a claim for the Golden Boot.
The Belgians created tap-in after tap-in over the weekend—kids, watch Romelu Lukaku’s genius-level movement in the attacking third if you want to learn how to score goals—and we already knew that they have the kind of players who can save a potentially frustrating result against a packed-in defense by turning nothing into something. Meanwhile, Argentina’s on the verge of implosion, Germany has looked roughly equal to Sweden and Mexico, Neymar’s crying over a win against Costa Rica, Spain could get only one past Iran, and France has scored just two goals from open play. If anything, Belgium’s dominance should serve as a lesson for the other top teams. While we’ve seen so many of the favorites come into their matches with a one-size-fits-all approach only to struggle against defensive-minded sides who let them have the ball, Roberto Martínez’s lopsided lineup, which features a winger at left back, and an attacker as part of a two-man midfield, has blown its opponents off the field. Too many teams have approached matches against the Costa Ricas of the world in the same way they’d prepare for Spain. If you’re going to have the ball for the majority of the match, why not throw another attacker on the field? (Just please don’t go to the same extremes as the Germans.)
Of course, that concept cuts both ways, and it’s why Belgium still have something to prove. Martínez seems likely to play this same lineup in the knockout rounds, where they could meet Colombia in the round of 16 and/or meet Brazil or Germany in the quarterfinals. The Red Devils want to outscore their opponents, but we haven’t seen that approach work deep into a tournament: The last eight combined World Cup and European Championship winners have conceded five goals in 29 games. And well, Belgium just shipped two against Tunisia.
5. Someone Owes Juan Carlos Osorio an Apology
Mexico’s Juan Carlos Osorio is the one-stop shop for your bespoke tactical needs. Need something modern, streamlined, and unforgettable? He’s got your surgical deconstruction of the defending champs right here:
What about something a little more ornamental, with some midcentury flair and fewer straight lines? How about this patient, inefficient, but still professionally executed takedown of an underdog?
As soon as Mexico received their World Cup draw back in December, Osorio’s master plan was set in motion. From then up through this spring, the Mexican federation’s technical department was directed to watch as many matches as possible of all of the players they would potentially face in the group stages in beyond. A massive video and statistical database was then created, offering details down to things like, according to federation analyst Irving Mendoza, “Who, in the opponent’s team, is more adept at clearing the ball in the goal area?”
The plan, however, seemed in danger of collapsing in on its own meticulousness, after a scoreless draw against Wales and a tepid 1-0 win over Scotland in El Tri’s two tune-up friendlies before heading to Russia. Believe it or not, Osorio was booed off the field after the win over Scotland. Then the furor grew even louder after a 2-0 loss to Denmark in Copenhagen. Now, the Mexicans have put together the most impressive pair of wins of any team in the tournament. The match against Germany required Osorio’s team to cede possession and do damage on the counter, while the Korea game necessitated a much more expansive possession-based approach. Unlike Belgium, Mexico’s already shown that they can get from point A to point B, no matter what gear they’re in.
Before the tournament, Simon Kuper, one of the authors of Soccernomics, told me, “Data very likely won’t decide this World Cup.” I can think of at least one person in Russia who might disagree.
6. Colombia Is Back
Didn’t you miss this?
THE DANCING COLOMBIANS ARE BACK!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 24, 2018
Cuadrado finishes the breakaway after another beautiful pass from James and celebrates in style. pic.twitter.com/NBiJXM6MGF
A red card within the first five minutes of their opener against Japan turned that match into a write-off, but holy shit, this team is frightening at full strength. Despite not possessing the breadth of top-end talent like Belgium or some of the other teams just outside of the big favorites, Colombia seemed like a decent sleeper pick because their best players just fit together in a way that makes sense. Young center backs Yerry Mina and Davinson Sánchez both have incredible range and can clean up a lot of mistakes. And the front four just offers so much balance and versatility: James Rodríguez might be the most underappreciated superstar in world soccer, as he’s one of the few players out there who can drive the attack forward from midfield, create shots for his teammates, and score them on his own. Meanwhile, Juan Cuadrado can break down a defense with one of his jaunty dribbles, and Radamel Falcao, who’s scored 148 goals in Europe’s top leagues but is playing in his first World Cup at age 32, remains one of the premier penalty-box poachers.
RADAMEL FALCAO!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 24, 2018
4 years after missing the FIFA World Cup due to injury, El Tigre gets his first FIFA World Cup goal. pic.twitter.com/O7Uyfcros1
But the final member of that foursome, Juan Fernando Quintero, deserves a special mention. Five years ago, a then-20-year-old Quintero moved to FC Porto in Portugal, with the reputation as one of the most promising prospects in the world. He made Colombia’s 2014 World Cup squad and scored the decisive goal in a 2-1 group stage win over Côte d’Ivoire. Big things seemed afoot, but his career suddenly stalled out. He went off on loan to clubs in France, Colombia, and Argentina, and he didn’t appear in any of Colombia’s qualification matches. After some impressive performances with Argentina’s River Plate this past season, though, he earned his first call-up in two and a half years this past March and then did enough to make the World Cup squad.
Quintero’s father was “disappeared” from Colombia when he was a toddler, and he hasn’t been seen since. The family commemorated the patriarch’s death in 2015, and who knows what kind of trauma Quintero’s had to deal with. But the rumors about his inconsistent performances were predictable: He supposedly didn’t care enough about soccer and was spending too much time making cameos in reggaeton videos. Well, he’s back, and the talent hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s produced my favorite goal of the tournament when he submarined the ball under a clueless wall of leaping Japanese defenders, and my favorite assist, the one-touch cushion right into Falcao’s path.
There’s not much room for a player like Quintero in the modern game—as the philosophical arc has bent heavily toward hectic efficiency, the sport has discarded the patient playmakers who operate under a clock where one second lasts just a little bit longer. But with this diverse collection of Colombian attackers, Quintero is fitting right in.