Vive La Aléatoire: Why Russia 2018 was the best World Cup in history

It’s over.  France are world champions for the second time in 20 years, and – just over a month after Russia bulldozed Saudi Arabia en route to a 5-0 opening game victory – we may have witnessed the greatest international sporting spectacle of all-time.

The explosive final between France and Croatia served to epitomize what was a scintillating, heart-wrenching, dramatic and unpredictable tournament. We saw the first team to score four goals in a final since Brazil in 1970. We witnessed the first team in 44 years to lose in its first World Cup final (žao mi je, Croatia). Dejan Lovren cemented his status as an (self-proclaimed) elite defender. England broke their curse with a penalty shootout win, Brazil may be cursed after getting eliminated by a European nation for the fourth consecutive tournament, and Germany became the third successive defending champion to be bounced in the group stages of the competition.

As we enter the post-World Cup hangover and are left to contemplate how soccer at the international level will look in Qatar 2022, here are five takeaways from the 2018 World Cup


(1) The Youth Movement

All eight nations that advanced to the quarterfinal stage of the 2018 World Cup had an average squad age below 29 years. The four semi-finalists all had an average squad age below 28 years, with the winner’s having the second-youngest team in the entire tournament (tied with England for 26 years).

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Looking for an explanation as to why Germany, Brazil, Argentina, and Spain all struggled in Russia? An argument can be made that they were just too old. Statistically speaking, the “peak age” of a professional footballer is typically within the 24 to 28 range, although it varies by position. Yet Brazil brought an aging side, with half of their starting XI beyond peak age, while the majority of Germany, Spain, and Argentina’s key players were on the wrong side of that benchmark, too.

Contrast this with Belgium, England, France, and even Croatia. The semifinal matchup between France and Belgium featured two sides with most of their key players either in the middle of their primes, or not even there yet.

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England’s roster looks similar to France’s in terms of average age, and – in spite of being led by a trio of 30+ year-old stars in Modric, Rakitic, and Mario Mandzukic – manager Zlatko Dalic still played his peak-age players in roughly half of the team’s minutes, with Rebic (24) and Perisic (29) playing integral roles as well.

This pattern suggests that national-team managers may need to shift away from the traditional conservative roster-selection methods and place more trust in young talent (see: what the United States men’s national team in qualifying). As the physical demands of the sport continue to increase in terms of offensive output, constant motion and counter-pressing, it is difficult to see how World Cup rosters will not continue to trend younger.

(2) Color Blind

Despite some controversial decisions, including the penalty awarded to France in the first half of the final, most analyses of VAR deem FIFA’s introduction of the technology as a success.

The 2018 World Cup saw the most penalties awarded (29) in tournament history, but only four spot kicks were given during the knockout stages. Conversely, VAR seemed to contribute to a significant decline of in-game violence. The strategic violence that oftentimes dominates a handful of games at each World Cup was almost non-existent, with no red cards given for violent conduct.

World Cup red cards for serious foul play/violent conduct:

  • 1998: 16
  • 2002: 11
  • 2006: 8
  • 2010: 6
  • 2014: 7
  • 2018: 0

Furthermore, the percentage of goals scored on set pieces increased by 4%, with 26 goals coming from corner kicks (the most since 1966). If the implementation of VAR continues to result in more goals scored and less in-game violence, it will be a clear win for FIFA. (And if it also leads to a decline in whining about diving, I will gain a significant advantage when fighting over the remote with my girlfriend.)

(3) Goalkeeping Woes

As a former goalkeeper, the lens through which I view the World Cup is a bit different from the average spectator. I would venture to say that I get more excited about positional awareness and elite distribution than the majority of actual goals scored.

That said, the performance of many top keepers in this tournament struck a massive blow to my GK-ego.

First, we saw David De Gea gift Cristiano Ronaldo a goal in Spain’s first group match against Portugal. Then Manuel Neuer decided to take a stroll and live out every FIFA-players’ dream against Korea, only to concede an embarrassing empty-net goal as Germany were eliminated. Fernando Muslera couldn’t decide how to handle Antoine Griezmann’s knuckler in the quarterfinal (should have parried with two hands) and directed the shot into his own net as Uruguay fell to France. And, to cap it all off, the final was marred by an absolutely unacceptable mistake by Hugo Lloris (who needs to swing the ball out to Varane or let the ball come onto his right foot if he wants any chance at dribbling around Mandzukic) and Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic failing to dive properly on France’s last two goals.

