World Cup 2018 – Answers to Big Questions

In the final of this summer’s World Cup, France defeated Croatia 4-2. France was favored by many observers, Croatia was not. The ability of an unfancied team to reach a World Cup final is quite a story. It doesn’t happen very often and, while fans knew that Croatia had a terrific midfield, it was felt that their defense was questionable and their offense too dependent on one player. But the Croats rise to the last game in the tournament was not the biggest story of the Cup. This World Cup featured more upsets than any in my memory, and that dates back to 1966 when the Soccer Yoda first watched a World Cup match. Favorites dropped games and places in the tournament on a daily basis. Germany, Spain, Argentina, Portugal… they were all gone before the quarterfinals. Although the Soccer Yoda’s brackets were way off course, so were about 99% of the rest of the world’s predictions so I didn’t feel too bad. As discussions circled the world ( and my social media neighborhoods) there were several questions that drew the majority of the interactions. So here is the Soccer Yoda’s take on those BIG questions surrounding the 2018 edition of the planet’s biggest sports event.

 

WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED TO GERMANY?

The Germans were favored to win by many and anybody who thought they would finish last in their qualifying group ( was there anyone who actually predicted that?) was deemed crazy. But in their first match against Mexico, German manager Joachim Low was either cocky or just wasn’t paying attention. Defense wins soccer games and especially in tournaments. The Germans have been known for their ball skills and their machine-like offense, but meanwhile they have made a habit of shutting out opponents in important matches. They gave up only 3 total goals in winning the Cup in 2014. So when they came out with a system that put both outside backs up the touchline on offense, even when they were not assured of possession, it was a bit of a surprise and a huge gamble. Of course, teams have been using outside defenders as wide offensive players for years, but it is usually done into open space and when possession is not in question. In addition, many sides have methods to cover the area left vacant when the back moves up. The Germans seemed determined to run their backs right up the field no matter what, particularly right back Joshua Kimmich. The Mexicans could have tasked left wing Hirving Lozano with tracking back to stay goal-side of Kimmich, but Lozano maintained his offensive position and within seconds of start of the game Lozano was behind Kimmich  and shooting at goal.

lozano 1 edit

Above, within the first minute of the game Lozano (#22, green underline) is goal-side of Kimmich (#18, white underline). This is a major defensive failing in soccer, offensive players with the ball cannot be allowed behind defenders. As the game went on Lozano continued to be a threat, but Low either didn’t care or didn’t notice and it is hard to imagine he didn’t see what was happening. But no changes were made and in the 38th minute it cost the Germans.lozano goal 1

Kimmich was moving up like a wing often during the half , regardless of the situation regarding German possession and (above) when Mexico took the ball he (white underline) was several yards behind Lozano.lozano goal 2

When the Mexicans hit a long through pass down the middle Lozano (green underline) was already on the move and had opened up even more of a gap between himself and Kimmich (white underline).lozano goal 3

When the ball was passed to him, he was so far behind Kimmich that Kimmich isn’t even in the above picture. Lozano scored and that allowed the Mexicans to play a defensive game from then on which the Germans could not beat. And that was the Germans second failing. The German forwards Mueller and Werner did not work together very well and in a 4-4-2 like the Germans were using those two needed to help each other. When they did get shooting opportunities they couldn’t find the goal. Given Low’s decision to operate what amounted to a 2 back system, the Germans were constantly open to counters. Against South Korea their inability to find the goal was telling and when they fell asleep on a Korean corner it was all over.

WHAT WAS THE BEST GOAL OF THE WORLD CUP?

There were many great goals in Russia this summer and some amazing individual strikes that scored. But to the Soccer Yoda, the best was easily Belgium’s game winner against Japan. It was a masterpiece of team play, unselfishness, modern offensive soccer and all coming at a moment and situation of the game typically reserved for waiting for the whistle to blow.

The Belgians had already staged an amazing comeback , scoring twice in the latter stages of the game to overcome a very surprising two goal lead opened up by the Japanese. As the clock moved into stoppage time, nobody could have faulted them from taking a breath and looking forward to extra time to finish a come-from-behind miracle. But the Belgians used a set-up on defensive corners designed to create a strong counter attack and the situation presented itself as the game moved into the 94th minute. They marked man-to-man, left the posts open and put 2 men upfield despite the fact that a goal by Japan would end the Cup for them at that point. But it worked perfectly for the Belgians, the kick was high and 6’5″ keeper Courtois handled it easily. Then the break was on.belgian break 0

Courtois took the ball and moved forward. As soon as he saw Kevin DeBruyne (green underline above) he gave the ball to him. The Belgians already had 3 players ahead of DeBruyne moving upfield.belgian break 1 editDeBruyne (circled above) carried the ball as there was no pressure on him. Roman Lukaku was forward and rather than run straight ahead he made a crossing run in front of DeBruyne (going in the direction of the arrow above). This forced the Japanese defender to choose between following Lukaku or moving forward to cut off any pass to Thomas Meunier who was right of DeBruyne . The defender decided to follow Lukaku, thus opening the entire right side for a pass to Meunier.belgian break 3 circle

