12/6/22  US loses to Netherlands, Semis Fri/Sat 10&2 on Fox, England v France Sat 10 Fox, Great WC Saves, Carmel FC GK Coach in NC Game

Grant Walh US Soccer and Renowned Soccer Writer Dies At World Cup

Hugely sad news that US Soccer Writer Grant Wahl, the pre-emminent soccer writer in the United States has died at the World Cup.  Evidently he developed a horrible chest cold while covering the World Cup 24/7 and died in the press room at the Argentina vs Netherlands game of cardiac arrest.  Devestating news – I have followed him for over 20 years at Sports Illustrated, Fox and CBS and included at least 1 story of his per week in this blog from his private blog https://grantwahl.substack.com.  Here’s Fox’s Rob Stone and his eloquent announcement on Fox Coverage this AM.  RIP Grant Wahl and Best wishes to your wife CBS and CNN contributor and Epidemiologist Dr Celine GounderQuestions regarding his sudden death will no doubt continue, he wrote scathing stories about Qatar and their treatment of migrant workers.

World Cup News  The Bracket

So the US is out – but man this World Cup is still hugely exciting!!  Brazil just makes me happy – wow the Brazilian Samba dances are just fun !!   Here’s Brazilian Coach Tite dancing here is one of the most spectacular goals ever by Richarlison of Tottenham.  I agree with Alexi Lalas Dancing YES.  Here are the full highlights. Croatia v Japan went to shootout.  France on a roll highlights.  Tons of stories below – on each of the Final 8 in the Quarterfinals. Keep on scrolling to find your team.

The World Cup commercials are out – which ones do you like best?  Nike  Addidas  check them all out hereIts Called Soccer – Classic Commercial   

USA loses to Netherlands 3-1

The US just didn’t have the firepower to hang with the Netherlands –disappointing to me that the very thing that got us to the knockout stage – our defense – is what let us down.  Our Captain Tyler Adams stayed on the grass for a good 15 minutes postgame with his head in his hands.  He knew his not tracking back on the first goal is what gave the Dutch the lead.  Tyler Adams who covered more ground than any player in this World Cup from his Dmid spot had relaxed on 1 play and it cost us dearly.  The 2nd goal was Dest being lazy – we know he’s not the best defender – and the 3rd just a boneheaded misplay by Robinson who had really gotten banged up a few minutes before.  

Think about this would anyone on the US team start for the Netherlands?  NO!!  The Dutch have no fewer than 5 players worth close to 100 million Van Dyke, Mephis, DeJong  – and 5 more worth more than 50M – we have 1 in Pulisic who might be worth 40M. We are young, talented but inexperienced.

I laugh at the folks calling our Manager Gregg Berhalter the complete reason we lost.  Do I disagree with some of his man decisions? Yes. I would never have even brought Jesus Ferraira on the plane – but Portugal brought their 21 year old home league playing star Ramos and started him over the legendary Renaldo then scored a hat trick.  Sometimes it works – sometimes not.  I did love his 2nd half move of Weah to the #9 and Reyna on the right (finally) – Reyna served no fewer than 5 balls that could have resulted in a score.  The bottom line is the US outpossessed and outshot the Dutch, and had twice as many corners – we just couldn’t finish.  What’s new – we have ZERO #9s in this country.  But Berhalter has us playing on the front foot, taking possession and controlling the tempo. We used to bunker – a la Iran last 30 minutes and pray for a Landon Donovan 2 v 1 counter or head ball goal on a Corner. That was it. That’s all the US scored in World Cups EVER.  At least now we are trying to possess and control the game.  This is partially because we have better young players playing at top clubs in Europe and partially because Berhalter has forced us to change our style of play.  I am ok with that.  Honestly this World Cup was about preparing our young stars for 2026 at home.  Now we have to hope the Olympics (we should be sending our A team U-23s) and the Copa America 2024 can help prepare us.  Should Berhalter be the guy to carry us there?  Not sure – But I would re-sign him hoping he carries us thru 2024 COPA then re-evaluate.  We’ll see what Berhalter and US Soccer decide though.  In the meantime – Bravo Boys !!  We got back to the World Cup we got thru the toughest Group Stage, we outplayed England – mission accomplished  – Overall Grade B-

US vs Iran highlights   US vs England Highlights US Highlight vs Netherlands 5 min    Matt Turner Double save vs Dutch 

stories 26 players going to Qatar its awesome See tons of Great World Cup Saves and Interesting Ref Decisions below.

Heartbreak City for Carmel FC GK Coach Noelle Rolfsen  and the Marian University Lady Knights in Indianapolis who got to the National Championship game in Alabama before losing a 1-0 game to Spring Arbor Monday night.  Still a Fantastic season for our favorite College Goalkeeper- GK Coach Noelle and the National Semi-Finalist Marian U. Knights!

IU’s 22nd College Cup – Fri 8:30 pm on ESPNU

Huge Congrats to CFC Director Juergen Sommer’s Alma Mater Indiana University as they have advanced to their 22nd Final 4 of Soccer they play Friday night vs Pittsburgh in Cary, NC at 8:30 pm on ESPNU. The Bracket

CARMEL FC GOALKEEPERS : Wednesday Night Trainings Dec-Mar – Badger Indoor Fieldhouse 5:30 pm U12//6:30 pm U13-U15//8:30 pm HS U15+. 

Not sure what other clubs have – but Carmel FC has former US Men’s National Team World Cup GK & Coach and first American GK in the EPL Juergen Sommer coaching the high school age, Hall of Fame Canadian World Cup GK Carla Baker coaching the U15s and myself coaching the U12s this winter. 

WORLD CUP GAMES ON TV

Fri, Dec 9                             Quarter Finals Final 8–                  

10 am Fox                            Netherlands vs Argentina (Messi)

2 pm Fox                              Brazil vs Croatia

6 pm ESPNU                      #3 Syracuse vs Creighton Final 4 Men

8:30 pm  ESPNU               #12 Indiana U vs Pittsburgh Final 4                               

Sat Dec 10                           Quarter Finals Final 8–                  

10 am Fox                            Portugal (Renaldo) vs Morocco

2 pm Fox                              England vs France (Mbappe)

Mon,  Dec 12                      NCAA Mens Final

6 pm ESPNU                       IU/Pitt vs Syr/Creight

Tues Dec 13                        Semis – Final 4                  

2 pm  Fox

Wed Dec 14                        Semis – Final 4                  

2 pm  Fox

Sat, Dec 17                          third Place                         

10 am  Fox

Sun, Dec 18                         FINALS                 

10 am  Fox

World Cup Schedule

Soccer Saturday’s are every Sat 9-10 am on 93.5 and 107.5 FM with Greg Rakestraw

CARMEL FC PLAYERS : Winter Players League (WPL) – Badger Indoor Fieldhouse
As the fall season comes to a close over the next month, we wanted to let you know that we will be launching an indoor soccer league over two six week sessions within our new Badger Fieldhouse. Games will be played on either Friday night ( 6pm to 10pm) or Sunday afternoon (1pm-5pm) depending on age groups: U8s, U9&U10, U11&U12, U13-U15 and U16+ (Coed Teams allowed). Referees for each game, 50 minute games, 5v5, 7v7 and 9v9 matches.
Session One (6 weeks): Jan 6th, 13th, 20th, 27th / Feb: 3rd, 10th
Session Two (6 weeks): Feb 17th, 24th / Mar 3rd, 10th, 17th, 24th
Gather teammates and be ready to play!

US Men

USMNT’s World Cup run ends in Round of 16  By Donald Wine II

2022 World Cup: USA 1-3 Netherlands – Faulty defending and missed chances eliminate the Americans  By Parker Cleveland

USA vs. Netherlands, 2022 FIFA World Cup: Community player ratings
USMNT finally looks its age in World Cup loss to the Netherlands | Opinion

Same Results – Different Outlook for USMNT – Henry Bushnell Yahoo Soccer

Two big questions swirling around Berhalte

Analysis: The USMNT bows out of Qatar with 3-1 loss to the Netherlands

USMNT left pondering missed World Cup opportunity: “It’s going to hurt for a while”

USMNT can’t solve Netherlands’ tactical wrinkle in Word Cup elimination

USMNT may “lose some sleep” over World Cup elimination to Netherlands

USA Player Ratings: What follows the World Cup exit vs. Netherlands?

Three takeaways as USA suffer World Cup exit against Netherlands

USA heartbreak in Qatar: World Cup run ends against Netherlands

Video – Where does the US go from here?  MLS.com
What did the US lack most at the World Cup? Football intelligence

USA’s World Cup report card: best and worst players, plus predictions for 2026

USA bid farewell to Qatar. Now thoughts turn to a home challenge in 2026

American soccer success in men’s World Cup remains a dream

Where is the next FIFA World Cup? The 2026 tournament is coming to a city near you.

World

TONS OF STORIES BELOW KEEP SCROLLING TO READ STORIES ON EACH FINAL 8 TEAM


France scouting report: How England can stop Les Bleus and reach another World Cup semi-final

Foden, Kane shine as England handles Senegal to set up France meeting

Morocco to ‘come out swinging’ against Spain at World Cup

England’s Bellingham ‘has everything’ but now comes biggest test yet

Sterling leaves England World Cup camp after home break-in

Record-breaking Giroud brings goals to France’s repeat World Cup bid

World Cup is my obsession says Mbappe after firing France into quarter-finals

Mbappé is bringing soccer to a new dimension at World Cup

Believe the hype, Bellingham is lighting up the World Cup

Lewandowski exit with Poland looks like World Cup farewell

Pelé’s family: COVID caused infection, death not imminent

World Cup without booze makes for ‘different’ atmosphere

Goalkeeping

Great Saves Croatian GK Dominik Livakovic

Morroco Keeper Bono PK Saves vs Spain

Matt Turner Double save vs Dutch

Life of A Keeper – France’s Loris Bobbles

Great Saves Loris – France

Top Saves Round 3 World Cup  

Best World Cup Saves Round 2

Best World Cup Saves Round 1

US Goalkeeper Sean Johnson Story

US Goalkeeper Matt Turner 

The Matt Turner Story

Reffing


What is offside in soccer? Explaining the rule so you’re prepared to watch the 2022 World Cup.

‘A little taste of Sunday league’: France’s Jules Kounde has to remove necklace during Poland match

Who says Reffing is not fun in the Winter – indoors at Grand Park College Showcase with Mohammed, Blake and the Ole Ballcoach (L -R). 12/4/22

 

It was cold outside this past weekend at the Boys College Showcase at Grand Park with Aaron, Munib and Shane Best Reffing.


Julianne Sitch 1st woman to coach men’s soccer to NCAA title

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Same old result, different outlook for USMNT after World Cup exit: ‘We can be giants eventually’

 

Henry Bushnell Sat, December 3, 2022 at 8:34 PM

DOHA, Qatar — Frustration crippled Tyler Adams in the first few minutes of the next four years. It knocked him down to a knee here at the Khalifa International Stadium, shortly after a final whistle had foiled his World Cup dreams. It forced him into a crouch as the Netherlands huddled and celebrated a 3-1 victory over his United States. It eventually pulled him all the way to the grass.But as he sat there, head bowed, amid somber stares and heartfelt condolences, his mind steered toward the future, and his mood shifted.“It’s probably the first time in a long time where people will say, ‘Wow, this team has something special,’” Adams thought, and later said of the U.S. men’s national team and public perceptions of it. “Potential is just potential, but we could see that, if we maximize it in the right way, it can be something good.”He was speaking, though, after a familiar World Cup result brought on by familiar failings, a Round of 16 exit, the same as 2014 and 2010 and, heck, 1994. So I asked Adams: Why is this different?

“Uh, I mean, I think you could probably make that assessment for yourself,” he said. And he was right.“With the players that are on our team compared to past teams — I wasn’t on 2010 team, I wasn’t on 2014 team, so I can’t sit here and judge the potential of those teams,” he continued. “But, I mean, being the second youngest team in the World Cup and getting the same result, it speaks for itself.”Their four starting lineups, in fact, have been the four youngest of any at this World Cup. They were full of still-rising stars who’ve already risen beyond many of their USMNT predecessors. Adams, perhaps out of respect for those predecessors, wouldn’t quite say that his team had more talent than theirs. But it clearly does.Its current talent, though, is not the sole reason for unprecedented optimism. Talent, as a vast majority of soccer-playing nations can attest, tends to arrive at senior level in fits and starts, via random ebbs and flows.The hope within American soccer, however, is that this generation is not just a golden one primed to shine on home soil in 2026; it’s the beginning of a carefully crafted trend, and a sign of even better generations to come.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Round of 16 - Netherlands v United States - Khalifa International Stadium, Doha, Qatar - December 3, 2022 United States players applaud fans after the match as United States are eliminated from the World Cup REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

 

United States players applaud fans after the match as United States are eliminated from the World Cup. (REUTERS/Annegret Hilse)

USMNT still a work in progress

The seeds of change, and of the 2022 USMNT, were planted back in the mid-2000s, when the men who run American soccer essentially realized that their youth development model was, as former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati told Yahoo Sports, “completely flipped.”It was backward. Kids were playing more than training, effectively taking more tests than classes. In a way, longtime FC Dallas academy director Chris Hayden told Yahoo Sports, “we were sort of developing players by accident.”

So in 2007, as Major League Soccer upped its investment in youth programs, U.S. Soccer launched its controversial Development Academy. The DA, as it became known, was a nationwide league that pitted America’s best teenage boys against one another weekly. It also mandated three, then four training sessions per week. It sputtered early, and ruffled feathers, and outright enraged some youth soccer directors around the country. But it reformed a “broken” system and, especially as it expanded last decade, it began to produce.It helped produce 17 of the 26 players on this year’s World Cup roster, including Adams, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna and Brenden Aaronson. U.S. Soccer shuttered it in 2020, but by then, MLS was ready to assume control of the boys soccer pyramid. The pro league’s 29 clubs now invest over $100 million annually in homegrown player development. They maintain reserve teams, which bridge the gap from youth to pro, and provide for their first teams — and also, by extension, for the U.S. men’s national team.They increasingly attract European scouts and send teens off to top European clubs. There are flaws, of course, many flaws, but “the quality of the [American] players increased significantly over the last five or 10 years,” Bayern Munich academy chief Jochen Sauer told Yahoo Sports in 2018. Many believe that it has continued to increase since, and that the country’s developmental systems are “just scratching the surface.”By extension, so is the USMNT. Its 2022 World Cup ended on par with expectations, but several people interviewed for a pre-tournament story on youth development cautioned against obsessing over four games. The better evidence, many believed, would emerge four years from now and beyond.“We will see the final result in five to 10 years,” another Bayern youth coach, Sebastian Dremmler, said. “[In 2026], you will have a very strong national team.”