While goalkeeping certainly was not the highlight of the World Cup, there were some outstanding performances leading up to the final. England’s Jordan Pickford put his passing ability and clutch shot-stopping prowess were on full display, Thibaut Courtois took home the Golden Glove after denying Neymar late in Belgium’s upset of Brazil, and Yan Sommer of Switzerland – barely standing at 6’0” – served as the perfect example of a goalkeeper who can cover the entire width of the goal without simply relying on height and wingspan.

(4) Randomness

The beauty of international soccer is that anything can happen. Down 2-1 against Argentina in the Round of 16, the eventual champions had an 81% chance of being eliminated (per 21st Club’s probability models), only for the Frenchest-looking man alive to save Les Bleus with the goal of the tournament. Croatia needed two penalty shootout wins to reach the semifinals and was trailing England by a goal with 23 minutes remaining (and only a 9% chance of advancing) before Perisic and Mandzukic decided to go Super Saiyan. Even the final was a statistical mess, with France prevailing on individual talent despite being out-possessed, out-shot and out-passed. 

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Popular pretournament favorites in Brazil, Germany, and Spain were all given a 49% chance of winning the tournament between them (per FiveThirtyEight’s projections), and all three were knocked out before the semifinals.

While club soccer is arguably more entertaining than ever, with almost all of the top teams adopting progressive styles that lead to high quality chances, the predictability-factors hurts it in terms of suspense. Bayern Munich have won six consecutive domestic titles, Juventus have won the last seven Serie A titles, PSG have won five of the last six in France, and Barcelona have won three of the last four in Spain. Even in the Premier League, which is supposed to promise parity and unpredictability, Manchester City won last season’s title by 19 points.

While the level and quality of play of international soccer is not close in comparison to the club game, there is still an element of invigoration one experiences from watching an entire month of soccer and having no clue what was about to happen each game. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was beyond thrilling.

(5) An International Power Is (Re)Born

 

After reaching the final of the Euro 2016 tournament, it’s possible that we were already in the midst of a French dynasty before this World Cup started. But Les Bleus’ performance in Russia cemented their place in history as one of the best defensive teams of all-time and an international power to be reckoned with for years to come. This World Cup title may be just the beginning for this group. France will have a huge monkey off of their back knowing that they can win on the biggest stage and has to be the odds-on favorite to win the Euro in 2020.

When France won their first world title in 1998, it was the beginning of a dynasty. The likes of Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet were all under 26 years of age. That same core dominated the European Championships two years later, and brought them back to the World Cup final in 2006 after a failure in 2002. France’s 2018 title may start them down a similar path. The nucleus of the team is the same group that led them to the Euro 2016 final, and they were the youngest World Cup-winning team since 1966, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Only three of their key contributors – Giroud, Lloris, and Matuidi – are older than 30. The rest of the team will still be in their prime at the next Euros and World Cup, with the exception of N’Golo Kante and Griezmann (who are both only 27). And with the inevitable ascension of Kylian Mbappe, their best team may still be in the future.

In such a personality-driven sport, it was amazing to see France’s level of commitment and total buy-in with regards to avoiding both the temptation of playing too many of their top attackers as well as deviating from their manager’s vision. They employed a more conservative concept, which resulted in trailing for only nine minutes across the entire tournament and finishing with the fourth-lowest goal differential (per 90 minutes) of all-time. International teams are typically forced to have a trade-off between limiting either the number of high-quality chances they generate (see: Italy in 2006) or the number of chances they concede (see: Germany in 2014). But France was different. Deschamps opted for a pragmatic setup that saw one of the best strikers in the world in Antoine Griezmann functioning as a defense-first advanced midfielders and Paul Pogba operating as a reserved midfielder who barely pushed forward. He opted to start Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez (two center backs) over attack-minded fullbacks such as Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe. And it all worked, because not giving up goals means way more when you also have the talent, attacking brilliance, and occasional PogBOOM to break the game open at any moment.

That level of defensive commitment – and suppression of superstar ego – does not work unless the managers and all of the players are on the same page.

L'avenir est prometteur.

Author: Nick Woolf