Just like that, there are just eight games left at the World Cup. Ahead of the next round kicking off on Friday, let’s take a look at one player on each team who could have an outsize effect on his country’s quarterfinal fortunes.
France: Paul Pogba
Even in the quarterfinals, the mantra still stands: Never bet on soccer, you idiot. But! If I wanted to lose money and at least feel good about the way I depleted my checking account, then I might consider looking at Paul Pogba for the Golden Ball, which currently stands at 50/1.
Kylian Mbappé dominated the headlines after France’s breathtaking 4-3 win over Argentina, and rightfully so: He dominated the match as thoroughly as any individual can. The world got to see the greatest teenage attacker of the century in full flight:
We can also adjust for minutes played, to look at goalscoring *rate* instead of raw numbers.— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) July 4, 2018
If we do that, and keep only matches in elite competitions — internationals, Champions League, "big five leagues" — Mbappé is peerless. Far ahead of Messi, Henry etc at same age pic.twitter.com/8GsVn6EEnf
But the win over Argentina was an outlier. In their prior three games, France ground out two wins and a draw, notching just three goals and allowing one. Meanwhile, their quarterfinal opponents, Uruguay, have allowed just one goal across 360 minutes, so France’s group stage matches seem like the better predictor of what’s to come. In those games, Les Bleus limited the chances on both ends and let Pogba be their locksmith. In the 2-1 win against Australia, his through ball led to Antoine Grizemann’s penalty, and his series of give-and-gos through the heart of the opposition defense led to the own-goal winner. And in the 1-0 victory over Peru, Pogba blew up a counterattack before it could get started and then slipped in Olivier Giroud, whose deflected shot was tapped in by Mbappé.
Pogba might be my favorite player to watch—ever. The combination of open-field elegance, thundering athleticism, and balletic body control makes anything possible when the ball is at his feet. And maybe that—coupled with some still-ungrappled-with racism simmering barely below the surface across much of the British press—explains some of the unfair criticism he’s come under for the past two years at Manchester United: When someone can do it all, it’s easy to focus on whatever he’s not doing.
Against a Uruguay team that cedes possession and shuts off access to their box—they’re still yet to concede a goal from open play—expect Pogba to see more of the ball than anyone else on the field. There’s a good chance this match settles into a conservative pattern without many shots from either side, but that shouldn’t make it any less compelling: The best defense in the tournament is gonna dare the best midfielder to beat them.
Uruguay: Lucas Torreira
Uruguay are the team of the tournament—they’re defined by how well they defend as a unit. And so it’s somewhat silly to pick out one specific player ahead of the France match. There’s of course the superstar duo of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez up top and the superstar duo of Diego Godín and José Giménez at the back. Godín and Giménez should put the clamps on the plodding Olivier Giroud, and Suárez and Cavani will build whatever chances Uruguay get. But we already know what to expect from those four.
Instead, Lucas Torreira’s performance should go a long way in determining Uruguay’s result. After subbing on for their first two matches, the 22-year-old Sampdoria (and likely soon-to-be Arsenal) midfielder has played all 180 minutes in the last two. Through four games, he’s blocked as many shots (six) as the rest of his teammates combined, and despite playing in the midfield, he’s cleared more balls than everyone other than Godín and Giménez. He’s as defensively active as any midfielder, but he can be a tad too aggressive, as he’s completed just two of the eight tackles he’s attempted.
Torreira’s yet to really show the offensive side of his game in Russia. But for Sampdoria, he functioned as a deep-lying playmaker who evaded the opposition press and would drive play forward with vertical passes or the ball at his feet:
However, Torreira’s yet to create a chance or complete a dribble so far at the World Cup. He’ll be key not just in shutting down the space in front of Uruguay’s back line but in evading France’s swarming midfield and starting up the few attacks Uruguay will need to carve out.
