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Uncertainty Made Russia 2018 the Best World Cup in Decades

How the rest of the world is catching up with the superpowers like Germany and Brazil, and why that made for such a thrilling, unpredictable World Cup, plus more takeaways from a dazzling month of soccer in Russia

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Just over a month after Russia thumped Saudi Arabia, 5-0, it’s all over. France are champions for the second time, and we’re left to ponder what life will be like without another men’s World Cup match until November 2022. Here are the six biggest lessons from the 2018 World Cup.

1. Defense (and a Ridiculous Amount of Individual Talent) Wins Championships

Yes, they won the final with four goals and sure and they also lit up the scoreboard against Argentina in the round of 16, but the story of France’s World Cup is their defense. I don’t think it’ll be remembered this way, especially given all the goals in the final, but Didier Deschamps’s side is one of the all-time great World Cup defenses. Typically, teams have to trade-off between limiting either the number of chances they concede (like Germany in 2014—playing a high press and possessing a ton of the ball) or the quality of chances (like Italy in 2006—playing everyone behind the ball and ceding possession). But not France: Before the final, only three teams allowed fewer shots per game and only one allowed worse shots (based on expected goals per attempt).

Despite more than a $1 billion worth of talent, Didier Deschamps decided to build a defensive behemoth. Antoine Griezmann, who’s one of the best strikers in the game, functioned as a defense-first advanced midfielder, while Paul Pogba, who was once the most expensive player in the world because of his ability to score and create goals from behind the attack, was employed as a reserved midfielder who rarely got too far forward. And rather than opting for attack-minded fullbacks like Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé, Deschamps played two center backs as his fullbacks— Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández—for the duration of the tournament.

I was skeptical of his approach from the start. Why trust in your ability to execute on the margins and shut out the opposition when you can overwhelm them with a potentially devastating super-charged attack? Well, because it’s enough to win you the goddamn World Cup.

Despite the conservative setup, France still had match-winning attacking talent, and when your opponents can’t score, one moment or two moments of brilliance means more than it usually does. Pogba won the games against Australia and Peru with a handful of plays from midfield. Kylian Mbappé napalmed Argentina’s decrepit defense. Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti, arguably the two best center backs on the planet, headed in the winners against Uruguay and Belgium. And then, after a fortunate first half that saw France score a hyper-efficient two goals on one total shot, Pogba did all of this:

And then Mbappé did that:

The most impressive thing about this team is how everyone seemed to buy in. This, after all, is the same nation that saw its 2010 World Cup brought down by a player mutiny. Although N’Golo Kanté didn’t have a great final, he might’ve been the best player in Russia during the past month. By fighting back their natural tendencies, Pogba and Griezmann allowed Kanté to roam the field and win the ball back, and he led all players in tackles plus interceptions. Rather than defensive stalwart Kanté doing the dirty work and letting Pogba and Griezmann run free, it was the big-name stars who sublimated their games. When a handful of Belgium players criticized the French approach after their semifinal—despite, uh, getting outshot 19-9—Griezmann responded: “I don’t care. I want the star [on my shirt for World Cup winners]. If I get that star, I don’t care about how we play.”

An indomitable defense like France’s just doesn’t work if the players and the manager aren’t on the same page. The 24 of them were, and now they’re all legends forever.

Because of the defensive-minded tactical setup, the French public never really warmed to the national team before the final. One nurse, who called into a local radio station, summed up the nationwide feeling: “Deschamps has a Ferrari in his hands and never breaks the speed limit!” I can’t imagine she still feels the same way. After all, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re going as long as you cross the finish line first.

2. Underdogs: Get Yourself a World-Class Midfield

While the team never quite optimized their approach, the midfield of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Marcelo Brozovic kept Croatia in every game. The team attempted an incredible 68 crosses between the semifinal and the final. That’s not the efficient way to score, but they were able to bomb balls into the box only because the guys in the middle won the game of keep-away when it mattered.

Croatia, who came into the tournament with just a 7 percent chance of making the final, according to FiveThirtyEight, certainly benefited from being on the easy side of the draw, as they didn’t play a group winner in the knockout stages until the final. And as it stands, they still haven’t won a tournament-elimination game in regulation since … 1998. But despite playing an extra 90 minutes across the playoffs, they took the game to France. Brozovic completed more passes than France’s entire midfield—Pogba, Kanté, Steven N’Zonzi, and Blaise Matuidi—combined. And not even Kanté, the best defensive midfielder in the world, could quite handle Croatia’s midfield dominance as he picked up a yellow in the first half and came off early in the second.