Weston McKennie (far right) consoles midfielder Tyler Adams (4) after the United States lost to Netherlands in the World Cup Round of 16 at Khalifa International Stadium on Dec. 3, 2022 in Al Rayyan, Qatar. (Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports)

 

Weston McKennie (far right) consoles midfielder Tyler Adams (4) after the United States lost to Netherlands in the World Cup Round of 16 at Khalifa International Stadium on Dec. 3, 2022 in Al Rayyan, Qatar. (Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports)

‘The American public should be optimistic’

The 2026 World Cup felt a long way off as gloomy faces marched out of the Khalifa on Saturday night. Reyna declined interviews. Pulisic’s voice was weak and pained. Tim Ream welled with emotion as he realized that he, unlike many teammates, at age 35, likely wouldn’t get another shot on this stage.But underneath the gloomy faces was perspective.“The future’s bright,” Ream said selflessly. “I mean, this core group — and when I say core group, I mean, it’s guys who are 22, 23, 24 years old who are not even hitting their prime yet — the potential is just huge going into this next cycle. The program’s in good hands with these guys. Good characters. Good players. Good people. … I’m excited for what they’re gonna be able to do on the world stage.”DeAndre Yedlin, the one holdover from the 2014 squad, was asked whether this felt like a step forward or a step sideways, and said: “I think it’s a step forward.”Matt Turner said, unprompted: “There’s a tremendous potential, and if you don’t see that” — well, he doesn’t know what to tell you. “We played England, we played Netherlands, and we gave both teams really hard, hard times.”And perhaps most importantly, they did so proactively rather than reactively. They wanted the ball. When opponents won it, they wanted it back. They sparred physically and tactically with England. They made a top 10 team in the world, the Netherlands, essentially decide that its best hope to beat the U.S. was to concede possession and counter.“They should gain confidence about the fact that we can play with anyone in the world the way we wanna play,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “That’s the important thing.”It does not mean the USMNT has reached Dutch or English levels. There remains a gap in quality that revealed itself on Saturday night in decisive moments.But quality will rise with experience and age. The youth system should provide more of it.“To be fielding the youngest lineups in the World Cup four times in a row, and still be able to play the way we are — the American public should be optimistic,” Berhalter said.He and his players had, as a collective, set out four years ago to “change the way the world views American soccer,” as McKennie reiterated Saturday night. “I think we accomplished a piece of that in this World Cup,” McKennie said. Berhalter felt they “partially achieved” it.But the holy grail has always been changing the way America views American men’s soccer. They will do that almost solely by winning. And here in Qatar, although they only won once, they showed that they will, someday, surely, win plenty more.“I think this tournament has really restored a lot of belief, restored a lot of respect to U.S. Soccer, and to soccer in our country,” McKennie said. “I think we’ve shown that we can be giants eventually. We may not be there yet, but I think we’re definitely on our way.”

USMNT’s World Cup exit prompts one final report card for Gregg Berhalter

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 03: Gregg Berhalter, Head Coach of United States, reacts after the team's defeat during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Netherlands and USA at Khalifa International Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

By Jeff RueterDec 3, 2022212


 

It wasn’t a pop quiz, but the United States’ 3-1 defeat against the Netherlands in the round of 16 served as Gregg Berhalter’s final exam for this cycle.

So often, analyzing a match requires highlighting the heroes on the pitch and putting player performances under the microscope. With Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal expertly handling that angle from Qatar, we’re going to take a different approach and focus on the man on the touchline.

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After earning a C-grade in his World Cup coaching debut against Wales, a B+ against England and a sub-skewed B against Iran in the group stage, let’s take a look at the decisions Gregg Berhalter made against the Dutch and the whole of his team’s 360 minutes of action.


 

Line-up/initial tactics

First impression against Holland: As has been the case for nearly all three games following the Wales draw, Berhalter only really had two lineup decisions to make. At center back, he reinstated Walker Zimmerman after a capable shift from Cameron Carter-Vickers against Iran. Zimmerman represents a slightly more mobile alternative to Carter-Vickers, which is necessary given the pace of Cody Gakpo and Memphis Depay on the break.Less-convincing was the decision to give Jesús Ferreira his World Cup debut. The FC Dallas striker looked like the first-choice option up top for nearly all of 2022 before Josh Sargent cut ahead of him for pole position and the start against Wales. Once Haji Wright checked in for the Norwich striker on that day and then started against England, it was clear that the pressure which plagued Ferreira throughout the MLS postseason was as worrying to Berhalter as it had been to scores of U.S. fans. To see him leading the line in a knockout match without a minute to his name in the group stage didn’t instill much confidence.Lasting impression: It got overlooked for the most part, but Zimmerman deserves an immense amount of credit for shaking off his gaffe against Wales and returning to his dependable self for the ensuing three matches. He and Ream did well to keep the Dutch from threatening in the air. Unfortunately, the duo was often forced to make decisions in numerical disadvantages as Holland was on the break. While we can appreciate his intention with the late bicycle kick as the U.S. was 3-1 down, it’ll ultimately serve as no more than a meme-worthy sendoff for this U.S. side.Regardless, Zimmerman’s inclusion wasn’t nearly as much of an issue as Ferreira’s one and only World Cup involvement. In the first ten minutes, he gave glimpses of why he was on the roster as he pulled Virgil Van Dijk all the way into the center of the field to create pockets of space for Christian Pulisic and Timothy Weah. Unfortunately, the Liverpool defender caught on by the time Depay opened the scoring, and the gambit never resurfaced after the U.S. restarted play.From there, Ferreira looked like a player whose confidence had been shattered. One has to hope he can bounce back in the 2023 season; however, few players on this team have seen their stock plummet as mightily over the past three months. Hindsight is 20/20, but Haji Wright may have been a wiser choice to start simply due to the fact that he had already played between Pulisic and Weah.As a whole, this match was the first time in which it appeared that Berhalter’s approach was overshadowed by his opposite number. Unlike Rob Page, Gareth Southgate and Carlos Quieroz, Louis van Gaal entered with a game plan which dictated the flow of the game. No matter how the U.S. tried to add width, Holland wrestled the game back into the central channel of the field to play into their numerical advantage. When the U.S. sent Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest further up to add options further out, the Dutch (and Denzel Dumfries in particular) were enabled to exploit the open areas.That, coupled with the Netherlands’ confidence in allowing the ball to funnel towards Ferreira in the box, kept the U.S. from fully getting under their skin even as they made final third entry after final third entry. While individuals like Pulisic and Yunus Musah can take some solace from their performances, this is not the type of game where you want to be focusing on individual performances over the collective.Just look at Tyler Adams, whose only glaring mistake of the tournament — taking a brisk jog behind Depay as he entered the box unmarked to open scoring — ended up flipping the entire gameplan on its head.The initial gameplan wasn’t wrong, per se; the Netherlands were just the team which studied the tape closest and found ways to exploit individual matchups.

Grade: C-


 

Tactical tweaks/half-time adjustments

First impression: We’ll count the halftime inclusion of Giovanni Reyna here, as his introduction in place of Ferreira represented more of a tactical tweak than a like-for-like substitution. Unfortunately, what Reyna does best (breaking lines either on the dribble or with a pass to create chances) wasn’t what the U.S. was struggling to achieve.

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Lasting impression: In the group stage, Berhalter often took a conservative approach to adjusting his gameplan at the break. It was for understandable reasons, as the U.S. never trailed at any point in their first three matches. If the game had stayed 1-0 after stoppage time, it may have even been understandable to just emphasize areas to improve with such a young side rather than knocking them sideways with a last-ditch overhaul.

Once Daley Blind doubled the lead with the first half’s final kick, however, something more drastic was necessary. The thing is: if a team’s kitchen sink approach can’t change the tide, what does that say about either the personnel called in or the manager’s ability to necessarily deviate from Plan A? Van Gaal dared the U.S. to bring its lines of engagement further up the pitch, recognizing the young opponent’s desire to strike on the break, and also recognizing that few nations have as good and deep of a defensive pool as the Netherlands. If the U.S. forced a turnover with their press, Holland was comfortably set up to keep threats at bay. When the U.S. failed to take the ball, they were caught out of shape and with ample room for Gakpo, Depay and Steven Bergwijn to operate.

The Dutch were conceding ample space in the wide areas of the middle third of the pitch, a space which the U.S. dominated against England. It was by design, again a credit to Van Gaal, as a way to create more room for Dumfries on the break — and it worked. The U.S. sprung the Netherlands’ trap and were left hanging upside down by their feet for most of the last 80 minutes and stoppage.

So did Berhalter miss a chance to flip the game on its head? Few managers have achieved as much as Van Gaal, and even he tempered expectations of an international coach’s inclination to deviate from their team’s base ideology.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Van Gaal said when asked if he expected future World Cup opposition to tailor their tactics more specifically to Holland. “I would assume that the stronger the country is, the less they’ll adjust to the system. The USA didn’t adjust. We based our tactical plan to that, and that allowed us to win. We don’t expect FranceArgentina, or Spain to adjust to us.”

Reyna mostly did Reyna things, creating a couple of chances (0.16 expected assists) while sending a couple of speculative shots. It still confounds me that Berhalter wouldn’t at least try Weah centrally, instead having Reyna and Pulisic alternate faux-line-leading responsibilities. As usual, chance creation and entering the final third was not the issue for the U.S. today. It was finishing its chances and not allowing the defense to be caught unawares due to individual mistakes.

Even if Van Gaal agrees that Berhalter didn’t need a different approach to his usual initial gameplan, there were a couple of potential ways out of the early hole which the U.S. dug.

Grade: D+


 

Substitutions

First impression: Bringing Reyna on for the full second half was the right call, as it was pretty clear to all watching that Ferreira wasn’t going to work back into the game. I would’ve liked to see Wright (as a necessary formation-settler since the team had no option at the heart of the attack) and Aaronson (to exploit the tiring Dutch defense and wreak havoc in transition) before the 67th minute, but both are equipped to fill the roles being asked of them today. DeAndre Yedlin and Jordan Morris make sense for their responsibilities, but both full backs seemed ready to tap out well before the 75th and 92nd minutes, respectively.

Lasting impression as a whole: Not a lot to say about this one, but it was good to see Reyna and Aaronson involved at the same time for once. While he had little to do defensively due to the scoreline, Yedlin looked more comfortable in the role than Shaq Moore had in the group stage, and it still confounds me how the depth chart shook out with the Nashville man ahead of the only U.S. player with World Cup experience entering the tournament.

There was a bit more urgency from Berhalter to change the personnel than in past games, which seemed like a necessary evolution. Still, bringing on another true No. 9 and the chaos-inducing Aaronson halfway through the second half left a lot of time without a clear approach to light up the U.S. half of the scoreboard.

Grade: B-


 

Final marks

It’s a bit simplistic to chalk this up as “Louis Van Gaal beat Gregg Berhalter today,” but… yeah, Louis van Gaal beat Gregg Berhalter today.

There’s no shame in being outclassed by a manager who has won a UEFA Champions League, several European league titles, an FA Cup and led the Netherlands to third place in the 2014 World Cup. The U.S. should also take comfort from the fact that they were still able to create chances and stay in the final third against such a stout defensive unit.

Ultimately, however, van Gaal’s post-match assessment is pretty damning: the U.S. didn’t adapt. Berhalter trusted the players that got the team into the knockouts, and it wasn’t enough. There were maneuvers which would have helped, but some simple mistakes in both boxes and failures to react to the Netherlands’ gameplan did the young Yanks in on the day.

Grade: C-


 

End-of-term reflection

Thinking back on all four matches, this doesn’t feel like the United States’ elimination had much to do with Berhalter’s approach.

There are genuine questions to be asked about what Ferreira’s role in this team was compared to, say Ricardo Pepi, who would’ve been a good hybrid alternative to Josh Sargent’s sorely-missed pressing acumen and Wright’s line-leading chops. I might have started Carter-Vickers on Saturday given how well he and Ream worked together to neutralize attackers while better progressing the ball out of the defensive third.

Entering the cycle, many viewed this tournament as a necessary step toward being very competitive when the 2026 World Cup is (mostly) played on home soil. Leaving goalkeeper Zack Steffen off the roster allowed Matt Turner to feel confident in his standing atop the goalkeeper depth chart, and the 28-year-old’s form should keep him in the 1 shirt moving forward. It’s impossible to know if Musah would have committed to the program without Berhalter involved, and his decision to not represent England after doing so at the youth international levels is still a sore spot for Southgate. Conversely, the decision to bring Reyna but keep him to a single seven-minute shift in the group left him pretty untested before a big shift on Saturday.

There weren’t many times where Berhalter’s decision-making (whether it’s his lineups, his tactics or his substitutions) set this U.S. side back. Aside from Ferreira’s start and a coin-flip proposition between Zimmerman and Carter-Vickers against the Dutch, one could argue the coach got 42 of his 44 lineup decisions right. However, after not having to recalibrate due to strong initial tactics in the group stage, Berhalter didn’t adjust his side convincingly or quickly enough when his team was down 2-0 in a knockout game. Even after three pretty strong showings, that matters in a World Cup format.

Final grade: C

Analysis: The USMNT bows out of Qatar with 3-1 loss to the Netherlands

The USMNT is out of the World Cup after a 3-1 loss to the Dutch. ASN’s Brian Sciaretta writes about all that he saw from this game as well as some big picture thoughts as one cycle ends and a new one begins. 

