By Joel Parker (@Joelissimmo)
After 28 teams have been eliminated in 24 days, only four teams remain in the World Cup.
It has been the most entertaining tournament in my lifetime, producing an incredible group stage, more than enough shocks and the experience of watching a successful England team. What has made the last month so enjoyable, is that no country has shone above everybody else; arguably the most substandard competition for a long time. All the surviving teams have a number of issues throughout their systems, however, we have two very unpredictable semi-finals coming up. Here is my analysis on the last four.
Les Bleus have the strongest defence left in the competition. Except for the Argentina game, they rarely concede good chances at goal and are very strong at defending dead ball situations. There is one big weakness in this French defence, however – their right-side. This is area has been patrolled by 22-year-old Benjamin Pavard, who is preferred as a centre-back at his club VfB Stuttgart. He’s been very impressive this tournament, but this area of the pitch can lead to opposition teams creating chances and having good attempts on goal.
(Opposition team creating chances vs France, @StatsZone).
As you can see, a large chunk of the chances created this tournament from the opposition has come from this area. Fortunately, having a centre-back partnership of Varane and Umtiti, they have both been capable of clearing up this mess against less-gifted opposition, but against Eden Hazard and an overlapping Carrasco/Chadli, this could be easily exploited.
Didier Deschamps sets France up in a 4231 with an interesting twist, Corentin Tolisso or Blaise Matuidi play on the left of the midfield three, dropping deeper to provide links with Lucas Hernandez (who pushes up from left-back) and N’Golo Kante. On the right meanwhile is covered by France’s wonder-kid, Kylian Mbappe who pushed much further, essentially playing as a striker with the likes of Pogba, Pavard and Griezmann linking with him in the attack.
It’s a system that works incredibly well for some and difficult for others, a huge percentage of touches France have on the ball is on the wings, often going into these chances to make progress with the ball as quick as possible. Mbappe thrives under this; when you press him, he beats you in a 1v1 and there’s space behind, when you back away from him, you give him space to run. Either way, he wins.
(Mbappe’s shot-map in open play this World Cup, not a high number of shots taken, but clinical in the penalty area @footballfactman.)
In addition to this, it’s a system that takes a lot of Griezmann’s attacking ability away, his passing mostly goes sideways (his top two pass combinations going to full-backs Pavard – 10 passes, and Hernandez – 9 passes) and not allowing him many shots inside the penalty area; taking away his goal-scoring potential we all know he has.
Olivier Giroud has started every game with the exception of the first match vs Australia, despite only having shots to the value of 0.32 xG to date. However, he is a brilliant “Plan B” option and incredibly awkward to handle, winning a high number of aerial duels and the capability of bringing the likes of Mbappe into the game. Belgium’s best bet is to stop the service coming to him or denying France any space in the final third.
Deschamps’s set-up is an interesting one, they’ve been capable of scoring goals but don’t produce a high number of shots. France have an incredibly strong line-up and a defence capable of withstanding Belgium’s frontline, whether France are capable of getting a good enough service to their strikers is up for debate.
If there is one thing that this World Cup will be remembered for, it is pace. An interesting statistic, according to John Burn-Murdoch, is that fast counter-attacks are 3 times as effective as any other type of open-play attacking build-up in this World Cup. Belgium are the best at doing this, scoring three times directly from breaking forward as fast as possible.
Belgium have set-up in a 343 formation up to the Brazil game. With three at the back, this gives the centre-backs more chances to move into the left and right flank and deliver the ball up the channel to the wing-backs, even directly to the winger at times (Vertonghen vs Japan is a great example for this). Martinez’s starting line-ups have left us scratching our heads at times, De Bruyne playing a deeper role but not getting on the ball enough, Carrasco and Chadli as wing-backs and Axel Witsel in midfield who has struggled, all decisions before the drastic change in formation against Brazil.
In defence, Belgium would transition into a 433, but Martinez started with the formation in the quarter-final, with Lukaku playing as a right-forward (which performed just once before against Arsenal back in 2014), De Bruyne playing the false nine role, Chadli moving into midfield as Vertonghen covered the left-back role.
It was a system which was not only risky, but as great as it was disastrous. Belgium were incredibly lucky not to concede twice before Fernandinho’s own goal, whilst a combination of poor finishing and 50/50 referee decisions kept the score at 2-1 to the Red Devils. Brazil finished with 2.45 xG in comparison to Belgium’s 0.5 xG. On the other hand, Lukaku bulldozed his way through the opposition defence, exposing the space left behind Marcelo with Meunier in support on counters. When Belgium had possession, it was back in the 343, without the ball, it was in the 433.
Overall, Belgium have the strongest attack left in the competition. Chances are Lukaku is going back to his striker role for the semi-final showdown against France, which will be a much more difficult game. However, going up against a high-press Umtiti and a deeper Varane can leave small pockets for Lukaku to expose. France’s centre-backs are well capable of stopping the Belgium attack, but their centre-backs don’t have a balanced backline which can be countered on.