France as a whole completed just 27 passes in the final third across 90 minutes, while Modric and Rakitic alone exceeded that number:

Although one of their goals came on a baffling error from Hugo Lloris when the game was pretty much over, most of the bounces didn’t go Croatia’s way in the final—from the own goal to the penalty to the two incredible finishes from Pogba and Mbappé. And so 4-2 really just doesn’t feel like an accurate representation of what happened. Knockout soccer is the cruelest version of an already unforgiving sport. But you can control only what you can control, and Croatia’s midfield made sure it at least did that.

I don’t know if Modric was the best player in Russia. Personally, I’d have given the Golden Ball to Pogba—this team doesn’t click without him doing the defensive work and then springing the attack forward—but I can’t get too worked up over it. The award has always been more about affirming a narrative anyway, and an always underappreciated superstar finally picking up an individual honor in the twilight of his career does just that. Croatia’s World Cup was a testament to just how far a team could go by keeping things close in every match. Their at-times dominant midfielders allowed them to do that, and Modric is the best midfielder the country has ever produced.

3. It’s a Young Man’s Game

Want an easy explanation for why none of Brazil, Germany, or Argentina made the semifinals for the first time ever? They were too old. Along with Spain, those sides all brought aging squads to Russia and paid for it. The peak age for a professional varies by position but it’s typically in the 24 to 28 range. Half of Brazil’s starting XI were beyond peak age, and almost all of Argentina, Spain, and Germany’s key players were beyond that benchmark, too.

Meanwhile, the heavyweight battle of the semifinals between France and Belgium featured two teams with most of their key players either smack-dab in the middle of their primes or not even there yet:

The same goes for England. Here’s what the current squad looks like—four years from now:

Mark Taylor

The rule even kind of applies to Croatia: While their stars, Modric, Rakitic, and Mario Mandzukic are all on the wrong side of 30, manager Zlatko Dalic still gave about 50 percent of his team’s minutes to peak-age players.

Overall, it seems like national-team managers need to be a little less sentimental with their squad choices and trust in the talent coming up behind. (The United States might’ve made it to Russia if they’d heeded this advice, too.) With most teams demanding constant motion and sizable defensive and offensive output from their players, the sport is just so hard to play now.

“The physical demands of soccer have changed so noticeably in the last decade that it’s hard to see how we won’t see a continuation of a trend toward younger teams,” Chris Anderson, author of The Numbers Game, told me. “We’re already seeing it in the top leagues—the game is so fast and so dynamic and the physical demands so high, it’s really hard for older guys to keep up.”

4. VAR Killed the Red Card

Even when he misses, Cristiano Ronaldo makes history. The 33-year-old Juventus superstar—man, that’s gonna take a while to get used to—couldn’t beat Iran’s Alireza Beiranvand, but his spot kick broke the record for most penalties at a World Cup … with three days left in the group stage. That was number 19, and since then, the number has ballooned to 29. All hail VAR.

Despite awarding this tournament to an openly homophobic plutocracy with an extremely-dubious-at-best history of doping, FIFA did get VAR right. I was skeptical of the value of introducing brand-new technology into such a delicate sporting event that happens just once every four years, and the early flurry of penalties seems to suggest that defenders hadn’t adjusted their games to the added scrutiny. And while the VAR penalty awarded to France in the first half of the final seemed to push the eventual champions over the edge, there were only four spot kicks awarded during the knockout stages.

But more importantly, VAR seems like it’s decimated the kind of strategic violence that often defines a handful of games at each World Cup. These numbers remained the same through Sunday’s final:

It cleaned up dirty play and possibly opened up things for attackers. Despite an early flurry of set-piece goals, the percentage of goals scored on set pieces was up by about just 4 percent, but VAR seems to have shaken things open for teams that spend time training corner kicks. The 26 goals from corners during this tournament is the most since 1966.

“VAR’s cleaned up corners and made them a significant attacking threat,” Mark Taylor, an analyst who works with Premier League clubs, said. “They were always more valuable to some sides than was widely acknowledged. It should favor the attackers, just as 1998 put an end to the tackle from behind.”

If VAR ultimately leads to more goal scoring and cuts down on in-game violence, then it’s a clear win. And if that, in turn, puts an end to the quadrennial whining about players diving too much, then whoever developed the technology deserves serious Nobel Prize consideration.

While not all of the major European leagues are using it yet, the World Cup should also make it easy for all of them to implement VAR without much blowback. Part of what has made soccer such a long-lasting international behemoth is its simplicity: 22 players, only two can use their hands; don’t foul; don’t kick the ball out of bounds; don’t be offside; and that’s it. But as players and strategies continue to evolve, so can the game. Next up: It might be time to reassess the shape of the 18-yard box.

5. Managers Matter More Than Ever Before

Before the World Cup, Soccernomics coauthor Simon Kuper told me, “The manager’s role is usually vastly overrated.” The players on the field win and lose and draw the games, and at the club level, the quality of those players is typically determined by how rich your team is. The best teams seem like they have the best managers because they have the best players.