BY BRIAN SCIARETTAPOSTED DECEMBER 03, 2022 11:00 AM

 

THE UNITED STATES national team bowed out of the 2022 World Cup following a 3-1 loss to a powerful Netherlands team on Saturday in Qatar. The Dutch scored two first half goals before the U.S. cut the deficit in half, but a late Dutch goal sealed the U.S. team’s fate to conclude the cycle.The U.S. team opened with a similar starting lineup to the one it opened against Wales with the lone exception is that Jesus Ferreira got the start in place of the injured Josh Sargent.The U.S. team started well, with Christian Pulisic forcing a big save from Andries Noppert in the opening minutes. But it was the Netherlands who struck first in the 10th minute when Denzel Dumfries struck down the right wing and hit a cross that was back towards the top of the box. It found a streaking Memphis Depay in the middle who beat Matt Turner.As the U.S. team was beginning to pick it up, the Dutch stomped on the U.S. momentum with a second goal just before the break. On this play. Daley Blind cut in past Sergino Dest from the left side and beat Turner.In the second half, Gregg Berhalter made a string of changes and the U.S team fought back. In the 76th minute, the U.S. team pulled a goal back when they forced a turnover and DeAndre Yedlin played Pulisic into the right side of the box. Pulisic’s hard cross hit Haji Wright’s heel and past Noppert.The U.S. team looked as if it would be aggressive the rest of the way, but the Dutch put the game out of reach in the 81st minute when Dumfries capped his big day off when he was completely wide open and got on the end of a cross from Blind to send it past turner. It was a blown defensive assignment from the U.S. team and the Netherlands moved ahead for good.Here are some thoughts on it all.

DUTCH MASTERCLASS IN MATURITY

While the average age of the entire roster put the U.S. team as the third youngest team in Qatar, in terms of functionality of minutes on the field, the U.S. was the youngest. When looking at the midfielders and the forwards (the front six), none of the players who started for the U.S. team in these positions had yet to turn 25.

The Dutch had an edge in talent but the bigger difference in this game was in the edge of maturity. The Netherlands made better decisions, they knew how to change the pace of the game, and they scouted the U.S. team well. Most importantly, however, they knew how to respond to adversity better than the U.S. team.

The U.S. team played well for stretches in each of its four World Cup games. But note the difference when faced with adversity. When Wales found a stretch where it was playing well, the U.S. team was on its heels and couldn’t get into a better fun until after Wales equalized. Then against Iran, the U.S. played very well for the first 60 minutes. Then when Iran started to play better, the U.S. team again was on its heels – this time they were able to see the game out.

The Netherlands put on a masterclass about how to respond. When the U.S. team was playing well, the Dutch doubled down on their approach and found a way to be better. Each of the three Dutch goals came at a period when the U.S. had been playing well and was creating dangerous chances.

The U.S. was the better team the first nine minutes, but the Netherlands scored in the 10th minute. The U.S. team was pressing for an equalizer late in the first half, but it was the Netherlands who scored just before halftime – beating Dest on the goal after it was Dest who was the U.S. team’s best player for long stretches that half. Then the final Dutch goal came just minutes after the U.S. team pulled one back.

The Dutch team didn’t retreat in the face of adversity. They knew how to raise their game. That is the mark of a talented team, but also a smart and confident team through experience.

There were also several other extremely positive traits the Netherlands displayed that the U.S. team didn’t have an answer. The Netherlands knew that the U.S. team liked to play the game at a frantic pace full of energy.

Dutch manager Louis van Gaal and his players knew how to slow the pace of the game down and turn it into a slog. They would turn up the tempo occasionally on counters and when they had the chance to be dangerous, but the mix of tempos threw the U.S. team off.

Tactically, the Dutch also scouted the U.S. team very well. They knew the U.S. team had dangerous wingers but had been struggling with crosses. They were also aware that the Weston Mckennie-Tyler-Adams-Yunus Musah midfield was at the heart of whatever the U.S. team wanted to do. The Dutch man-marked the midfield with precision and forced the game out wide – knowing the U.S. team isn’t crossing well and doesn’t have great targets in the box either.

The good news is that the U.S. team will certainly learn from this. The Dutch are very good but have a very mature team. The U.S. team needs to grow up a little and this was a step in that direction.

FATIGUE: MENTAL AND PHYSICAL

The U.S. team looked fatigued in this game – both mentally and physically. First touches were off and there were positional mistakes. The U.S. team was at a disadvantage in the timing of this tournament where so much of form was dictated by club play as opposed to the traditional four-week camps that national teams normally spend together prior to a World Cup.

The U.S. team had too many players coming into this tournament uneven form. McKennie and Dest hadn’t played much leading up to the tournament due to injuries. Gio Reyna and Tim Weah had been in and out of the rosters at their club due to injuries. Jesus Ferreira and Walker Zimmerman hadn’t played in a month before the start of the tournament. Things weren’t that much better for the bench options either.

Then when the team must shift into four games that are extremely intense in quick succession, it was extremely draining – both mentally and physically. The physical exhaustion was easy to see. There were tired legs late in the first half. But mentally, the team was making mistakes it did not make in the group stages.

Yes, there were heavy touches earlier in the game than in the group stages. But there was

Throughout the group stages, one of the best attributes was the team’s defense in the midfield. Adams, McKennie, and Musah were all key to the U.S. team’s group stage success because of their commitment to defense. They helped shield the U.S. team’s backline and force turnovers in the midfield.

In this game, it was a different story. There were stretches where the U.S. team was winning the ball back in the midfield but were also caught napping at other times.

The first goal from the Netherlands was on the midfield. With the defense picking up the front attacking runners, the midfield is responsible to pick up the trailing runners.

A POSITIVE WORLD CUP

After any exit from a major tournament, there is always disappointment. For American players, coaches, and fans, this was no exception. But when we talk about whether this was a successful World Cup, the answer is, without a doubt, yes.

In each of the four games, the U.S. team played long stretches of playing well. Even in the lone loss of the tournament against the Netherlands, the U.S. played well for significant periods. This wasn’t a case where the U.S. team was pinned back and tried to bunker out a result. The chances were there for the U.S. team to score more goals.

Sure the U.S. team needs to improve in areas and in some areas of the field, the options weren’t there for most of the cycle. But the foundation is there. This team has both technical ability as well as speed and athleticism in key areas. While it would be nice to have Tim Ream be 10 years younger, the entire front six will be 24-27 years old in 2026. On top of that, there will be others emerging to push these players to prevent complacency.

In every game, there were periods where the U.S. team was right there even with some very good teams. Putting it together for a complete performance still wasn’t there, and that will be the job of whoever coaches the next cycle. But for where the U.S. team was four years ago to where it is now, it is very encouraging. This is not the end of a cycle where the team needs to cut dead weight and rebuild, this is the end of a cycle that sets up the next cycle.

Overall, it was a good past two years for Gregg Berhalter. He built the “MMA” midfield which has a lot of chemistry. He also did well to establish the two fullbacks. He also leaves with accomplishments – Nations League, Gold Cup, and advancing to the knockout stages of the World Cup all while trying to build a young team.ost importlantly, people have begun to feel better about soccer in this country after a tough run. That is the best thing to happenWhether or not Berhalter returns to the program as his contract is up, he got a lot done this cycle.

MOVING FORWARD

Moving forward, the U.S. team needs to build up depth. A big thing for the federation will be the continued production of good players from the youth national teams. These teams draw heavily on improved MLS academies and that has been a huge source of the team’s improved player pool.

The U-20 World Cup next summer is important but the biggest opportunity for the U.S. program will come in 2024 for the Olympics. If the U.S. can get its top players released, it will be an important hybrid team of key U.S. players (Reyna and Musah), full national team backups (Ricardo Pepi, Joe Scally, Gianluca Busio), and some very promising up and comers (Jack McGlynn, Gaga Slonina, John Tolken, etc).

A big challenge, however, for the national team will be getting meaningful games. There won’t be any World Cup qualifying next cycle and in future cycles World Cup qualifying will be watered down with a 48-team World Cup. That leaves the U.S. team with two Nations Leagues and two Gold Cups every four-year cycle. That’s a lot of CONCACAF and pushing for something outside this federation beyond friendlies. The standard Copa America is nearly impossible for the U.S. team to get involved (like they used to) as they are a guest team and clubs are never required to release players for guest teams at tournaments. The U.S. team needs more Confederations Cup or Copa American Centenario-type tournaments (which were on the international calendar). But the Olympics, while a youth tournament, does help. For now, these are big picture things moving forward. For now, the U.S. federation needs to made decisions on its head coach and if Berhalter does not come back (and he might not want to), U.S. Soccer needs to get that hire right and then figure out an Olympic coach. While the U.S. has friendlies set for January, it can go with an interim head coach into 2023 to see what options open up moving forward.

The U.S. is in a much better position now than it was after any World Cup. It doesn’t need to go back to the drawing board and rework things. The number of players who need to get phased out of the pool is small. The team has confidence, momentum, and the lessons it needs to learn are obvious. The player development path is as strong as ever in this country, and this cycle did well to set up the next. The 2026 cycle starts off in a good place.

USA's goalkeeper #01 Matt Turner concedes a goal by Netherlands' defender #17 Daley Blind (C top) during the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between the Netherlands and USA at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on December 3, 2022. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)

Netherlands, Argentina, Brazil and Croatia: A World Cup bracket full of recent heartbreak

<img src="data:;base64,” alt=”” aria-hidden=”true” data-airgap-id=”83″ />JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 11:  Arjen Robben of the Netherlands (R) reacts after missing a goal scoring chance with team mate Robin Van Persie during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Final match between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City Stadium on July 11, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
By Jeff Rueter   Dec 7, 2022 Save Article

After all of the thrills we had and the unpredictable results we saw in the group stage and round of 16 in this ongoing World Cup, one side of the quarter-finals bracket manages to feature an interesting collection of teams, all with a potential motivation in common. 

The quartet includes the runners-up from the three most recent men’s World Cups, along with a fourth combatant with an ax to grind from the 2014 installment. If one half of the draw, Morocco aside, is increasingly marked by unpredictability, the other is indeed the bracket of redemption, between four programs looking to overcome recent (or semi-recent) near-misses.


The Netherlands

The heartbreak: 

In 2010 the Netherlands made a bold run to the final, boasting global stars including winger Arjen Robben, defender Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Wesley Sneijder at his peak, and Robin van Persie from his Arsenal heyday. 

Unfortunately, they ran into a near-unparalleled juggernaut in that final. Spain had unbelievable depth and the benefit of chemistry from a squad which had won Euro 2008 (and would win Euro 2012) and was predominantly selected from FC Barcelona and Real Madrid’s rosters. 

It was among the most ill-tempered finals in men’s World Cup history, with Howard Webb showing 14 yellow cards — with a staggering nine alone to Dutch players. Somehow, Nigel de Jong wasn’t shown red for a horrific challenge which saw him plant his cleat firmly into a standing Xabi Alonso’s sternum. Johnny Heitinga suffered the ignominy of getting sent off in extra time, after being shown a second yellow. 

“I think it was good there was no VAR,” Heitinga told The Athletic this week. “Otherwise there was some more red cards.”

 

Less than 10 minutes after Heitinga headed to the dressing room, Andres Iniesta was able to get a shot past Maarten Stekelenburg, and the Dutch went home without the title. 

The aftermath: 

While manager Bert van Marwijk stuck around for the next cycle, he was swiftly dismissed following his side’s three defeats in as many group matches at Euro 2012. He was succeeded by Louis van Gaal, who had also briefly held the post from 2000-01. The key players from 2010 returned for the 2014 World Cup campaign, supplemented by up-and-comers including Memphis Depay, Stefan de Vrij and Georginio Wijnaldum. This time, their run ended in the semi-finals against Lionel Messi in his prime, settling for a win in the third-place match over hosts Brazil.

As Van Persie and Robben aged, the Dutch lost their way. They failed to qualify for both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, returning to major tournament action for Euro 2020 but falling in its round of 16. 

The holdovers:

While the entirety of that 2010 runners-up squad is out of the picture 12 and a half years on, two of the 2014 bronze medallists are on this current roster in key roles: Depay, 28, and 32-year-old Daley Blind. Van Gaal himself has returned for a third term at the helm, despite undergoing prostate cancer treatment in April.

What they’re saying

“In 2014 we finished third with a squad I would say was of lesser quality. With this group, I would expect more.” – Louis van Gaal

 
(Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

Argentina

The heartbreak: 

As alluded to in the “aftermath” section on the Netherlands, Messi was in blistering form heading into the 2014 World Cup. After winning the Ballon d’Or every year from 2009-12, he was in the midst of the Messidependencia era of Barcelona as they adjusted to life without coach Pep Guardiola. 

Similarly, Argentina funnelled absolutely everything through their icon as play kicked off in Brazil that summer. His four goals in the group stage helped harvest all nine points and set them on a run to the final. Sure enough, the knockouts served as a crash-course to pit the world’s best player against Germany, the world’s best team. After a first-half goal was whistled offside and Gonzalo Higuain missed a gifted one-on-one with Manuel Neuer, it was Mario Gotze who joined the rank of World Cup match-winning scorers rather than Messi.

The aftermath: 

That World Cup eight years ago was the first in a series of major tournament letdowns for Messi, followed by losses to Chile in successive Copa America finals, after which he briefly retired from Argentina duty before a coaching change and nationwide demonstrations convinced him to return for the 2018 World Cup cycle. 

It was hardly a storybook comeback story, as Argentina labored to get out of a middling group before falling to title-bound France in the round of 16. After finishing third in the 2019 Copa America, it seemed as if Argentina would never win a major tournament in the Messi era. That all changed at last year’s Copa America, of course, as Angel Di María stepped up with the final’s lone goal to give Argentina a famous 1-0 win over tournament host Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. 

The holdovers:

Messi is playing in Qatar 2022, as you’ve likely heard by now. But he’s one of just two holdovers from Brazil 2014, joined as usual by Di Maria. Nicolas Otamendi wasn’t involved then, while the two strikers younger than Messi on that runners-up roster (Higuain and Sergio Aguero) have both retired over the past year. 

What they’re saying

“It’s a pity given all the chances we had in that game. We had the better chances and, well… we’ll regret the chances we had but couldn’t score for the rest of our lives.” – Lionel Messi on the 2014 World Cup final.

 
(Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Croatia

The heartbreak: 

Is it fair to call a surprise run to a final and an ensuing defeat “heartbreak”? It’s up for debate with Croatia, which finished third in 1998 but had exited in the group stage in all three subsequent World Cup appearances. A round of 16 exit from Euro 2016 gave little reason for further optimism, even with Luka Modric in otherworldly form with Real Madrid and a pair of Ivans (Rakitic and Perisic) capably leading the transition into the final third. After appointing head coach Zlatko Dalic (without a contract unless they qualified for the 32-team field), the players put aside a cycle’s worth of animosity to reach newfound cohesion — and, ultimately, secure a place in Russia. 