In the above picture, DeBruyne has made his pass to Meunier because the Japanese have finally moved to pressure him. Lukaku (circled) has turned toward Meunier, but not before seeing Nacer Chadli ( underline) behind him and moving forward. belgian break 4 edit2

Meunier hit a beauty of a one-touch pass toward Lukaku. But Lukaku was covered tightly, so he let the ball run past him right into the path of the onrushing Chadli.belgian break 5

Chadli put the ball into the goal to complete this marvelous play. The key to the move was Lukaku’s crossing run which created the space on the right for Muenier to play DeBruyne’s pass. This type of movement is a major element of the modern game and the Belgian manager Roberto Martinez gets credit for using it with his already talented squad.

The Belgian’s chance-taking defensive corner strategy paid off again against Brazil with Lukaku and DeBruyne somewhat switching roles and they scored the winning goal with it. But gambling on defense often catches up to teams and against France the Belgians gave up a corner kick goal at the open near post and it cost them the chance to play in the final.

WAS CROATIA REALLY THAT GOOD?

For the Soccer Yoda, the answer is a qualified “yes”. International tournament knockout games end in penalty kicks if a winner cannot be decided after 120 minutes of play. This puts a premium on defense and a good PK goalkeeper in addition to good PK takers. Croatia played well in the qualifying group, no questions asked. They scored 7 goals, only gave up one, spread the scoring around and only Luka Modric stood out as an indispensable part of the team. In the knockout stages things became definitely tougher. The Danes and Russians gave them trouble but the Croats were calm during all the stress. Great performances by their goalkeeper Danijel Subasic plus some timely conversions took them through to the England match where they didn’t need penalties to win. It could be said that with Argentina failing to perform well, the first “real” contender they faced was in the French, but Croatia did what was needed for them to advance each round and they added a bit of underdog mystery to the final. Congratulations are definitely in order.

WHAT ABOUT THE BIG STARS?

One of the exciting parts of any World Cup is to see the game’s best play for their countries. Past tournaments have been marked by outstanding performances by the likes of Pele and Maradona. So what happened this time? Well, with one exception, the stars are still excellent players but their circumstances made it difficult for them. Soccer is a team sport and one player rarely carries a team through a tournament like the World Cup.  Argentina knew coming into the Cup that their age and lack of depth was against them. They barely made it out of their group, revolted against the poor lineups and substitutions by manager Jorge Sampoli and eventually got caught in a crazy goalfest against France. They couldn’t keep up with France’s speed and and in the end Messi tried to do too much and couldn’t bring his team back from the two goal deficit in which they had found themselves.Messi wcup

Ronaldo had some very good moments especially in the early matches but Portugal’s defense wasn’t the same as in the 2016 Euros and against Uruguay he appeared to be resigned to leaving the tournament. Maybe his upcoming move from Real Madrid to Juventus was in the back of his mind. But Neymar was another story. Unlike Messi and Ronaldo, he did have a quality team beside him. He just didn’t play like it. He took too many touches, tried to dominate the offensive play and rolled on the ground so much he became an international comic video star. Instead of being a part of an efficient fast moving side, he slowed it down and made it much easier to defend. It was Coutinho who stood out for Brazil, not Neymar and eventually the more team-oriented Belgians ousted them from the tournament.

WHO HAS COME THE CLOSEST TO BEATING WORLD CHAMPION FRANCE?

The French did it right. They got progressively better as the tournament went on and only a scoreless draw against Denmark (who has been unappreciated for their effort in Russia) marred their record. So, has anybody come close to beating the French in recent months? After all, they haven’t lost in their last eleven matches. Actually, yes, and it is very surprising who it was. The much-maligned USA! But this wasn’t the Bradley – Dempsey squad who couldn’t get past Panama or Honduras and into the tournament. No, this was a very young American team playing their third game during the pre-tournament weeks when teams actually in the Cup are preparing themselves. With the exception of some very questionable goalkeeping, the young USA had looked amazingly capable against Bolivia and Ireland, but this was the full French…and looking to finish their preparation games with a flourish. Despite the names and talent in front of them the Americans did some very good things and when Julian Green scored in the 44th minute, the French and everybody else in the soccer world were stunned. Eventually the quality of their opponent overwhelmed the underdogs and World Cup-star-to-be Kylian Mbappe evened it up at the 78 minute mark, sparing the French a very embarrassing result. But it was a very encouraging effort for the USA and hopefully one day in the future we will look back at that game as the first sign of the development of a very good USA team.

green france

Julian Green scores against a shocked France

All in all, most fans have said that this summer was the most entertaining World Cup in decades. It certainly was fun to watch and it will be remembered for it’s drama, upsets and exciting play.

 

 

 

 



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