If you zoom out far enough, there’s nothing surprising about this World Cup: The best team is the only country that’s won five World Cups. Taking into account the strength of opponents, Brazil were the most impressive side in the group stages, and then they went on to pummel a tricky Mexico side. Brazil were the only team to win their knockout stage match by more than a goal, and the underlying numbers matched right up with that:
Here’s the scary thing: They might get even better. The best fullback in the world returned to training, and so did Douglas Costa, the dribbling dynamo who broke apart the game against Costa Rica. So, the one real uncertainty ahead of the Belgium match is whether Fernandinho can slot into Casemiro’s role without missing a beat. The Real Madrid man, who’s suspended after picking up two yellows in four matches, is leading all players in Russia with 17 tackles, and he’s tied for the team lead in interceptions.
With Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, Belgium have two of the top five creators remaining in the tournament. They each typically function right in the space Casemiro would normally occupy, but fortunately for Brazil Fernandinho is one of the few players on the planet who’s also able to shut down the deep midfield space all by himself. You can have the field; I’m gonna stick by this.
Belgium: Toby Alderweireld
Due to some injury issues and contract complications, Toby Alderweireld didn’t even reach 1,200 minutes in the Premier League for Tottenham this season. Club chairman Daniel Levy is notoriously frugal with salaries, and Alderweireld seemed to upset him by, uh, asking to get paid like one of the best center backs in Europe, which he is! The 29-year-old might be the best passing defender you’ll find anywhere, as he led the Premier League with 8.5 completed long balls per 90 minutes. His raking diagonal passes can take five or six defenders out of the game in a matter of seconds.
Against Brazil, he might be facing the most difficult task of his 10-year career. Belgium plays with three center backs and two wingbacks, but those wingbacks are more “wingers” than “backs.” If Marcelo starts the match, Brazil will regain their frankly unfair left flank. Most of their attack will flow through the triangles created by the Real Madrid fullback, Philippe Coutinho, and Neymar. Given how easy it was for Japan to create chances, it’s hard to conceive of a match in which that trio isn’t just constantly weaving its way into the space behind Thomas Meunier. If that happens, it’ll be up to Alderweireld, the right-sided center back, to at least contain them all. It’s a thankless task, but he’s at least used to defending in space because of the aggressive way Tottenham push their defenders up the field. Plus, with Alderweireld’s two-way talent, the Brazilians will have to be wary of what he can do once he gets the ball at his feet.
Russia: Igor Akinfeev
Russia just aren’t good. They have the worst underlying numbers of any team remaining, per InfoGol. The seven other quarterfinalists have expected-goal differentials no lower than plus-1.7, but the Russians are sitting all the way down at minus-1.9. So, how are they still here? They’ve finished their chances at an insanely high clip, notching nine goals, compared to just 4.7 expected. Scoring nine of your 12 shots on target isn’t a sustainable strategy, and not even a front three of Lionel Messi and two of his clones would convert that many of their chances. Croatia’s defense has been much worse than it seems—two goals conceded, but 5.3 expected—except this isn’t the attack to take advantage of a potentially vulnerable back line. In Russia’s two games (the 3-0 loss to Uruguay and the win in penalties over Spain) against formidable opposition, the attack crashed back to Earth; only a mindless Gerard Piqué hand ball could temporarily halt the downward momentum.
As for the defense, well, it’s not quite as bad, but it’s, uh, yeah—it’s still pretty bad. The Russians have also allowed the most expected goals of any team remaining: 6.5, compared to the five Igor Akinfeev has actually let in. He’s yet to allow a non-own goal from open play, despite facing plenty of shots from central locations:
Akinfeev leads all remaining keepers in saves, and it’s really hard to picture Russia hanging with Croatia if the 32-year-old doesn’t continue to widen the gap.
Croatia: Ante Rebic
Let’s quickly pump the brakes on the Croatia hype train, OK? They’ve been … fine. The defense seems bound to start leaking goals soon. And despite a world-class midfield duo in Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, they spend less time in the opposition final third than any of the other quarterfinalists. They’ve taken the third-most shots of any team remaining, but they’re also settling for bad looks. Only Brazil cross the ball more often, and no other quarterfinalist takes a higher percentage of shots from outside the box: They’re at 55 percent, while the next highest is Uruguay at 44.