They hardly found it easy to book a date with France in the final. Croatia needed all 120 minutes and penalties to get past both Denmark and Russia in the first two knockout rounds before finally taking care of the result in extra time against England, having fallen behind, in the semifinal. Perhaps due to their series of advancements on the finest of margins, France entered the final as a decided favorite. Les Bleus ultimately toppled the tournament dark horse by a 4-2 margin.

The aftermath: 

It wasn’t always convincing, but their silver-medal showing in Russia changed global perceptions of Croatia. Dalic was awarded an extension through 2022, and he’s given no reason to abdicate his post. It was surprising, then, to see them fall in the round of 16 for a second consecutive Euros last summer. They navigated a tricky group in Qatar, finishing second behind fellow quarterfinalist Morocco as Belgium went home early.

The holdovers:

Modric is one of the sport’s truly ageless wonders, still an essential starter for the 2021-22 Champions League-winning Real Madrid side. While he’s given second-billing status with Croatia, Ivan Perisic is one of just four players to score in the three most recent men’s World Cups, alongside Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Xherdan Shaqiri. In total, nine players from the 2018 side are back for redemption in Qatar, with Andrej Kramaric especially stepping up for the now-retired Mario Mandzukic (who is with the team as an assistant coach).

What they’re saying

“Something special was taking place. Suddenly, and out of nowhere, had come Dalic. Now everything was falling into place. People believed in us once again.” – Luka Modric.

 

Brazil

The heartbreak: 

While Croatia (and, to a lesser extent, the 2010 Dutch side) are a stretch to give the “heartbroken” descriptor, there’s no question that applies to Brazil in 2014. 

Heading into their first World Cup on home soil since finishing second in 1950, all focus was on righting that generations-old wrong. Brazil won Group A and bested Chile in a round of 16 shootout, setting up another CONMEBOL showdown with Colombia in the quarterfinal. A 2-1 win hardly felt satisfying as the final whistle blew — Colombia had taken the heart out of Brazil as Neymar suffered a tournament-ending injury.

An emotional team faced its date with Germany in the semifinal, and what was supposed to be a de facto title game quickly devolved into chaos, gifting one of the most iconic scorelines in World Cup history and, indeed, the history of organized sports: 7-1. You’ve surely seen the images, with men, women and children all equally likely to grace the broadcast with tears smearing their impeccably painted green-and-yellow faces. What was supposed to be the party of a lifetime had devolved into a nightmare, an even greater humbling than when Uruguay executed its “Maracanã Smash” to win in 1950.

The aftermath: 

That Germany humiliation kicked off a rare down spell for Brazil, which exited in the Copa America quarterfinal in 2015 before failing to even advance from a group with Ecuador, Peru and Haiti in the 2016 Copa America Centenario, spelling the end for coach Dunga. With Tite appointed as manager afterward, Brazil fell in the quarterfinal to Belgium in the 2018 World Cup. 

The slump was finally busted as Brazil won the 2019 Copa America on home soil at the Maracana in Rio, around 300 miles south of the site of their 2014 house of horrors in Belo Horizonte. While they lost the same fixture in the same stadium to Argentina last year, they finished atop CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

The holdovers:

Neymar is arguably in even better form now than he was enjoying in 2014. He’s one of three returning members from that squad, joined by defenders Dani Alves and Thiago Silva (though Alves’ role at this point is as a reserve). 

What they’re saying

“Now he’s in a very good point, a good moment for him to show the real quality and the leadership, because he has big, big character and can be a leader that Brazil expects. We’re in a moment that’s going to be very interesting because Messi is in his best moment, Neymar is in his best moment and they are two kings.” – Neymar’s former Paris Saint-Germain coach Mauricio Pochettino

2022 World Cup Quarterfinal rankings: Using expected goals to rank the remaining eight teams

<img src="data:;base64,” alt=”” aria-hidden=”true” data-airgap-id=”87″ />DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 04: Kylian Mbappe #10 of France celebrates after scoring the team's third goal in the second half against Poland during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between France and Poland at Al Thumama Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
By David Sumpter  Dec 8, 2022  

David Sumpter is an English mathematics professor and author based in Sweden who wrote the book “Soccermatics” to make sense of the numbers and patterns of the sport. He will be contributing his perspective on betting and analytical trends throughout the World Cup for The Athletic.

 

The 2022 World Cup has reached the quarterfinal stage. There was only one upset in the Round of 16, with Morocco beating Spain on penalty kicks to advance so we get a top-heavy quarterfinal round which is topped off with France playing England in the last game on Saturday.

Which nations are the best and worst expected goals performers in the quarterfinals? I rank each team based on their xG for and against performance in the tournament.

1.  Brazil

It is the favorite to win the World Cup for a reason. Brazil has scored six goals in open play but is (equal) top-ranked in expected goals, with 9.1. There is still much more to come from RicharlisonNeymarVinícius Júnior and company.

The left-hand graph shows Brazil’s chances. The bigger the circle, the better the chance (higher xG). Goals are shown as stars. The right-hand graph shows xG For and xG Against in four matches. Brazil has dominated all of its games.

2. France

France equals Brazil in terms of shot quality, with 9.1 xG For, but unlike Brazil, France has let the opposition (especially Poland) create chances against them.

3. Argentina

At +600 to win the tournament, Argentina currently offers the best value. Not just because of the chances they have created (7.3 in total, 2.1 from Lionel Messi alone) but also because they have given so little away defensively.

4. England

A focus on quality over quantity in this tournament has seen England average 0.14xG per shot from only 41 shots (5.5 xG in total). It will be tough against France, but a draw after 90 minutes (at +227) is worth a shot.

5. Portugal

The Portuguese have created better chances than their opponents in all four matches, but they have still conceded 0.9xG per match. So while the headlines are about their choice of striker, the real question is whether their defense can take them further than the semi-finals.

6. Netherlands

Like England, the Netherlands has taken a pragmatic approach to the tournament, soaking up pressure and focusing on creating high-quality chances. But the only match it has been substantially better than their opponents was against Qatar. I can’t see how it can find a way past Argentina.

7. Croatia

The most striking aspect of Croatia’s xG map is that it hasn’t scored on its best chances (larger circles) but has managed to score a few lower-quality chances (small stars). Croatia struggled against Japan, and it will struggle even more against Brazil.

8. Morocco

Only 2.9 expected goals, but scoring in open play isn’t the key to Morocco’s strategy. It is an example of a team that overperforms expected goals by defending well in the box. The question is whether they can do it again against Portugal. The answer is probably not.

 

USMNT’s World Cup run ends vs. Netherlands thanks to three defensive lapses

Sam Stejskal Dec 3, 2022 Athletic

The U.S. men’s national team built their run to the World Cup knockout rounds on defensive rigidity. During the group stage, they were disciplined, organized and always engaged, pressing wonderfully and limiting their opponents’ opportunities. The few big chances they did concede came mostly through set pieces or direct aerial play. The only goal they allowed was on a penalty kick. Not once did it feel like they switched off mentally. That was necessary for them to get out of Group B. Their generally inefficient attacking play meant that the young U.S. team had an extremely thin margin for error in the back. If they had even one defensive lapse in their round of 16 match against the Netherlands on Saturday, they would have a hard time advancing. In the end, they didn’t make just one mistake — they fell asleep on three different occasions. The Dutch scored each time, going ahead in the 10th minute, doubling their advantage in first half stoppage time, then adding a third late in the second half. Their ruthlessness in front of goal stood in stark contrast to the finishing of the U.S., who failed to put away a pair of huge chances en route to a 3-1 loss that brought their World Cup to a bitter end.“In the past three games, I’d say we defended the moments really, really well,” said U.S. defensive midfielder and captain Tyler Adams. “And today the three goals come from moments where we’re probably sleeping a little bit.”The first of the missed opportunities for the U.S. to score came in the third minute through Christian Pulisic. Adams latched onto a partially-cleared cross just outside of the box and immediately clipped a ball over the onrushing Dutch defense into the left side of the box to a wide-open Pulisic. It was an incredible look, but Pulisic ended up hitting his one-on-one effort directly at Netherlands goalkeeper Andries Noppert. The Americans were punished for failing to take advantage of the opportunity just seven minutes later. The Dutch strung together a fabulous sequence, progressing the ball out of the back and up the left before finding attacker Cody Gakpo, the star of their tournament, in the center of the U.S. half. Gakpo quickly found wingback Denzel Dumfries on the right flank, setting him up for a wonderful cutback ball to forward Memphis Depay, who buried his open shot from 15 yards with his first touch. 

It was a lovely move by the Netherlands, a vintage Dutch buildup that included 20 passes, the most ever for the country since at least 1966 on a play that led to a goal at a World Cup. It was also helped along by some uncharacteristic mistakes by the U.S. Adams didn’t do a good enough job of tracking Depay after he played a pass to Gakpo, losing him as he ran through midfield and arrived in the box. It didn’t help the U.S. that center backs Tim Ream and Walker Zimmerman both went with midfielder Davy Klaasen on his hard run to the near post, but it was hugely unusual to see Adams fail to track his man after he covered so much ground and defended so tirelessly during the group stage. 

Something similar happened on the second goal. Dumfries lofted a throw-in from deep in the U.S. third to midfielder Marten de Roon, who immediately played the ball back to Dumfries. U.S. striker Jesus Ferreira couldn’t win his attempt to take the ball off Dumfries, who drove into the area and cut another ball back to the top of the box. This time, left wingback Daley Blind ran onto it, blowing past inattentive U.S. left back Sergiño Dest and hammering a first-time shot past goalkeeper Matt Turner. Blind’s shot ended up being the last kick of the first half. Switching off as in either of the first two goals is always a huge error, but the second mistake was compounded by the fact that it came so close to the break — and after the U.S. had started to build a bit of momentum. It was a poor moment in an otherwise strong tournament for Dest, who wasn’t at his best in what was no doubt an emotional match against the country he was born and raised in.“That was brutal,” said Turner. “Giving up that second goal was brutal. It was off a throw-in, I mean, there’s no real excuse for it. Everything that could have went wrong on that play, did.”The Americans made yet another mental error on the third goal. The Dutch played the ball out of the U.S. box and then out to the left flank for Blind, who curled a cross to a wide-open Dumfries at the back post. He took the ball out of the air and hammered it past Turner for an easy finish. 

The U.S. weren’t actually outnumbered on the play, they just completely failed to account for Dumfries, who was named man of the match for his one-goal, two-assist performance. Ream and Zimmerman were matched up in the middle of the box with Gakpo and substitute forward Steven Bergwijn. Left back Antonee Robinson, normally so solid defensively with the U.S., was free to move wide and mark Dumfries, but he never noticed him and instead shaded centrally to help cover Bergwijn. When Dumfries scored, Ream could only turn to his Fulham and U.S. teammate and put his arms out wide, as if to ask Robinson what the hell just happened.“The first two goals, normally we’d have someone in that cutback space, they’re very similar goals, they just found someone there and they’ve got quality players that can finish them chances,” said Robinson. “And then (on the third, Dumfries) gets in behind me, I’m too focused on (Bergwijn) being in the box seemingly alone and he’s behind me and he’s done very well. Been very effective for their team tonight, and it’s disappointing for us.” Adams, Dest and Robinson making those kinds of errors was unexpected. Adams was probably the U.S.’s best player all tournament. In the group stage, he was immense defensively, covering so much ground and ending so many opposition attacks before they turned dangerous. Robinson was uneven offensively, but he did well without the ball in the U.S.’s first three games. Dest, meanwhile, was something of a revelation, quieting anyone who doubted his ability to stay disciplined in defense with solid performances against WalesEngland and Iran. After the loss, Adams, Robinson and several other U.S. players were asked why they struggled in those big defensive moments against the Netherlands when they’d been so solid in those moments earlier in the tournament. A couple of players were asked directly if they thought fatigue played a role. They didn’t buy into that line of thinking, but, watching how the World Cup played out for the Americans, it was hard to write off tiredness as one reason for the errors we saw Saturday. The U.S. played an incredibly physical style in Qatar, pressing their opponents high and covering huge distances each group game. Adams, Dest and Robinson were asked to run more and run harder than most of their teammates. It’d only be natural if they were a little bit worse for wear in their fourth game in 12 days.Things weren’t much smoother in attack. The Dutch didn’t allow the Americans to get into rhythm in possession, especially in the first half. Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal lined up in his customary 3-4-1-2 formation. When the U.S. had the ball, Gakpo and Depay remained wide, cutting off the passing lanes between the center backs and fullbacks, who the U.S. attacked through frequently during group play. That funneled play to the middle, where the Dutch midfielders were tightly man-marking Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah. Ferreira didn’t present any sort of outlet for direct balls out of the back, and the U.S. didn’t look to play long to Pulisic or fellow winger Tim Weah until the final minutes of the opening 45. 

All of that allowed the Dutch to keep their defensive lines very compact in the first half. Combined with some general sloppiness on the ball, that led to some pretty rough times in possession for the U.S.“They were smart to limit those guys because we get a lot of chances from our outside backs,” said Adams. “So that’s why we needed to be able to navigate a different way, maybe put Timmy a little bit (wider), put Christian a little bit wider. But it’s hard in those games when you know your attackers want to get touches on the ball, when you’re playing man against man and you’re kicking it around the back, they’re going to come down naturally. We had a little bit of difficulty finding spaces sometimes.” 

Things opened up a bit in the second, but, by that time, the U.S. were already down 2-0. With their scoring issues, that always felt like too big of a mountain to climb. The Americans certainly weren’t clinical with their chances on Saturday, with Pulisic failing to connect on his early look and substitute striker Haji Wright missing a golden opportunity that would’ve made it 2-1 in the 75th. 

Wright scored a minute later on perhaps the most bizarre strike of the entire World Cup, an awkward, unintentional goal that, in a way, underlined the lack of talent the U.S. has up top. Had Wright done what he was intending, there’s no way he would’ve scored. He only found the net because he made a mistake with his touch. Josh Sargent, who started two of the three group games, being unavailable due to an ankle injury was a big loss for the U.S., as both Ferreira and Wright struggled. Sargent, though, hasn’t exactly filled up the net for the Americans, who still have a huge question mark at striker going forward. 