France vs Belgium will be an intriguing semi-final, two of the strongest teams left in the competition. Both teams have weaknesses, whoever exploits them the most will win this game. Martinez must consider putting a more certified wing-back to maintain Mbappe’s electric pace which any defence can struggle against, Dechamps must clear up his right-side problem and give Pavard good enough support to help handle Eden Hazard.
The Blazers’s “Golden Generation” has certainly delivered. There’s been a lot of excitement surrounding this team after blitzing Argentina 3-0 and finishing top of their group with 9 points. In the knockout stage, they’ve faced two penalty shoot-outs and won both, knocking out Denmark and Russia in the process. Out of the teams left, they are probably the most organised and certainly have the ability to win the competition.
(Croatia’s shot map in open play situations @footballfactman.)
Croatia have created the best chances from open play compared to the rest of the teams in the tournament, a great amount of these chances falling to the likes of Mandzukic and Kramaric. Zlatko Dalic has set his Croatia side up in two different ways, one being the 4141, the other being a 4231. The 4141 was used against Argentina, organisation between the three midfielders man-marked Messi out of the game and a similar system can be used against Kane who drops deep in build-up play. The 4231 allows Modric to take the ball forward from a deep position, whilst the attacking midfielders (Persic, Kramaric and Rebic) all play close to each-other to help maintain possession.
A huge amount of Croatia’s creativity is produced from their full-backs, patrolled by Ivan Strinic and Sime Vrsaljko. Between them two, 1.8 key passes are created per game, which only Luka Modric can match (2.8 key passes). With Vrsaljko rumoured to be ruled out, it will be a big blow in Croatia’s plans, not only having a great attacking influence but solid defensively as well.
Croatia’s midfield is by far the strongest left in the competition, both Rakitic and Modric are capable of producing any type of pass forward and are both great at carrying the ball; arguably two of the finest creative midfielders in the world.
(Croatia’s pass and positions network vs Russia @11tegen11)
A big part of Croatia’s attacking play is to overload certain areas, against Argentina’s highline, Modric, Brozovic and Rakitic had the complete freedom to breakthrough defensive lines. Versus Russia on Saturday, playing extremely narrow enabled them to overload the centre of the pitch; although not creating the best chances (1.21xG), they thoroughly deserved to go through.
On the flip side, Croatia’s biggest setback is that they cannot defend set-pieces effectively. Despite not conceding from a corner, they are often beaten too aerial duels, Russia forcing two saves out of Subasic whilst Icelandic defender Ingason hit the post against them. This’ll be a huge advantage for England, who’ve been very strong in this area.
You can argue that Croatia haven’t even hit their highest gear yet, but they are certainly a tougher test than Colombia and Sweden. Cutting the service between Modric and Rakitic will be difficult, but a three-man midfield would be preferable instead of just Henderson left on his own.
Out of all four teams left in the competition, England probably are the most surprising nation that have got this far; not because they’re bad, but because years of bottling at this stage has loomed over every team we’ve taken. The Three Lions are here in a system that has caused some debate between a lot of bloggers.
(England’s pass and positions network vs Sweden @11tegen11)
Southgate sets-up in a 3142, wing-backs have essentially played as wingers with two attacking-midfielders in place, Alli and Lingard. Kane drops deeper and to some effect as well, even with no service to him he is brilliant at winning free-kicks and pulling defences out of position. This movement benefits Sterling massively, who moves between the lines and bursts into these spaces. The wing-backs provide most of England’s chances, Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young have both created the highest amount of chances in the squad.
A big benefit from this system is the pressing it provides, when the ball is being passed around the back by the opposition, England instantly have a high number of players forward to form a high press. In the 5 games they’ve played, 73 ball recoveries have been made by the Three Lions in the opposition half. This can go against Croatia really well and can limit the number of touches Modric and Rakitic have in possession.
England’s biggest weapon is undoubtedly the strength of set-pieces. Five goals in this tournament have come from set-pieces, even scoring against Sweden who hadn’t given any other nation a sniff when it came to corners. As mentioned, Croatia are the worst side left at defending corners and with the likes of Maguire, Kane and Stones to aim for it’ll be a long game for them if they are too concede multiple opportunities.
Southgate’s big problem is that he has a midfield which doesn’t link. Between Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Jordan Henderson, there were just 27 passes exchanged between them, this was a slight improvement in comparison to the Colombia game, which was 24 passes. There was more service to the wing-backs, but it’s a concerning amount, especially when coming up against Croatia. An overload in the midfield and our defence will struggle to handle, especially if Croatia aim to play narrow like they did against Russia.
The midfield not linking does effect moving the ball forward, Lingard makes great movement forward and pushes up next to Kane in support, but Alli certainly struggles and despite scoring against Sweden he did not play particularly well. I’d still consider replacing him at this stage, or a change of roles so he can go forward at the same rate as he does at Spurs.
England vs Croatia is another semi-final which is very hard to predict. Croatia’s midfield is brilliant and if they have the support, they’ll dominate, but will fatigue kick in? I certainly rate our chances, but I can also see why Croatia are confident. A World Cup final looms and the competition still remains as unpredictable as it was at the start.
A truly great World Cup is set to continue.