And yet, that high-frequency, low-efficiency approach should be more than enough against Russia. Barring any high jinks—which, of course, only a fool would bar—Croatia should comfortably advance past the hosts, but I’m keeping an eye on the performance of Ante Rebic, who was last seen not rolling the ball into an empty net after rounding Kasper Schmeichel in the dying moments of Croatia’s Round of 16 match with Denmark. Since he was unable to ever get a shot off before getting hacked down by a defender, Rebic’s only shot from inside the box this tournament came when he spiked Willy Caballero’s set into the back of Argentina’s net.
Rebic is one of those players who always looks like he’s doing something, seems like he should be dangerous because of how quickly and wildly he’s moving, but all that fury fizzles out the closer he gets to goal. In addition to his terrible shot selection—five of six shots from outside the box—he’s somehow only created one chance in 255 minutes of playing time as part of Croatia’s front three. Perhaps because of Rebic’s ineffectiveness, most of the Croatian attack runs down the left side, and so winger Ivan Perisic leads the teams in shots. However, Russia’s defense is especially weak on their left side, and that’s where Rebic will be. On Saturday, there should be opportunities for him to break into the box; he just has to make sure he doesn’t shoot before he gets there.
Sweden: Marcus Berg
Look at this poor guy.
Per Paul Riley’s numbers, Berg has the fifth-most expected goals of any player in Russia (2.69), and yet he still hasn’t scored a goal. Of course, Sweden are here because of their defense. Manager Janne Andersson has set up a side that’s just a pain in the ass to break down. The stats company Impect tracks how often a defender (the last five players on the field) gets bypassed by either a completed pass or a dribble. Sweden have had the fewest bypassed defenders of any country—and they’ve played one more game than most teams!
Since the Swedish defense requires so much effort and manpower to get beyond, opponents will push numbers forward and leave space for the Swedes to break into once they win the ball back. Berg is no Mbappé-like turbo counterattacker; he’s a slow 31-year-old target man getting his paychecks from the Arabian Gulf League in the United Arab Emirates. England’s defense still hasn’t really been tested through four games, and while nothing about Berg’s surface-level profile suggests he’ll be the one to do it, he’s been taking great shots. Unless Gareth Southgate and Co. find a way to prevent that from continuing to happen, they’re eventually gonna start going in.
England: Raheem Sterling
The big issue with England is well established: They can’t create shit from open play. Their two open-play goals were a Jesse Lingard worldie and a deflection off of Harry Kane’s heel. Otherwise, they’ve scored on four set pieces and three penalties. Kane has scored 67 percent of the team’s goals—by far the biggest chunk of any player on any of the remaining teams. But what’s more concerning is just how reliant the team has been on Kieran Trippier to create chances. The Tottenham fullback has 12 key passes so far -- more than double the rate he posted in the Premier League -- and no one else on England has more than four.
However, most of the chances Trippier has created have come from either crosses (seven), corners (six), or free kicks (three). From open play, Raheem Sterling has been the team’s leading creator. Granted, he’s only created four chances, but the number’s not that far off his per-90-minute rate with Manchester City this season: 1.5 to 1.9. The bigger drop-off comes from Sterling’s shooting numbers, as he averaged three per 90 in the Premier League and has only produced 1.8 attempts per 90 at the World Cup.
Don’t read The Daily Mail; it’ll rot your brain. But if you did, you’d think that it’s Raheem Sterling’s fault … that England are in the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the first time since 2006. Since he’s young and black and had the audacity to ask for a raise—sensing a theme here?—he’s been the go-to scapegoat not just for England’s failures, but for their successes, too. This past season, Sterling became a legitimate superstar: He scored 18 goals and assisted on 11 more en route to Manchester City’s record-breaking Premier League title. With England, he’s playing a slightly different role than he does at City—off of a striker’s shoulder rather than part of a front three. His off-ball movement is what makes him so dangerous—see his run to create his flubbed shot against Tunisia—but England’s midfielders are much more conservative than the guys Sterling gets fed by at City.
With such a stout defense standing in their way, it’s hard to imagine more set pieces paving the way forward. If England seriously wants to consider bringing this thing home, they need to start finding Sterling’s feet.