“When you look at the difference of the two teams, to me, there was some offensive quality, offensive finishing quality that Holland had that we’re lacking a little bit,” said U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter. “And that’s (due to) time. I mean, it’s normal. We have a very young group of players that are beginning their careers and they’re gonna catch up to that, we’re gonna get to the same thing. But we don’t have a Memphis Depay right now.” 

There’s no way to know if the U.S. players will actually ever hit that level, of course. They have potential, but they have limitations, too. At times in the group stage, we saw that they can contend with some of the better teams in the world when they’re at their best. They are and should be proud of that. But on Saturday, we saw some of their weaknesses come to the forefront. The hope is that the Americans will grow stronger over the next three-and-a-half years and emerge as a much bigger threat in time for the 2026 World Cup that will be hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

There was some talk about their promise on Saturday, but, for the most part, the players were understandably preoccupied with the disappointment of the loss. They genuinely believed they could take out the Netherlands. Failing to do so stings, no matter how bright their future may be.

“It hurts, man. It hurts,” said Pulisic. “It’s going to hurt for a while.”

USA 1-3 Netherlands: USMNT poor in possession, Depay’s finesse and roll on 2026

AL-RAYYAN - Frenkie de Jong of Holland, Nathan Ake of Holland, Cody Gakpo of Holland, Jurrien Timber of Holland, Memphis Depay of Holland, Davy Klaassen of Holland, Marten de Roon of Holland, Daley Blind of Holland, Kenneth Taylor of Holland , Xavi Simons of Holland, Jeremie Frimpong of Holland celebrate the 2-0 during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 round of 16 match between the Netherlands and the United States at the Khalifa International stadium on December 3, 2022 in AL-Rayyan, Qatar. ANP MAURICE VAN STONE (Photo by ANP via Getty Images)

By Paul TenorioSam Stejskal and more Dec 3, 2022


 

The World Cup is over for the United States after losing 3-1 to the Netherlands.

The USMNT went behind after just 10 minutes from a sharp Memphis Depay finish and Daley Blind scored a second just before half-time.In a game that looked increasingly comfortable for the Netherlands, the U.S. got a fortuitous goal back via Haji Wright’s heel, but that was cancelled out just five minutes later thanks to a full-back to full-back combination with Blind supplying an expert cross to Denzel Dumfries to volley home a third for the Dutch.Paul Tenorio, Sam Stejskal, Michael Cox and Simon Hughes analyse the key talking points


 

Focus moves to World Cup 2026

There has been an understanding — sometimes stated aloud, other times not — that part of this four-year cycle was about building a core that could carry momentum forward into the 2026 World Cup, which the U.S. will co-host with Mexico and Canada.“As you move into 2026, if our players continue to progress at the rate that they have been, we’re going to be dealing with a really, really talented player pool with experience and having the home field advantage,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter told The Athletic for the narrative podcast, From Couva to Qatar: Remaking the USMNT.“And we know the home field in the World Cup is important. I think it’s a great opportunity for us, without getting ahead of ourselves, everything that’s been done has been laying this foundation, and this World Cup will help do that as well.”

The U.S. was the second-youngest team in the tournament here in Qatar, and may have been the youngest if not for the inclusion of 35-year-old center-back Tim Ream. There was just one player on the roster, DeAndre Yedlin, with any World Cup experience. The task over the past four years was to give this young core crucial experience, both in CONCACAF qualifying and in a World Cup, that might transfer as they age into their primes.In that way, it’s difficult to say that this cycle has been anything but a success. The U.S. has been built around players like Tyler AdamsWeston McKennieYunus MusahChristian PulisicSergino Dest and Brenden Aaronson. Gio Reyna’s injury has slowed his integration into the group some, but he’s played a role in important games, including a Nations League final and Saturday’s round-of-16 loss to the Netherlands. All of those players are 24 years old or younger.The U.S. showed in the group stage that they are capable of playing good soccer at times. They were the better team for large stretches against WalesEngland and Iran. They also were able to survive and see out a win against Iran despite being under pressure for much of the second half. If there was an obvious weakness, it was an inability to create dangerous chances and to score. That was much the same as it was in qualifying, and it will be a crucial part of the next four-year cycle.

It’s uncertain what this team will look like in the short term. There is a Gold Cup in 2023, but one of little consequence. The U.S. will compete in the Olympics in 2024. Perhaps they can look to play in the Copa America as they seek higher levels of competition. As hosts, it’s unlikely the U.S. will have to qualify for the World Cup, though FIFA has not officially announced that yet. It will be important for this team to find competitive games ahead of the World Cup, however.When casting your eyes toward 2026, there is plenty to be excited about in regards to this player pool. The expectations were high around this young team in Qatar. They just about met them by getting out of the group and into the knockout stage. A win over the Netherlands would have been the program’s first trip to the quarter-finals in two decades. This U.S. team fell short. In four years’ time, this performance will be the baseline for success.As Leeds’ American head coach Jesse Marsch wrote in a column for The Athletic, there will be real belief that the U.S. can make history in 2026 by challenging in a way they haven’t before.Paul Tenorio


 

Crying out for an elite striker

With Josh Sargent unavailable due to an ankle injury he suffered on Tuesday against Iran, Berhalter had a big decision to make at striker. Would he turn to Wright, who was decent in a start against England but struggled massively off the bench against Iran? Would he start Jesus Ferreira, who was the No 1 for much of the period between World Cup qualifying and the start of the tournament? Or would he look elsewhere and move an ostensible winger like Reyna, Tim Weah or Pulisic to the No 9? Ultimately, Berhalter, who said ahead of the Iran game that he hadn’t really considered starting anyone up top besides one of the three players listed at striker, chose Ferreira. It didn’t work out. The 21-year-old didn’t play in the group stage and hadn’t appeared in a competitive match since FC Dallas were eliminated from the MLS Cup Playoffs on October 23. His last goal came all the way back on September 10, making him goalless in his last seven games for club and country heading into SaturdayHe showed all of that rust against the Netherlands. He didn’t take up good spaces, often clogging room in midfield for Pulisic, Weah, McKennie and Musah by regularly dropping centrally. He didn’t get on the ball often, but when he did, his touches were poor — he committed dangerous, sloppy turnovers on a couple of occasions. Just 5ft 9in, he was no match physically for Dutch center-back Virgil van Dijk and wasn’t at all an outlet for direct balls from the U.S. defense.He was poor enough that Berhalter chose to replace him at half-time, bringing him off for Reyna. Wright was eventually inserted about midway through the second half, with Reyna shifting out wide for the departed Weah. Wright missed a golden opportunity not long after coming on, then scored what looked like an incredibly accidental, fortunate goal to pull the U.S. within 2-1 before the Dutch found their third. The performances of Ferreira and Wright were a real illustration of the USMNT’s huge problem at the No 9. For as much talent as they have elsewhere on the field, the Americans aren’t close to having a top-level striker.

Sam Stejskal


 

How far can the Dutch go?

The Netherlands have eased into the quarter-finals but none of their performances have necessarily been easy to watch.

This is a counter-attacking team which relies heavily on the pace of Cody Gakpo, as well as the width provided by Dumfries.

Memphis Depay celebrates his first goal of the 2022 World Cup (Photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

There is talent and experience in defence, which so far has been difficult to get past — though it is yet to be tested by the most significant strikers on the planet.

It seems as though the team needs to find more of a connection between midfield and attack. It may find a way past Argentina but Brazil in the semis is another matter.

Simon Hughes


 

U.S. struggle in possession

Throughout the World Cup, the U.S. had significantly frustrated their opponents in possession with their excellent pressing play.

On Saturday, it was the Netherlands that stymied the U.S. with their disciplined defensive work. Starting forwards Gakpo and Depay remained wide when the U.S. were in possession, cutting off the passing lanes from American center-backs Ream and Walker Zimmerman to full-backs Dest and Antonee Robinson and funneling play to the middle.

The Dutch midfielders were all over their U.S. counterparts in that area of the field, man-marking them at times and denying them time and space, especially in the first half.

Although the U.S. was having trouble building out from the back, they rarely looked to play over the top and stretch the Dutch’s compact lines in the first half. Starting striker Ferreira has never been an outlet for direct play — that remained painfully true on Saturday. Pulisic and Weah have the speed to run behind, but the U.S. didn’t look to play anything long to them until the final moments of the first half.

All of that led to a really poor display in possession in the first half. It was far more reminiscent of the U.S.’s miserable matches in September than it was any of their group-stage games in Qatar, when they were pretty cohesive — if not always efficient — with their attacking movements.

The U.S. got into better spots after going down 2-0 just before half-time, but their play with the ball didn’t really improve. The few half chances they were able to generate mostly came via transition.

Sam Stejskal


 

Van Gaal’s tactical masterclass

No other side at this World Cup is playing like the Netherlands. Louis van Gaal’s template from the Dutch run to the 2014 semi-final has essentially been redeployed here: strict man-marking in midfield until an opponent drops back into his own defence and near man-marking from defenders on attackers, with one centre-back often happily dropping 15 yards behind the other two.

It’s a simplistic approach, largely out of keeping with Van Gaal’s general philosophy. But in the slightly simplistic world of international football, it seems to work. The best U.S. chance came from slightly freak incidents, rather than from the Netherlands truly being opened up.

The U.S. could perhaps have tested the Dutch approach slightly more. Weah’s movement was good, but passes weren’t forthcoming. Weston McKennie made a couple of unnoticed runs from midfield in behind the Netherlands backline. Lots of teams at this World Cup seem almost afraid to knock long passes from back to front.

And then, in attack, the Netherlands basically had two approaches. They could roar forward on the break through Gakpo and Depay. Van Gaal added extra counter-attacking threat at the break, bringing on Steven Bergwijn. And, of course, there were the runs of the wing-backs. The second and third goals featured both – Daley Blind and Denzel Dumfries – combining from flank to flank,

The first goal was a bit special, and almost out of keeping with the general approach.

Not a bad bonus, eh?

Michael Cox


 

Ferreira disappoints

With Josh Sargent unable to play on Saturday due to an injured ankle, U.S. coach Berhalter opted to start Jesus Ferreira up top.

Unfortunately, the FC Dallas forward proved to be completely ineffective against the Dutch. Ferreira was dropping in to find the ball and hardly spent any time near the Netherlands goal. He completed 84.2 percent of his passes, but was little threat to score.

Jesus Ferreira’s touch map (attacking right to left) against the Netherlands

Looking for a spark in the second half, Berhalter opted to bring Reyna in for Ferreira and play the 20-year-old as a false 9. Reyna had played just seven minutes going into the knockout stages, entering as a substitute in the 0-0 draw with England. According to Transfermarkt, Reyna had not played as a No 9 since starting there in the 2019 Under-17 World Cup. Coincidentally, it was in a 4-0 loss to the Netherlands.

Reyna lasted about 22 minutes as the No 9 before Berhalter brought Wright off the bench for Weah in the 67th minute, moving Reyna out to the right wing.

Paul Tenorio


 

Depay brings the finesse

To understand Memphis Depay’s importance to the Netherlands, look at the top-tier company he shares.

Only five players still active in this World Cup have scored more international goals than him.

In order, they are Cristiano RonaldoLionel MessiRobert LewandowskiNeymar and Harry Kane.

Depay’s record, which is better than one in two, is not far off Kane, and this means that he is an essential part of the Dutch team.

Although Gakpo has generated more headlines because of his impact in the group stages, Depay showed against the U.S. that he is finding his rhythm.

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The opening goal came just when the Netherlands needed it. An awkward looking start was quickly forgotten after Depay swept a wicked shot past Matt Turner in the tenth minute.

The forward, who has barely played for Barcelona this season because of injury, tends to be judged in England by his failure at Manchester United.

Yet it has been five years since his departure from the Premier League.

He would not be the first striker to leave the United before emerging as a world-class talent elsewhere, having also proven himself on the international stage.

Remember Diego Forlan? Sixty-three Premier League appearances at United yielded just ten goals.

Five years after his last game at Old Trafford, he helped Uruguay to the World Cup semi-final in a tournament where he was voted as the best player, having finished as the joint top scorer.

Depay is a different type of player, but he is just as relevant for the international team that he represents. While Gakpo gives the Dutch power and speed, Depay has finesse.

His performances against better defences will be key as the competition progresses.

Simon Hughes


 

Netherlands’ record-breaking goal

Berhalter’s side were chasing the game from the 10th minute after a ruthless break from Gakpo, Dumfries and Depay made it 1-0.

Depay’s first-time finish from near the penalty spot ended a sequence of 20 uninterrupted passes, the most on record for a Netherlands goal at the World Cup (1966 onwards).

Gakpo started the move in the U.S. half, turning and moving it backwards. Netherlands were happy to move the ball in short passing combinations and from side to side, drawing the U.S. team into their half. Then, bang, Depay pushed forward over the halfway line and slipped it to Gakpo.

He took the pass in his stride, kept it away from the recovering McKennie, and then slid the ball into the path of Dumfries, the wing-back pushing high on the right…

The Inter Milan wing-back shapes to whip a first-time cross into the box, with Davy Klaassen attacking the penalty spot…

But instead Dumfries plays a disguised cutback into the run of Depay, who is hurtling into the penalty area having lost Tyler Adams…

And the Barcelona forward sweeps a neat finish past Matt Turner and into the bottom corner…

Charlie Scott

 

Manuel Neuer, Matt Turner, Emi Martinez: World Cup group-stage goalkeeping highs and lows

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 30: Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny saves a penalty from Lionel Messi of Argentina during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Poland and Argentina at Stadium 974 on November 30, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

By Matt Pyzdrowski Dec 3, 2022


 

Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny put his hands on his hips and laughed. He clearly felt the penalty awarded to Argentina by Dutch referee Danny Makkelie was a soft one, but rather than dwell on it and plead his case like some of his team-mates, Szczesny went to his goal line and prepared himself for Lionel Messi’s spot kick.me/1-0-40/html/container.html

Standing on his goal line, Szczesny remained calm despite the chaos around him, focusing on the task at hand — there was even a moment when he put his hand out to his team-mates, winked at them and mouthed the words: “I got this.”

As Messi made his approach, Szczesny took a quick step to his right and launched himself back to his left. With the ball headed toward the upper half of the goal, Szczesny extended his top hand and pushed it around the post for a corner. It was about as good a penalty save as you will ever see and it turned out to be quite an important one, as well.

