Inspired by the ESPN’s Zach Lowe weekly column on the NBA, I write about random things I like about players, teams and trends at the World Cup.
1 – N’Golo Kante redefining what it means to be a defensive midfielder.
Good news for the rest of the teams in the tournament: France has not yet figured out what its best 11-men lineup is. After a disappointing performance against Australia in their opening match, Deschamps switched things up drastically with the addition of Olivier Giroud and Blaise Matuidi. France reverted back to the more direct 4-2-3-1 France played in the 2016 Euros, trading off a player who can initiate attacks (Tolisso) and an direct attacking player (Dembele) for raw energy on the wing and a more physical presence up top.
I tend to agree with bringing Giroud back to the lineup. Ousmane Dembele is a supremely talented football player but he’s not yet consistently efficient enough in isolation. Of course when he’s on the pitch, he can have magical moments similar to the one he had against Italy last month but too often the offense bogs down when he doesn’t find enough space away from his defenders. I’m more skeptical of the Tolisso move however. Corentin is one of the best young registas in football, he offers composure in offense, can bring the ball up and calm the game down when needed. His frame and pace allow him to be a plus defender and he’s such a smart player that he hardly gets beaten off the ball. Matuidi offers a lot of energy on the wing and he always plays hard but he remains a very reckless football player. As per StatZone, he led both teams in total fouls committed (he also got a yellow card). Moreover, Matuidi is not an incisive passer and his erratic style of play doesn’t necessarily create clear opportunities with precision.
None of those changes mattered against Peru however, thanks to the might of N’Golo Kante.
He dominated this football match in every single aspect by doing what he often does for Chelsea: recovering on defense, cleaning up all of Pogba’s positional and on-the-ball mistakes, taking the life out of the opposition all while at times jump starting the offense when France had the ball. Per StatZone, he led all players in both teams in ball recoveries (13), tackle success rate (4/5), interceptions (5) while still completing 90% of his passes (45/50). All of this is even more insane when you realize he only committed 1 foul in the game. It’s easy to take what Kante does for granted and not fully appreciate him as a football player, after all he has been the most impactful midfielder in football for the last two years now. What Kante is doing however should not be understated: he is making a strong case that he is one of the 5 best players to ever play the position (defensive midfielder).
2 – Morroco’s pretty offense
I’m really sad we won’t see more of Morroco past the group stage in this World Cup. They displayed one of the prettiest offense of the tournament and lost their first two games while averaging a ridiculous 60% possession rate. The dominant possession was not surprising against Iran. They were the better team and they were supposed to get this win. Their game against Portugal however was thoroughly impressive.
Morroco’s offense carved out this Portugal team in-and-out with smart back cuts, excellent movement off the ball and a very forward looking brand of football. They played for each other, they never really panicked and they continued to believe in themselves. Football can be a cruel sport and Morocco learned this the hard way last week but I will always remember how pleasurable they were to watch in the competition this year. It sucks that losing a game due to an own goal conceded at the 95th minute of a game in which they had 65% of the possession will end up being emblematic of their world cup
3 – Isco’s & James Rodriguez supreme confidence
I love watching James and Isco play football. There’s just something about their panache on the pitch that inevitably makes them stand out.
Isco is the best player on the best team of the tournament. His influence on Spain’s overall game has been remarkable. He’s allowed to drift in and out and he’s used the additional freedom in the best possible way: Per StatZone, he created the most chances for his team mates. This is not a small feat, Spain has five players that can all legitimately make stuff happen on offense. His link up plays with Iniesta have been genuinely some of the best general offensive plays in the tournament.
Isco is not a flawless football player, he still over dribbles from time to time. His small frame limits his overall explosiveness and he still needs to become a more willing passer. With all of that being said, he has another level he can reach. He’s been staring at this level for a year now, he’s flirted with it a few times during the season. It’s coming and it should be terrifying for opposing teams.
James on the other hand played his first full game after coming off the bench and playing only 30 minutes against Japan. He reminded us how good he is when allowed to lead a team as a true number 10. It was a superb showcase of passing, dribbling and excellent link up plays.
What makes James a special player, perhaps a little bit more so than even Isco, is that his overall athleticism causes all kind of problems for the opposing defense. If you tuck in on him too close 1 on 1, he’ll blow by you. If you give him too much space, he’ll find open team mates in the right spot. If you make an effort to deny him the ball, he’ll move constantly until he gets it in the correct position, he’ll even call for it out wide to create space for others. His decision making is probably the most underrated part of his game, he completed 60 of 68 passes against Poland and managed to have two key assists in the process.
Seriously though, take a look at this filth:
4 – Sampaoli’s Shapeless Argentina
At the end of the Argentina – Croatia game, my buddy Cram and I were trying to figure out what formation actually played. I told Cram, Enzo Perez and Masherano were in the midfield and that it was a 3-4-3, at least that’s what it was supposed to be. Cram was convinced that Masherano was playing center back and had no idea what Enzo Perez’s role was.
We weren’t the only one confused, Fabregas said on the Sky Sports post game show that Argentinca played a 5-0-5. He essentially thought they were shapeless and expressed his frustration in the broadcast like this: “They were playing 5 attackers and 5 defenders, a midfield this exactly what you want. They were playing against each other.”