However, it’s not quite that simple—especially when it comes to the international game, when rosters are determined by whatever players or players’ relatives happen to be born in a given country. Just look at the teams in the final: Deschamps won the World Cup with a well-drilled defense, and Dalic, who didn’t become Croatia’s manager until October 2017, helped smooth out a team that sputtered through World Cup qualifying.

“In the Premier League, for example, there is an obsession with managers, but when it comes to international games, they are only a small part of the discussion,” Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at the consultancy 21st Club, said. “Which is odd because it feels like coaching is even more important in international football.”

Iran came into the tournament without one player who plays in any of Europe’s top five leagues, and yet they were a goal away from advancing out of a group that included the past two European champions and a talented Morocco side. Meanwhile, Sweden were without the best player in the country’s history and possibly even still their best player right now, and they won a group that included the defending World Cup champs and then advanced farther than Spain, Portugal, and Argentina.

“I felt like when you looked at some of the smaller nations, you could tell who were the ones who had been coached really well, and those that hadn’t been,“ Chaudhuri said. “All the players knew their roles and were able to execute them despite technical deficiencies.”

Then there was England. While they generally struggled from open play, the Three Lions made the semifinals of the freaking World Cup and were less than 30 minutes away from the final. Gareth Southgate had difficulty with his in-game adjustments, but for the most part, his team tried to pass its way out of dangerous situations. They played a unique tactical system with really only one true midfielder, and they were dominant from set plays.

“Southgate knows the difference between what can and should be practiced and drilled, and what should be left to the players to decide. E.g., set pieces and especially penalties are standardized routines which can be practiced,” Garry Gelade, a former analyst with Chelsea, said. “Hopefully, the insanity ‘you can’t practice penalties’ is now consigned to the dustbin of history, while the players are given freedom to express themselves and improvise in attacking situations.”

On the other side of the coin: Spain. You may remember … that they fired their manager a day before the tournament started! Before leaving for Real Madrid, Julen Lopetegui had turned Spain into a devastating possession machine that scored 36 goals and conceded just three in 10 qualifying matches. They were unlucky to lose to Russia, but despite completing a still mind-boggling 1,008 passes to their opponents’ 192 (!), Spain barely created any dangerous opportunities until the final period of extra time. Without any direction going forward, they fell back on their ability to pass it around.

“When Lopetegui left, there was no movement on their price on Betfair,” Chaudhuri said, “but when push came to shove against Russia, they were hopelessly short of ideas.”

6. Random Rules

France seemed to plow its way through this World Cup like a nuclear icebreaker—never moving too quickly, but always fast enough to shatter all of their brittle opponents. However, the feeling of seeing them lift the trophy undersells just how close they were to going home a few weeks ago. Per 21st Club’s probability models, France had an 81 percent of being eliminated when they were down 2-1 in the 56th minute against Argentina—only to be saved by Benjamin Pavard’s artful volley. Meanwhile, Croatia, who also needed two penalty-shoot-out wins to even reach the semis, were down 1-0 against England with 23 minutes remaining and just a nine percent chance of advancing. And in the final, well, Croatia fans are gonna be rueing this one for a long, long time:

Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight’s three pretournament favorites—Brazil, Germany, and Spain—were given a 49 percent chance of winning the whole thing between them and were all eliminated before the semifinals. All three sides can feel unfortunate to varying degrees—Germany were at least probably as good as the three other teams in their group; Spain got knocked out in a game in which they gave up one shot on target; Brazil outshot Belgium 27 to 9 in their quarterfinal loss—but that’s the beauty of international soccer. Anything can happen in one game or three games or seven games. Thanks to improvements in coaching and player training across the globe, it seems like the rest of the world is starting to catch up to the traditional powers. The middle class is at least now close enough that the difference in player quality doesn’t matter as much in such a compressed format.

In many ways, club soccer is better than it’s ever been, as almost all of the top teams now employ frenetic, progressive styles of play that hunt out high-quality chances. But at the same time, it’s become a little too predictable: Juventus have won the last seven Serie A titles, Bayern Munich have won six in a row in Germany, PSG have won five of the last six in France, Barcelona have won three of the last four in Spain, and in the Premier League, the one league that is supposed to promise uncertainty, Manchester City just won by 19 points.

With the international game, the quality of play still isn’t close: The teams that tried to employ aggressive possession-based approaches, Spain and Germany, went home early, while the defining feature of this France team is avoiding the temptation of playing too many of their top attackers and instead favoring an organized, conservative approach.

But that didn’t really matter this summer. There was something so refreshing and so thrilling about sitting down each morning and not having any clue about what might play out. For that reason, I don’t think it’s a cliché to say it: The 2018 World Cup was the best of my lifetime.