Though Argentina would go on to win 2-0, the save was ultimately the difference in Poland, instead of Mexico, advancing out of the group stage.It wasn’t Szczesny’s first spot-kick stop of the tournament, either. The first one was just as important. In Poland’s second group-stage match against Saudi Arabia, Szczesny came up big, saving Salem Al-Dawasri’s penalty in first-half stoppage time, helping Poland keep the lead they had taken a few minutes earlier. Poland would go on to win the match 2-0.

At this year’s World Cup, there have been five penalties saved: the two from Szczesny (matching Brad Friedel’s record for most ever in a World Cup), one from Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois against Canada, one from Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa against Poland, and one by Uruguay’s Sergio Rochet on Friday against Ghana. What’s been exciting about these penalty saves is they have come in crucial moments with the game on the line. It’s not often that a save can have the same impact as a goal being scored.Throughout this year’s tournament there have already been many goalkeeping-related talking points, and penalty saves have been just one of them. With the group stage over, let’s analyse some of the things that have caught my eye. Each of these examples showcase just how fine the margins can be for goalkeepers.


 

Marcus Rashford’s free-kick goal v Wales

It was the 50th minute of England’s group-stage match against Wales and they had just won a free kick in a dangerous position. Goalkeeper Danny Ward went over to his post, set his wall, then returned back to the centre of his goal. The referee blew his whistle and Marcus Rashford whipped in a curling effort.

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Ward, who was anticipating the ball going over his wall, took two quick steps to his right to get a jump on the shot. However, the ball wasn’t heading over the wall — it was flying toward the far corner of the goal. By the time Ward finally saw the ball swerving around the wall, he quickly got set and attempted to throw himself back in the direction he just came from, but it was already too late. As he was fully stretched, the ball flew past his hands and into the back of the net.

This was not the first time we have seen this — the goalkeeper accurately sets their wall, second guesses themselves at the last moment, jumps behind the wall and gets caught on the wrong foot, exposing the corner they were tasked with protecting.

In a controlled environment, the keeper has two of the most important things they crave when facing a shot: time and a clear sight of the ball to make the save. However, during matches that changes as several other variables come into play: how many players are over the ball, who is going to shoot, how many are needed in the wall and how to position it. Get any of these things wrong and you’re likely to concede.

To offset many of those variables — and to provide the best chance to make the save — the goalkeeper’s use of a wall is incredibly important.

A wall set correctly helps block a portion of the goal (ideally half of it), reducing the area the keeper has to cover and allowing them to focus their attention on the shot to the far corner. If the keeper is positioned correctly, and remains patient in their approach, then shots to the side netting can be saved with relative ease. As a goalkeeper, the last thing you want to do is abandon your responsibility — the far corner.

In a perfect world, Ward would like to be set up centrally here so he has a chance to react to a shot to either corner, but that becomes impossible because of the additional wall by England.

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Knowing that the extra English players were in position to obstruct his view, and would likely break away as the shot came in, Ward elected to position two extra players behind the English wall (one player a few yards to the side of the main wall and one player marking Harry Kane a few yards deeper of the wall), hoping that if the ball came low enough, one of them could clear it away from danger. So the four-person wall he set — which was correct considering the near central position and distance of about 26-27 yards — essentially turned into a wall of nine, as you can see below.

The nine-player wall Ward needs to contend with

Ward was forced to take up a position further to the left than he would have liked to get a better view of the ball. It is ultimately his positioning that makes him a bit insecure. Ward likely fears the ball over the top of his wall, and knowing that he has a bit more ground to cover should Rashford elect to go up and over, he wants to get a quick jump on the ball. However, this was the worst thing he could have done.

Once the referee blew his whistle, and Rashford began to approach the ball, Ward took a quick step to his right. Though it wasn’t ideal, at that moment, he was still in a favourable position to attack the shot. Unfortunately for Ward, his uncertainty didn’t stop there. He then took another small step behind his wall, which blocked his sight of the ball and opened up the space at the far corner that Rashford was looking to exploit. This was Ward’s step of no return — the one that took him so far out of position that he was never going to be able to save a quality shot from Rashford.

Danny Ward attempting to quickly change direction after over committing to his right post.

At a crucial moment when Ward needed to have a clear head, he instead questioned the work he had done earlier. By the time Rashford approached the ball to shoot, Ward had already taken two steps too far to his near post, left his far post completely exposed, and put himself in a disadvantageous position to see the strike.

Rashford whipped the ball toward the far post, just out of reach of Ward’s left hand, and into the top corner.

Ward struggling to get to Marcus Rashford’s strike

While it’s understandable why Ward made the moves that he did, he’s got to resist the urge to come across prematurely, and instead stay rooted to his initial position, trust his work, and wait to react to the shot.

If Ward had trusted his wall,  and himself, and stayed in his initial set position, we most likely would be looking at a different result. Two small movements was all it took.


 

Kasper Schmeichel’s one-on-one save v Tunisia

At his very best, Kasper Schmeichel’s reflexes in the tightest areas really shine. While a keeper’s footwork gets them from point A to point B to save shots from distance, a bigger factor in a one-on-one is the ability to change direction quickly and make small adjustments at a moment’s notice.

When the opposition broke through, Schmeichel had a defined approach, quickly closing the area between him and the striker while keeping his chest and body square to the ball. It was clearly in his head to stay as big as possible up until the point where he had to commit. In the time it took the forward to drop their gaze and shoot, Schmeichel quickly closed the space between them and limited the space beyond him to the most narrow angles.

His approach is uniquely similar to that of his father, Manchester United great Peter Schmeichel. When he arrived at Manchester United in 1991, Peter possessed a mix of attributes not seen from a goalkeeper in English football. Although seeing a keeper come out from goal to close down the attacker while spreading themselves to cover as much of the goal as possible is commonplace now, he was the first to employ the spread technique with such regularity that it became one of his trademarks.

As a goalkeeper, if you’re on or near the goal line and someone has a header or shot inside your own six-yard box, the chances of reacting to where it goes are slim. You may have heard the goalkeeping term “make yourself big” before — Peter Schmeichel’s use of the spread is a perfect example of that phenomenon. Chest and head square with the ball, arms wide at your side and feet shoulder-width apart.

In order to make the save, it’s important to keep your frame as big as possible for as long as possible. When it’s impossible to predict the direction of the strike, you cover as much of the goal as you can by moving forward quickly and keeping your legs, arms and head between the ball and the middle of the goal. This should not only decrease the area of the goal for a player to shoot past you, but should also decrease the saving area for the keeper, as well.

In the 42nd minute it was Schmeichel’s excellent use of the spread technique and his ability to “make himself big” while remaining flexible in his approach, which allowed him to pull off what is, in my opinion, the best one-on-one save we have seen at this year’s World Cup.

Tunisia’s Issam Jebali was through on goal just before half-time with the score still 0-0, so Schmeichel rushed forward and splayed out his limbs. 

Kasper Schmeichel quickly closing the space and “making himself big.”

Admittedly, Schmeichel did appear to go to the ground a bit quickly, which opened up the possibility of a chip from Jebali, a move which Tunisia’s striker attempted to perform. However, Schmeichel had other plans.

Just as it looked like the ball was about to glide up and over Schmeichel and into the back of the net, his giant right palm came flying out of nowhere and swatted the ball out for a corner. All Msakni and Jebali could do was put their heads in their hands in disbelief that Schmeichel managed to turn away what they believed was a sure goal.

Schmeichel’s big right hand clawing the ball away from goal.

What’s most impressive here was Schmeichel’s incredible ability to keep his head and chest square to the ball while remaining flexible in his approach. It’s what ultimately allowed him to improvise as quickly and seamlessly as he did by throwing his right arm to the ball. Had he committed and turned his head and chest away from the ball, anticipating the impact from the strike, he never would have made the save.

Sure, his huge frame and reach also played a big role here, but more important was his athleticism. I think it’s safe to say, this is one of those saves that his dad would certainly be proud of.


 

Manuel Neuer’s inefficient block technique v Japan

Manuel Neuer is one of, if not the most, technically efficient goalkeepers to ever play the position, but on Japan’s winning goal against Germany in the 83rd minute of their opening match, it was Neuer’s poor technique in a crucial moment that let him down and resulted in a goal being scored rather than a save being made.

It all started with what should have been a harmless long ball from a free kick in Japan’s own half.

After the referee whistled for a free kick, Japan defender Ko Itakura was quick to realise that Germany were out of position and sent a long ball deep into the Germans’ final third. Aware that he was already behind the defence, Takuma Asano expertly took his first touch into space and accelerated into Germany’s penalty area.

With one kick, Japan suddenly bypass all 10 German outfield players and find themselves in their opponents’ penalty area.

With Asano free on goal, Neuer had just a split second to determine what he should do next. Generally, he had three options: 1) Engage and spread — close the angle while throwing his arms and legs towards or in front of the ball, like we saw from Kasper Schmeichel, 2) Engage and block — close the angle with one knee up and the other leg down to prevent nutmegs, and keep his arms low, facing the ball, or 3) Wait closer to his goal line and react.

While closing the space between the goalkeeper and the attacker can be beneficial from closer distances, doing so from longer distances inadvertently makes the finish easier for the attacker because it exposes the very thing the goalkeeper is attempting to protect — the goal — and it significantly reduces the goalkeeper’s reaction time without affecting the outcome of the play. It also decreases his chances of making the save. If Neuer elected to engage and spread, he would have never impacted the play and inadvertently made himself vulnerable between the legs and around the arms in a crucial moment.

Asano being wide of the goal with a tight angle to shoot and a defender on his back was Neuer’s signal that the correct option was to remain calm and get into the stalking position (knees bent, chest over his toes and hands down at his sides) while waiting to react to Asano’s next move.

Manuel Neuer with his hands low awaiting Takuma Asano’s next move.

It wasn’t until Asano was almost at the corner of Neuer’s six-yard box that it became clear to Neuer that the correct option was to engage and block.

Initially Neuer’s technique and positioning were sound as he stayed low and waited until the final moment before the strike to drop his trailing leg down to the ground to block the area past him between his legs while keeping his arms and chest forward and toward the ball.

Neuer in the low block.

It was not until the ball left Asano’s foot that it all started to go wrong for Neuer.

Sensing the distance between him and Neuer was closing, Asano quickly pulled his right foot back and rifled the ball over Neuer’s shoulder, squeezing it into the tightest of areas between the goalkeeper and the near post.

Neuer turning his chest at the last minute and exposing his near post.

Rather than keep his chest and head square with the ball, Neuer flinched, turning his body and right shoulder in the process, opening up the gap for Asano to slip the ball past him. Neuer is usually so good at keeping his body square to the ball, but this time he got it wrong.

You can see in the screenshot above just how close he was to making the save and how keeping his chest square to the ball and arms down at his sides would have benefited him and most likely changed the outcome of the play.


 

Emiliano Martinez incorrect hand choice v Saudi Arabia

It was the 53rd minute of Argentina’s opening group match against Saudi Arabia and the score was 1-1. Saudi Arabia had equalised only minutes earlier and the entire momentum of the match had suddenly changed. Argentina were on their back foot.

After chasing down a high bouncing ball in the penalty area, Saudi Arabia’s Salem Al-Dawsari gained control of it near the right side of the box. Following some nifty footwork, Al-Dawsari expertly turned two Argentine defenders and then juked another to set himself up for his strike. Seeing an opening in front of him yet sensing the defending pressure closing in around him, Al-Dawsari rifled the ball toward the right corner of the goal.

Martinez was seeking out the ball while simultaneously keeping his eyes on the play developing in front of him, with his chest forward and hands down low at his sides.

When Al-Dawsari pulled his leg back and it became clear that he was going to shoot, Martinez began to bring his hands up towards his waist and prepared himself for his dive. As the ball jumped off of Al-Dawsari’s foot, Martinez took a big step with his left leg and launched himself towards the left corner of his goal. Right as it appeared that he was about to make a breathtaking full-extension save with his top (right) hand, the ball rolled over his fingertips and into the back of the net to give Saudi Arabia a stunning 2-1 lead and victory against Argentina.

Though credit must definitely be given to Al-Dawsari for the quality of his strike, there were still a few small tweaks that Martinez could have made, which may have ultimately changed the outcome of this play.

First, the top hand versus bottom hand debate.

In a perfect world every keeper will always get two hands on the ball, creating the strongest and biggest area behind the ball to make the save, but sometimes that isn’t possible. It is typically in situations where the goalkeeper has to stretch themselves to the furthest corners of the goal to make the save where extending one arm can be the preferred option.

There’s a big debate in the goalkeeping community as to what hand is the best for shots in the upper half of the goal. Some believe the keeper should use their most dominant hand, others advocate to always use the top hand, while some encourage the use of the bottom hand.

When facing shots with a predictable path and a rising trajectory towards the top corner of the goal, I’ve found the bottom hand holds a distinct advantage because it typically only requires a slight deflection to push the ball away from goal. Whether it is a strong palm or fingertip save, the bottom hand shooting upwards matches the trajectory of the ball allowing you to tip it wide or over the goal with a slight flex/push of the wrist.

Additionally, the most obvious advantage of using the bottom hand is that it’s often easier to line up the hand-to-ball coordination the closer the hand is to the ball and whichever post the goalkeeper is diving towards.

Due to the ball’s trajectory and the fact that it was drifting away from Martinez (wider) rather than up and over him (higher), the top hand was less powerful and ultimately less effective in this instance and thus the incorrect choice for Martinez. The bottom hand would have crucially allowed him to meet the ball at a more favourable angle as it drifted away from him and helped him to redirect the ball with a smaller deflection/push of the wrist than the top hand ultimately would have in this instance.

Emiliano Martinez reaching for the ball with his top hand, but was unable to make the save.

Martinez’s lower than normal set position from this distance also played an important role.

For shots from longer distances, the goalkeeper wants to have their body more upright, with the hands around stomach height, giving themselves adequate time to react to shots from every direction. As the striker gets closer to goal, the keeper brings their chest forward and more over their toes, leading to the hands dropping lower toward their waist/knees. The closer the shot, the quicker they will need to react and adjust their body shape, allowing them to better cover the goal while being ready to react at a moment’s notice.

Martinez’s lower set position with his hands below his knees.

From this distance, Martinez was far too low. If his hands were positioned higher here he would have been able to take a more direct path to the ball, shoot his hands out towards the ball, and execute the play much faster than he ultimately did. The low hand position didn’t only mean that he had to move his hands a longer distance to make the save, it also meant it was going to take more time before his hands would get there, and he would lose precious seconds of reaction time in his save attempt. And in goalkeeping, every second counts.