Parts of Argentina’s issues were due to the formation, parts of it was due to players performing poorly that night but it’s impossible not to put most of the blame on Sampaoli for failing to make the right adjustments in the second half. It was evident that Argentina’s wing backs were getting killed by Croatia’s wide-outs (Rebic and Perisic). It was pretty apparent that there was no one in Argentina’s midfield that could jump start the offense. They were relying on Masherano to bring the ball up with Enzo perez no where to be found. The sad part of it all is that both Banega and Lo Celso, two capable two-way midfielders with excellent passing abilities, were on the bench and did not get a single minute of playing time in this game.
It’s one thing not to play your most creative midfielders, it’s a tragedy when you’re counting on Nicoloas Otamendi and Masherano to initiate your offense from the back. Messi and Aguerro got the least touches in the game per Opta. Belgium and Germany (for almost all of their second game) played no traditional holders in order to boost their offense. Brazil and England only play 1. At some point, it is necessary to play your best players and I wonder if Lo Celso, Banega and Dybala will get a fair shot at this World Cup.
5 – Jesse Lingard’s constant off the ball movement
Jesse Lingard is not exactly the most flashy football player at his position. Even at Manchester United, he never really gets the attention he deserves. To be fair, he’s not as skilled with the ball nor is he as good of a passer as other offensive midfielders in the premier league like say Kevin Debruyne, David Silva or Christian Eriksen.
With that said, Lingard is the king of little things and he works his buts off when he’s on the pitch. His best quality as a football player is what he does when he does not have the football. On offense, he’s constantly moving, calling for the ball in wide or deep area, in the process creating space for Kane and Sterling. He links up very well with team mates and will almost always make the right play. Last but not least, he can be lethal if given too much space outside the box:
Lingard sometimes disappears from games and by nature he’s not the type of player who can set the tempo of an offense like Isco or Toni Kroos. England is still missing that player – Loftus-Cheek can eventually become that calming presence in their midfield but he’s still a couple years away. However it helps to have a smart player like Lingard who tries hard, creates space and is dangerous in almost every area of the final third.
6 – Luka Modric & Rakitic double pivot
What makes Modric and Rakitic super special players is how versatile they are. That versatility is in full display in Spain on a weekly basis for their respective clubs. If their coaches need them to sit deep in front of the defense they can. If their help is needed out wide, they can also do that too. If you need them play as classic number 10s and organize the offense they’ll do it so well you might think they’re the best midfield duo in the World Cup.
Against Nigeria both played as deep lying playmakers to limit the athleticism advantage the Nigerians generally have in the midfield. Against Argentina, both played high up the pitch and pressured Argentina’s center back. It was Modric’s advanced position that allowed him to score from outside the box against Argentina. Modric and Rakitic are two of the best midfielders of the last 20 years and it’s awesome to see them both thrive in an international competition.
7 – Victor Moses and Danilo are offense killers
There is this interesting theory that Football is a weak link sport. What this essentially means is that contrary to a sport like basketball in which the quality of one player can make the difference between win or loss, in football your deficient players affect the game in ways that often cost you victories.
To be clear, being a deficient player doesn’t simply mean being bad. Danilo and Moses are both fine players that have created a name for themselves in Europe. Their versatility is something that is appreciated and often needed in the modern game. Danilo is capable of player as a defensive midfield, a right back and will even hold the fort a center back if need be while Moses has played as left back, wing back and winger for Chelsea.
They’re good players but I wished they didn’t always play it safe on offense. Moses steadiness is why he starts for Chelsea while Danilo still remembers all of the defensive mistakes he made while playing for Real Madrid. I get why they don’t take risks but both Nigeria’s and Brazil’s offense are worse off when they don’t. Tite understood this for the second game and opted for Fagner in a “must win” game against Costa-Rica. It will be interesting to see who Tite decides to play moving forward. Nigeria doesn’t have a superior options on the left wing, Moses will need to push the pace up against Argentina to improve the Super Eagle’s chances to move to the knockout stage.
8 – Cuadrado- The Destroyer of Worlds
There’s something about Juan Cuadrado’s ability to dominate the game with his sheer athleticism that will never cease to impress me. He’s a true 3-level player in the sense that he can isolate on the wings, create for others or initiate the offense if need be, last but not least, he’s an excellent defensive player who will haunt whoever is playing on the left flank of the opposing team.
The downside to Cuadrado’s energy is that sometime he’ll get in nasty foul troubles that can put his team in bad position but it should be fascinating to see how Martinez deals with Cuadrado defensively if Belgium plays Colombia in the second round. Yannick Carrasco and Jan Vertonghen have not shot covering him one on one. Yannick is just not a good enough defender not to mention he’ll get caught out of position a lot. Jan does not have the lateral quickness nor the athleticism to deal with Cuadrado. They’ll have send help in the form of Witsel or Debruyne and if they do, Cuadrado will be more than happy to link up with an open James Rodriguez on offense.
Colombia-Belgium would be from a tactical stand point the most fascinating match up of the round of 16 because of all the questions a player like Cuadrado poses to an opposing coach.