Sometimes you just need to hold your hands up, admit you were wrong, and take whatever flak is coming your way. Alternatively, you can run and hide. I did a bit of both this week, on Full 90 Football.
I still back my analysis of the squad itself; that it was the deepest and most talented in the World Cup. My fault lay in underrating the impact of Julen Lopetegui’s firing on the eve of the tournament.
I had reasoned that the Spain players were so experienced, and had so many leaders, that they’d be able to take care of themselves. Well, they did, and that was the problem. Without any leadership from on high, they simply reverted to type and passed the ball to death.
A more experienced coach would have seen the warning signs from the group stages, and shifted to a more direct, aggressive style. Hierro altered the lineup, as I said he should do here, but failed to change his tactics.
Anyway, we are where we are now. My own bruised ego aside, Russia’s victory really was a moment that’ll go down in World Cup history, and surprises like that have been an exhilarating hallmark of this competition.
Let’s get down to business.
To recap, the most important consideration in my World Cup 2018 Power Rankings is talent. As the competition has progressed, however, I’ve given more and more weight to a team’s performance within it. Since the knockout rounds began, a team’s route to the final has also been a big factor.
Here’s how the bracket currently looks, as we enter the quarter finals:
(Courtesy of the Guardian)
We’ve only got two more editions of the Power Rankings to come, including this one – I won’t be doing one after the semi finals, obviously – so let’s you and me enjoy them while we can!
World Cup Power Rankings – Quarter Finals
Previous Ranking: 2
For the first time, we’ve got new top dogs in the World Cup Power Rankings.
In my Round of 16 rankings, my head clearly told me to go with Brazil. Instead, I went with my heart (/mule-like stubbornness), stuck with Spain, and got burnt for it.
That 2-0 win over Serbia felt like a real turning point for this Brazil team. They showed a swagger which made me confident, for the first time, that they really could make a long run. Their performance against Mexico was almost identical. Same score, same swagger.
We knew about their attack already, of course, but what’s really caught most people off-guard – including yours truly – has been the defence.
I thought Thiago Silva was the best center-back in the world back in 2014. He’d clearly dropped off since then, though, and even lost his place in the PSG side this season. Now, he looks back to his very best. I hadn’t been overly impressed with Miranda, on the few occasions I’d seen him before, but he’s been excellent too. Fagner and Filipe Luis have filled in for the injured first-choice full-backs; both have been stronger defensively than the players they replaced.
None of this should really come as a surprise. The 2018 Brazil team has Casemiro (who’s better than Luis Gustavo, the defensive midfielder in 2014) to screen them, and they only conceded 11 goals in 18 games during World Cup qualifying.
Old stereotypes die hard, I suppose, and we have to realise that this isn’t a typically freewheeling, flair-based, Brazil team whose foundations are built on sand. It’s one that’s extremely well-rounded, with a rock solid defence in place (one goal conceded in the 2018 World Cup so far), and – obviously – possesses all the attacking talent you could wish for.
Despite being on the tougher side of the draw, Brazil must now be considered favourites to become 2018 World Cup winners.
Previous Ranking: 3
Last time out in my World Cup Power Rankings, I wrote about France, “You have to believe that, eventually, they’re going to piece everything together.” Well, consider that box ticked.
The realist within tells me not to overreact to France’s 4-3 win over Argentina (the new most exciting game of the tournament so far; move over, Spain vs Portugal). It was only a terrible Argentina side, after all, and they did still concede three.
I don’t care. Heading into the World Cup, France looked the most exciting team in the competition on paper. Accordingly, their first three performances were incredibly deflating. Finally, against Argentina, we got what we’d hoped for all along (highlights here). Their attacking players took the handbrake off and really played some thrilling, lightning-fast football.
As for the defence, I actually wouldn’t judge them too harshly. Di Maria’s goal was a worldie, Mercado’s took a massive deflection (admittedly he shouldn’t have been played onside by Pavard), and Agüero scored after the game was already over. This should still be a strong defensive unit.
To be clear, France couldn’t have wished for a more perfect opposition than Argentina. Uruguay will present the biggest contrast imaginable. It will be fascinating to see whether France show the flair and invention they did against Argentina, or revert to the slow, tepid football they played in the group stage.
I fear the latter, but – at long last – this France team have showed the rest of the teams what they’re capable of. On their day, they’ve got enough firepower to obliterate anyone else in the competition.
Previous Ranking: 8
Regular World Cup Power Rankings readers will know that I’ve held off on praising England too highly. The group stage was impressive, admittedly, but I had to really see it before I could get on board. I had to watch them in a nasty, difficult game, with everything on the line, and evaluate how they reacted to the pressure.
Well, consider me on board now.
Games don’t come much nastier or more difficult than the nail-biter against Colombia. The young England team came through it all, and showed a character and resilience which I can’t help but admire. Their football wasn’t the prettiest, and they fouled and threw themselves to the ground in a manner we usually chastise in this country, but they got the job done.
If anything, Sweden will present an even trickier opposition. They’ll play a similarly defensive game to Colombia, but they’ll be better at it.
This won’t come as a surprise to England, however, and – with a phenomenally confidence-boosting triumph in the bag – I’d absolutely back them (I can’t believe I’m writing this) to make the World Cup semi finals.
Previous Ranking: 5
In the round of 16, Croatia had a very similar experience to their destined semi final opponents England. Like Southgate’s Brave Boys, they faced a defensive opposition who managed to hold them to 1-1 and force a penalty shootout.
Like England, they’ll also face an incredibly tough test in the quarters, in the form of another defensive team. I’d much rather have Sweden than Russia, however, based on the Russians’ momentum and fervent home support.