Martinez’s lower set position also explains why the shot would initially appear to be going up and over him (higher), rather than up and away from him (wider), and resulted in him using the top hand. Had Martinez been a bit more upright and balanced in his approach, it’s quite possible that the decision to go with the top hand instead of the bottom would have been easier for him, and we would be looking at a save here, rather than a goal.


 

Matt Turner’s reaction save versus Wales

With the U.S. clinging onto a 1-0 lead in the 64th minute of their opener, Wales had a free kick and a dangerous chance on goal. Harry Wilson stood over the ball and U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner took up a position in the back half of his goalmouth and a few yards off his line, while his teammates set their defensive line near the top of the box.

The high defensive line was important because it afforded the U.S. more space to defend the ball, while making it as difficult as possible for Wales to time their runs and attack the ball successfully. If the defensive line was lower, the U.S. backline would have been static and flat as a unit, creating traffic/chaos in a vulnerable area of the field, while Wales would have been able to build up the momentum into their runs and time their attack from a more advantageous position at the top of the box. While the high line isn’t foolproof, it does prevent many of these potential defensive issues from arising.

The U.S.’s high line.

From Turner’s perspective, the high line was advantageous because it created more space between him and his backline (and Wales’ attacking players) to come and claim the ball if it was in an area where he felt he could impact the play, or to adjust his positioning and get himself into a proper set position to save an attempt on target.

As Wilson swung the ball in, and it began to dip towards the penalty spot, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a ball that Turner could claim. Rather than getting himself set at his position five yards from his goal, he took three quick steps backwards towards his goal line and quickly got himself set. The steps and retreat to his line gave Turner the precious reaction time — and the correct angle — he was going to need to make the save.

Matt Turner retreating to his line.

The ball dipped, dove and made contact with Walker Zimmerman’s head about eight yards from goal, redirecting it back towards the top of the box. After a pinball sequence in the box resulted in the ball bouncing back up in the air, Wales’ Chris Mepham sprinted towards the ball, leaped into the air and won the duel over the U.S. captain Tyler Adams, sending the ball back towards the far post where an onrushing Ben Davies leaped and launched himself at it, redirecting it on target in search of Wales’ equaliser.

Ben Davies redirecting the ball on target.

Already in the perfect position to impact the play after retreating to his goalline, Turner made one small bound and jumped to the ball as it was looping over his head and to the back of the net.

Right as it looked like the header was going to sneak over the top of him, the Turner extended his right hand and pushed the ball over the crossbar for a corner kick.

The save was more difficult than it would appear at first glance. There were a lot of small movements Turner needed to get correct at exactly the right moment. These weren’t decisions every goalkeeper gets correct. If Turner would have tried to rely on his reach or hands and stayed in his original set position four or five yards from goal, he would have likely been picking the ball out of the net.

What Turner crucially understands is that it is your feet and footwork, not your hands or reach, that gets you to the ball in order to make the save.

The tools that you use to make the save are more important than any physical trait. Without proper positioning, power, agility and footwork to get you from point A to point B to make the save, it doesn’t matter how tall you are. How a person plays the game and makes decisions is far more important.

It would be wrong to assume that a taller keeper with a longer reach would have made this save any easier than Turner did. It’s just as likely that a taller keeper would have taken their height/reach for granted, failed to adjust their position in goal and found themselves helpless as the header from Davies went up and over them and into the back of the net.

Though Wales would equalise through a Gareth Bale penalty in the 82nd minute, without Turner’s save it’s quite possible that the U.S. would have been looking at a loss rather than a draw.

Heading into Qatar there was some degree of uncertainty surrounding the goalkeeper position for the U.S., but with two clean sheets in three group-stage games, Turner has officially put those doubts to rest and emphatically proven that he belongs on the game’s biggest stage.

Alan Shearer World Cup Q&A: England v France, Kane, Mbappe and much more

Alan Shearer World Cup Q&A: England v France, Kane, Mbappe and much more

Alan Shearer  Dec 6, 2022 
Save ArticleWell, that was fun. And frenetic. And, as always, a little bit left-field.

I suppose by now I should expect the unexpected where The Athletic and our brilliant subscribers are concerned, but you certainly kept me on my toes during our live discussion about the World Cup (and pretty much everything else). Thank you to everybody who contributed and apologies if I didn’t get to your question or point.

 

If you didn’t see it at the time, some of the highlights are below. Also a few lowlights! I’ve tidied up a few of my answers and corrected some errors — this was a hectic hour and my typing fingers are still a work in progress — but everything else is more or less as it was.

 

We began, understandably enough, with this weekend’s huge World Cup quarter-final between England and France …

Big call for Gareth Southgate on Saturday. Back five or back four, for you? — Matt S.

Alan Shearer: It’s a back four for me, definitely. Gareth has made some big decisions so far but they’ve all worked and so he has done enough to earn our trust, but I’d stick with what England have been doing. The danger with a five or a three, if you prefer, is that you invite teams on to you, which wouldn’t be advisable against Kylian Mbappe and company. The four allows us to play on the front foot a bit more.

Who do you think will have the better chance to win this one? — Rishabh G.

My prediction before the tournament was that England would reach the quarter-finals, but there is a strong argument to be made for both teams in a positive sense and an asterisk against both in terms of frailties. Naturally, I hope it’s England’s day, and I think that’s one key aspect — it feels like a 50/50 game to me, one which will come down to the day itself, a moment of quality or a bit of luck. Both will feel as they have enough to win it and then go on to the semi-final, the final and even win the tournament. I’m sorry if that’s a cop-out, but it’s too close to call.

Everyone is talking about Mbappe’s form and quality, and how to stop him. When you were on a hot streak, full of confidence, what, if anything, could other teams do to throw you off? Were there particular opposition players that just had the knack of making you feel less in the groove? — Rowan L.

As an individual, when you’re firing and playing well, you honestly don’t care about stuff like this. You feel invincible, as if nothing can stop you. Yes, there were certain defenders I didn’t particularly enjoy playing against — you were always guaranteed a hard time against Arsenal’s Tony Adams and Martin Keown, for instance — but the system and personnel you’re facing didn’t really matter much to me and I’m sure Mbappe feels that way, too.

But it’s not just Mbappe. I’ve watched France a couple of times live at the World Cup and Antoine Griezmann is going under the radar, as is Adrien Rabiot in midfield. There are fascinating battles all over the pitch. It’s going to be a shoot-out.

To widen the conversation slightly, France haven’t been tested defensively yet and look at who we’ve got to do some testing of them; Bukayo SakaPhil FodenJude Bellingham and Harry Kane. I think they will have a bit to worry about.

What would be your starting line-up for England against France? — Hamza O. 

I think it will be the same line-up as against Senegal, Hamza.

 
Jude Bellingham and England beat Senegal convincingly in the round of 16 (Photo: Getty Images)

If you could give Kane one piece of advice, striker to striker, for the rest of the tournament, what would it be? — Tom A.

Harry doesn’t need my advice, Tom. He’s proved himself many times over, in club football and on the international stage. I think he’ll be happy with the way he’s played. I know he would have liked more goals, but he’s got one in the knockout stages and has more than played his part in terms of captaincy and assists. Knowing him as I do, he would love to be up there challenging for the Golden Boot, but a World Cup for England would more than compensate. It’s not as if the team have been struggling in attack, is it?

On James Maddison, while it’s very hard to criticise anything with England right now, do you feel him only getting 34 minutes for his country, three years ago, is an incredible waste of a unique talent? And could he yet play a part in this World Cup? — Kevin U.

Sure, he could play a part. I think we all appreciate he’s a very good talent, but others have played well and England are in the quarter-finals. We know Gareth is loyal and that will come into his thinking and, as you say, it’s difficult to criticise him when England got to the final of the Euros last year and the World Cup semis four years ago. They have a great pool of players in forward and midfield positions, but he’s one of them, certainly.

What are your thoughts on Declan Rice? — Asa C.

I’m a big fan. He can do a bit of everything in midfield, he can surge forward with the ball and he can give you a bit of protection, too. He’s a great, driving force but also a calm head. You might not always notice him having a good game, but take him out and you do notice it. He was one of our better players the other night.

You have mentioned that England should fear nobody at this World Cup. I’m interested in your view on how common fear is among teams and players generally — Matt X.

When I say “fear”, I don’t mean it literally. Brazil gave us a thrilling first 45 minutes against South Korea, arguably the best of the tournament, but when you look and analyse, Alisson had to pull off three unbelievable saves for them. They have one or two issues defensively and what I mean is that every team left in the tournament has a flaw, a weakness, and they all have plenty of positives, too.To answer your question more generally, no, I don’t think any team ever goes onto the pitch worrying or afraid, certainly not at this level. You might have respect or admiration for your opponents, but you always believe you can and will win. Otherwise, what’s the point?

England have been playing nice football in this World Cup. But what is the factor that makes us believe that this team can make it to the end compared to the teams of 1998, 2002 and even 2006, which had some of football’s giants on the team sheet? — Stathis C. 

Two things. One, it’s not about names, not solely anyway. We’re a better team now in terms of experience than we were in 2020 and 2018, our two most recent tournaments. We’re better in terms of Bellingham coming through. He is a huge plus. The other point is that there hasn’t been any single outstanding team in the tournament. Some very good ones, yes, but each one has a flaw or two. That gives England (and the rest) an opportunity. But competitions like this are always a thin line. I still maintain that our squad in 1998 was good enough to win the World Cup and if we’d gone through against Argentina, we might well have. But in football, “if” is a very big little word!

Do you believe the winners between England and France on Saturday go on to win this World Cup? — Chris M.

I think whoever wins will end up in the final, either against Argentina or Brazil. And then it’s another tough ask.

After the last two tournaments, in some peoples’ thoughts anything less than England winning this World Cup would be a failure. What are your thoughts? — Jamie P.

It’s a tricky one, Jamie. This isn’t a ”normal” tournament in terms of where it is and when it is. England have shown they’re capable of better than the quarter-finals, which was my prediction, but they also have big tests ahead of them.

Perhaps it would depend on how they went out. If they get stuffed, yes, that would represent a failure. But it’s difficult to answer the question. By any standards, Gareth has done really well over a decent period, but that’s the jeopardy of international football. You get judged every two years on a handful of games. It’s a knife-edge!


And then we had some wider World Cup questions …

Who are you backing for the Golden Boot? — Jack B.

Mbappe has a bit of a lead, doesn’t he? It’s very difficult to look past him because if he gets one against England as France get knocked out, it would put him on six goals — three more than anyone else at the time of writing. Shall we take that as our bargain? Mbappe to get one kind of Boot, France to get another and England to progress? I would take that!

Didi Hamann on (Irish TV channel) RTE was very critical of Brazil showing a lack of respect due to their celebrations after their goals (against South Korea), finishing off by saying “they won’t be dancing in two weeks time” (after the final is decided). Is that a lack of understanding of Brazilian culture vs his native Germany? — Darren H.

Look at how Brazil have been arriving at the grounds — dancing and singing on the coach and with music blasting out. It’s what they’re about. That’s the yellow shirt, isn’t it? Fun and flamboyant and noisy and outgoing. No, not once in that first half did I think they were being disrespectful. They were just being very good. Why the hell not?

If you could make one change to the World Cup, what would it be? — Eric B.

In footballing terms, it would be to use VAR as we were originally told it would be used years ago. I hate this constant re-refereeing of games.

What is it like out in Qatar? Does it feel safe and welcoming? Are you happy with how you have covered the event with the BBC? — William S.

I would like to think the BBC have covered the issues of human rights sensitively and in depth (as we have done at The Athletic, as well), particularly on our opening show. Yes, I have felt perfectly safe and yes, we’ve all been welcomed, but this is a World Cup and none of that stuff is an issue. You don’t get a real or accurate view of a host country. I’m also very aware and conscious of all the conservations surrounding the tournament being held here. Those feelings have never gone away.

 

And now the club-related questions, the personal (and the weird) …

Regarding your first club, Southampton, where you’re still loved: how do you think we’ll do in the second half of the season? Many of us are concerned by the new manager’s (Nathan Jones) lack of experience and especially the absence of a true goalscorer (feel free to lace your boots one last time…) — Graham W.

If only I could! I wouldn’t have had the career I had without my time at The Dell. I grew and learned there and I loved it. I think it depends on who they sign in January, if anyone. But I’m slightly concerned, I have to say.

Looking back, what moments stick out from your career as the most pressure-filled? — Dakota C.

Penalty shootouts in the quarter and semi-finals of Euro 96. Penalties for England in the round of 16 against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. And my last ever kick of a football, a penalty (for Newcastle) against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. You’ll notice a theme there! Thankfully, they all went in!

 
Shearer dispatched his penalty against Argentina in 1998 (Photo: Getty Images)

What is the best football song of all time in your opinion? World In Motion for me — Loz N.

There aren’t many great ones! World In Motion, yes. Three Lions, definitely … After that, I’m struggling.

Does it annoy you that the goals you scored pre-Premier League for Southampton are never included when your stats are talked about? It’s almost as if they don’t exist — Dean T.

If you think it annoys me, just imagine how Gary Lineker feels — by that criteria, he doesn’t exist at all! No, it doesn’t irritate me. It’s just the way it is. Although maybe I’ll feel a bit differently when Harry Kane gets closer to my Premier League record! I’ll be demanding a recount.

Have you ever had any “What if I miss this?” moments? What does that feel like in the middle of a big match? — Andy B.

Most strikers play on instinct and repetition. You’ve got to be strong mentally and you also have to accept as a forward that you’ll miss. It’s natural, it happens. You’ll miss an easy chance now and again, but because you believe in your ability and you have experience, you trust yourself to keep going and keep getting into those areas. And, trust me, that feeling of scoring a goal drives you on. Nothing compares to it. The closest I came to the feeling you describe is the long walk to the spot during a penalty shootout, which feels as though it will never end. But again, you have to trust yourself to get through it.

Do you think old-school No 9s will ever return to the game? — Nick S.

They haven’t quite gone away! Erling Haaland is a pure No 9. So is Robert Lewandowski, so is Olivier Giroud, who is now France’s record goalscorer. Richarlison is playing as a nine for Brazil and doesn’t even do that for Spurs. But Haaland is carrying the torch for this generation, certainly. As someone who played the position and loves goalscorers, I would hope people would want to emulate him or find another one. These things are often cyclical.