Croatia should still have the tools to get the job done. They’ve been the best team in the 2018 World Cup, from start to present, and there’s certainly no shame in failing to break down that Denmark side. They’re strong across the pitch, have match-winners, and – importantly, at this stage – seem to have a great deal of self-belief too.
Their tougher matchup in the quarter finals is the only reason I have Croatia ranked below England in my World Cup Power Rankings. If those two teams played today, I’d still probably favour Croatia.
Previous Ranking: 7
In recent editions of my World Cup Power Rankings, I’ve had a “Can’t wait to drop down or boot out entirely” team. Well, in this edition, my searing Eye of Sauron is turned squarely on Belgium. Let’s see if it can motivate the Belgians just as it did the French last time out. I hope not!
I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a “Most Incompetent Manager of the 2018 World Cup” awards piece. This idea came to me after watching Belgium’s “win” over Japan… which should give you a clue as to who’d be in top spot right now, and it’s going to take something special to shift him.
Not since the heyday of Jorge Sampaoli (which ended roughly one week ago) has a manager made such a mess of a country’s #GoldenGeneration.
Take a look at this team for a second:
There’s no room for Carrasco at wing back, I’ll grant you, and we are being forced to play the world’s current greatest playmaker in the number 10 role… but apart from that I really can’t see too many weaknesses.
This team, of course, would be far too straightforward, too obvious, for the man, the myth, the legend, the master of tactics, Roberto Martínez.
And who am I to question him?
This is a man, let’s not forget, who left his second-to-last job having relegated Wigan, after just failing to do so the season before. He said he wanted to help create a “legacy” at the club. After he heroically scarpered, Wigan dropped straight down again to League One, and have only just made it back to the Championship. Now that’s a legacy!
In his most recent job, he managed to take Everton all the way up to the heady heights of eleventh place, before the owners reluctantly let this prodigious talent free at the end of the 15-16 season.
It’s little wonder that the Belgian FA couldn’t wait to snap him up. Upon his appointment, Martinez – of course – would obviously desire a defensively-minded assistant manager to balance out his own attacking nature. Veteran coach and noted defensive stalwart Thierry Henry was his pick for the job.
Roberto Martinez is an awful coach whose top level survival relies entirely on him being a Nice Guy, who has buttered up the media a treat. Without a drastic change of tactics, this Belgium team will get steamrolled by Brazil down the flanks, and Kompany, Hazard, Lukaku et al will once again bid goodbye to a competition having achieved precisely nothing.
Previous Ranking: 6
Defence wins championships, and Uruguay’s is arguably the best in the competition. Despite having conceded precisely 0 goals in the group stages, they still chose to bring new Arsenal signing Lucas Torreira into the first team, who looks like a Kanté-esque terrier in the midfield.
(Am I comparing the Gunners’ brand new defensive midfielder – who I’ve seen play two times in my life – to N’Golo Kanté? You’re damn right I am! We’ve been desperate for a defensive mid for years – cut me some slack!)
Uruguay sure aren’t pretty to watch, but they grind games out. Whilst it’s not perfect, the easy Atlético Madrid comparison is apt (Antoine Griezmann made it himself this week, and he should know).
Their World Cup ambitions suffered two enormous blows in recent days, however.
Firstly, Argentina failed to beat France. If they had, Uruguay would undoubtedly have brushed their South American neighbours aside.
Secondly, Edinson Cavani will almost certainly miss the France game through injury. It’s hard to overstate the impact that will have. Cavani and Suárez are the most dangerous attacking duo in international football; look to their gorgeous opening goal against Portugal for all the proof you need.
Suárez is perfectly capable of leading a line, of course, but the team as a whole becomes vastly less threatening without the excellent Cavani. There’s no replacement whatsoever for him in the squad either, as there would be for – say – Argentina (not that Sampaoli would play them anyway).
As the tournament has gone on, my views on this Uruguay team have progressed from boredom and disappointment to respect. I value competency, heart and organisation above perhaps all else, and Uruguay have all three in abundance. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond their control, I think this will be the last we see of them.
Previous Ranking: 13
The hosts’ improbable World Cup fairy tale continues.
Following the round of 16, most of the focus has fallen on Spain’s colossal ineffectiveness. A huge amount of kudos must be given to Russia, though.
There’s really no shame in having defensive tactics, particularly when you’re massively outgunned, as Russia were. The important thing is how well you execute those tactics, and Russia put in arguably the defensive performance of the competition against Spain.
They patiently allowed the Spaniards to pass the ball to death, back and forth in front of them, and never let their concentration or their composure drop. Despite having an average age of 72, the defenders also manged to keep it going throughout extra time – perhaps willed on by the fanatical, adoring home crowd – and were excellent in the penalty shootout.
In the quarter finals, they will once again be heavy underdogs against a vastly more talented team. After that incredible result against Spain, however, absolutely nobody will be surprised if they get the job done against Croatia too. Even if they don’t, it’s been a wonderful story.
Previous Ranking: 14
Sweden are the official inheritors of the “Meh” award, now that Denmark have been knocked out.
They deserve a lot of credit for making it this far, and of course the effectiveness with which they execute their defensive gameplan should be commended.
They’re just not very exciting, to say the least, and have almost no players I’d specifically tune in to watch. Even if I wasn’t an England fan, I’d be rooting for them to get knocked out here.
And so concludes the penultimate edition of the 2018 World Cup Power Rankings.
I’m getting emotional already!
Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more World Cup 2018 analysis, plus betting tips. Finally, if you’re playing McDonald’s World Cup Fantasy Football, I’d highly recommend checking out James’s piece on strategy and transfer targets heading into the quarter finals.
Until next time!