How do you eat your steak? — Deniz O.

Medium.

Who would you say was the best player you ever played alongside and why? — Jerome T.

At club level, Les Ferdinand at Newcastle. We only had one season together but we scored 49 goals between us.

The most unforgettable match of your career? — Leo T.

When I broke Jackie Milburn’s goalscoring record for Newcastle United — 2-0 at home to Portsmouth in 2006.

What was your favourite kit (that you wore?)? — Joseph B.

The 1996 Newcastle strip, which had the big Brown Ale logo on it.

Alan, if this is really you that writes for The Athletic, I need you to weave three Police song titles into your next BBC pundit spot — Will B.

Who else do you think is writing this, Will? Roxanne? You must be mad — like, Walking on the Moon mad — if you think it’s anybody else. Now I feel like the King of Pain. I’m So Lonely, but I really don’t want to Fall Out. I’m Wrapped Around Your Finger after all, just an Englishman in Qatar. But, sorry, I’m not saying any of that on the telly!

Antoine Griezmann – England would be foolish to neglect France’s lesser-sung hero

<img src="data:;base64,” alt=”” aria-hidden=”true” data-airgap-id=”83″ />Antoine Griezmann
By Amy Lawrence  Dec 7, 2022

When Antoine Griezmann pulls on his No 7 jersey on Saturday, the feeling could not be more familiar.

His club situation might have been irregular for a while, but there is nothing more constant than his presence for France. That World Cup quarter-final against England will, we assume, see Griezmann represent his country for a 72nd consecutive game.

It is a crazy statistic.Over a five-and-a-half-year period, he has started every single France fixture, be it the World Cup final, a qualifier in Kazakhstan, or a friendly against Bolivia. He has never been injured, never had a twinge or a moan, never needed a rest. He is France’s whirring dynamo. Just watch him play — light on his feet, on the move all the time, eyes scanning for where to be and how to affect the game.Griezmann has also, in this World Cup, taken on a role of particular importance. When it was clear France needed a rethink because of the injuries ruling N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba out of the tournament, few imagined the key to restructuring midfield in a workable way was one of the country’s all-time top scorers (he is third on the list). Yet coach Didier Deschamps has found a midfield solution by asking one of his most trusted players to alter his game.Griezmann has remodelled himself in a deeper role, lending technical security, game intelligence and tireless work rate to help Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot. “It’s quite freeing,” Griezmann says, “being there in the relationship between defence and forwards, defensively switched-on and helping my team-mates offensively.”France’s strategy during this tournament — something that has had to click very quickly given how their new defensive and midfield units have been, to an extent, thrown together — owes a lot to Griezmann being a central hub. It might not catch the eye quite as much as Kylian Mbappe (well, nothing does), but it matters. Griezmann is the lesser-sung hero of the defending champions’ run to the last eight.

Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe
 
Griezmann and Mbappe celebrate a goal that was eventually ruled out during France’s match against Tunisia (Photo: Ryan Pierse via Getty Images)

Here’s the nugget that tells us a lot not just about Griezmann, but also about the collective attitude within the camp: despite all his experience, he has been taking tips on positioning from Youssouf Fofana, the 23-year-old Monaco midfielder whose call-up for this World Cup came a little out the blue, having only won his first cap in September. Griezmann is happy to listen and learn from anyone who might raise his game. (Incidentally, the pair have also stepped up as the main DJs among the French party — another symbol of how young and old alike in this group are all doing their bit to help with bonding and a good atmosphere.)

Griezmann relishes his role as a creator of happy buzz around the camp; a joker, easy to talk to, somebody who brings important value on and off the pitch. He is one of life’s optimists.It is not a complete shock for him to be working a little further away from goal — tracking back and ferreting to retrieve possession has always been a natural part of his game, even when used as a forward.

What is evident in his performances at this World Cup is his ability to have an impact all over the pitch.He has an innate sense of where to be to enable him to pickpocket the ball in defensive areas, spray passes to maintain possession in midfield, and dart upfield to join forays into the opposition box. Griezmann brings a certain poise to the team’s makeup. “We need to be balanced,” he says. “Without a great defence, you don’t win the big competitions. We’re all focused on that, even if we have attacking players.”Against Poland in the first knockout game on Sunday, he produced a midfield masterclass.The variety of his involvement was startling. Beautifully crafted long and short passes, dangerous set-piece deliveries, neat flicks and tricks, darting dribbles, harassing and pressing, and busting a gut to get back to intercept or tackle. France’s third and final goal of the match was instigated by Griezmann lofting the ball out of his penalty area. A few seconds later, Mbappe bludgeoned it into the net.He has always had the flexibility to play in different positions (usually across the front). When he started playing for France in the 2013-14 season, he was a left-sided attacker. After a couple of years, he shifted to the right, also having spells centrally and even as a false nine.Heat maps of his positioning at the past three World Cups, below, show his changing role. They tell us that in 2014 he was busier on the left, while in 2018 he played higher up the pitch more frequently, as he has done in 2022.

Griezmann has evolved over the World Cups he has played for France.

 

In 2014 he was the poster boy for a side trying to recover from the wreckage of the soul-destroying tournament four years before in South Africa. France were on a path then, but not ready for greatness. By 2018, he was one of the protagonists of the World Cup triumph, sharing the moment with Mbappe, Pogba, Kante et al. Now, he is the team’s glue.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

England’s Walker confident he can stop Mbappe against France

The graphic below shows that against Poland he had strong passing links with Tchouameni and Rabiot in midfield, as well as Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele further forward. Griezmann and Mbappe have made the biggest impression when it comes to valuable passes so far in this World Cup.

With Mbappe casting high-voltage spells and Olivier Giroud breaking records, the impact of Griezmann Version ’22 has arguably passed below the radar. England would be very foolish, though, to take him lightly.

It is strange to think of how central he is to France’s success when in his youth he was overlooked by his national team. He even endured a ban from international football for curfew-breaking misdemeanours as an under-21 player. It is fair to say he has learned from his youthful mistakes.

In France’s 118 internationals since his March 2014 debut, Griezmann has only not figured four times (twice out injured, twice an unused substitute).

If anyone knows what it means to keep the games coming for his country, it is him.

AL RAYYAN, QATAR - NOVEMBER 30: Kylian Mbappe of France during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group D match between Tunisia and France at Education City Stadium on November 30, 2022 in Al Rayyan, Qatar. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Are England actually good? We will find out on Saturday against Mbappe Jack Pitt-Brooke Dec 4, 2022

The good ship Gazball sails serenely on. England are through to the World Cup quarter-finals against France after dispatching Senegal 3-0 at the Al Bayt Stadium. They had to negotiate some choppy waters at the start but then cut through Senegal twice on the break at the end of the first half. The ease with which they managed the second half of the game, scoring a third goal, making changes, conserving energy, no drama, no fuss, was a sign of Southgate’s steady hand on the tiller.If you are looking for something more definitive, then you will have to wait. Because this win showed nothing that we did not already know about Southgate’s practical, realistic England. This was the England we have seen a lot of over the past few years, at their efficient best. So far, so Gareth.The wait for a clearer answer will take less than a week. Is this actually real? Is this actually new? Are England actually good? Or is all of this just a convenient coincidence of a nice man, some good players and some easy draws? All of this will be answered in the biggest litmus test of all, back here on Saturday night against France. A game that already feels so big that you can barely see the edges of it from up close.Lose that and England will fly home honourable quarter-finalists. It will feel like 2002 or 2006 and the question will be asked whether the Southgate era has run its course, whether England have reverted to the mean and need a fresh start. Win that, though, and everything is possible. Win that and they would certainly hope to be in the World Cup final less than two weeks from now.

For now, these are still very much chartered waters. What was so striking here was how different this felt from England’s last win at this stage. Anyone who was at their last World Cup last 16 game against Colombia in 2018 will recall it as an evening of emotional exhaustion and late-night fear. It was — we can say with the distance of time — a truly awful game. England were nervous, Colombia were cynical. England should have won it, then blew it, then nearly lost it in extra time, then nearly lost it on penalties, but somehow got over the line at the end.It was a huge achievement at the time – the first time England had won a knockout game in a major tournament since they beat Ecuador in the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup, back when Tony Blair was prime minister and David Beckham England captain. In truth — and Southgate admitted this again this week — winning a knockout game was England’s main aim in Russia and everything else was a bonus.

England are in a different place now. This was their sixth knockout win under Southgate, so this had a routine quality that made it almost unrecognisable from that draining night in 2018. That game was a marathon. This one was over at the end of the first half. That night depleted the England players so much it inhibited performances in the next games. Southgate made five changes, preserving his key players ahead of the quarter-final. By the end, it was a stroll.In that sense, this felt like a triumph — or at least a reminder — of Southgate’s best qualities. He understands tournament football and what it takes to progress. He thinks clearly about strategies and plans. He does not get too up when England win or too down when they do not. Some people clearly think Gazball is too cold, too planned, too rigid, but as a methodology for guiding England teams through major tournaments, it is more effective than any other set of methods that have been tried before.

What sometimes gets lost with Southgate is his powers of resource allocation. (Remember when Carlos Queiroz, on the eve of the tournament, memorably pointed to how this England team, in contrast to others, “take a realistic approach to every game”.) Sometimes they win the game from set pieces, sometimes they win it from out wide, sometimes from running in behind. Today they won it through Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson breaking through the middle of the pitch.

You might say, well, it was only Senegal, and Senegal without Sadio Mane or Idrissa Gueye. Of course, this is true. But tournament football is not played on paper and plenty of other teams with lots of talent have sunk in difficult waters recently. Just look at Germany, the great tournament professionals, dumped out of the last two World Cups in the group stage. Southgate is a master navigator of these games, which is why England’s record in them is so much better now than it was.

But there are knockout games and there are knockout games, and of the six that England have won under Southgate, only one of them has come against what you could describe as another top team. And that was the last 16 win at the Euros against Joachim Low’s tired old Germany team, seven years after they won the World Cup and in what was Low’s final match in charge.

Harry Kane celebrates with Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish after scoring their side’s second goal against Germany (Photo: Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

France will be different. They are not a used-to-be-good team. They are a good-now team. They are the reigning world champions. And in Kylian Mbappe they have one of the two men who has played like a god since the start of this tournament. There is no bigger test in world football right now than them: not Spain, not Brazil, not even Lionel Messi’s Argentina. “It’s the biggest test that we could face,” as Southgate put it afterwards.

Will England be up to it? We all know that Germany were well on the way down when England beat them last year. So are they able to knock a team off the top of the world?

There are some reasons to be optimistic. England have kept three clean sheets so far and the only two goals they have conceded came when Iran were already well beaten in the opener. (Southgate knows clean sheets win World Cups: just look at France in 2018). England have started to find their form in front of goal, too – 12 goals in four games, scored by eight players, only one of them for Kane, and none of them from the penalty spot. If you want another big improvement from 2018, then here is one. Four years ago they struggled to score from open play. Now it comes very easily to them.

And yet despite all of this, it was impossible not to watch the first half here and not start to have some worrying thoughts about Mbappe. It only took four minutes for Boulaye Dia to run straight through in behind Harry Maguire, into those big empty spaces behind the England defence. Half a dozen times in the first half Maguire or John Stones — usually so good with the ball — gave it straight back to Senegal. If Mane had been playing, England would surely have been punished. If Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele benefit from those turnovers on Saturday, they will not hesitate to take the game away from England. If Stones and Maguire are this sloppy on Saturday, the game will be over at half-time.

Which is not to say that England will definitely lose. The game feels weighted in France’s favour because of their experience and because of Mbappe, but not by much.

What it offers is something we have been searching for with England for years: a glimpse of a clear answer at the end of a long journey, whether this is the end of their horizon or not.

Why France look like the World Cup’s best team again: ‘More freedom, more fresh air’

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 04: Olivier Giroud of France celebrates after scoring the team's first goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between France and Poland at Al Thumama Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

By Adam Crafton Dec 4, 2022


For the French national team, this was just about the perfect evening. A 3-1 victory over Poland sealed smooth passage into the quarter-final of the World CupOlivier Giroud became his country’s all-time men’s top scorer and Kylian Mbappe confirmed once again that he has arrived at this tournament in tip-top shape.

At the final whistle, members of the French backroom staff even formed a little tunnel of love for their players to walk through as they left the pitch to a parade of backslapping and hair-ruffling.

Now, France go into a game on Saturday against England in confident fashion and dreaming of becoming the first nation to defend the World Cup for 60 years, when Brazil won the trophy both in 1958 and 1962. Didier Deschamps would be the first coach to do it since Vittorio Pozzo of Italy in both 1934 and 1938.

For Deschamps, this must all be rather liberating after a European Championship campaign last year that descended into all sorts of rancour and discontent.

France exited the competition at the round of 16 stage against Switzerland. Mbappe did not score a goal and missed the decisive penalty in the shootout against Switzerland. Giroud, meanwhile, was relegated to the substitutes’ bench to make way for Karim Benzema. In the stands, disputes broke out between the parents of French players, most notably between the mother of midfielder Adrien Rabiot and the parents of Mbappe. There were complaints about the location and quality of the French hotel base in Hungary and, on a far more serious note, Mbappe felt under-supported by the French Football Federation when he was subjected to foul racist abuse on social media for the crime of missing a penalty.

Deschamps, meanwhile, endured a torrent of speculation around his future. He has coached France since 2012 and despite World Cup success in 2018, not everybody has appreciated the team’s efficient approach to tournament football.

Zinedine Zidane, the former Real Madrid coach, has long been expected to replace Deschamps after this competition in Qatar. In the months leading up to this tournament, it did not appear to be getting much easier for Deschamps.

At one point, Paul Pogba’s brother, Mathias, surreally claimed that Paul had asked a marabout — technically a Muslim holy man, but with connotations of a north African witch doctor — to inflict an injury on Mbappe. It was denied by Paul Pogba but created a slew of headlines around two of France’s most famous players. Deschamps’ problems appeared to multiply when injuries derailed his pre-tournament plans: Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Presnel Kimpembe, Christopher Nkunku and Karim Benzema have all been forced out of the World Cup.

Yet the pool of French talent runs deep and the absence of senior players has presented opportunities for emerging ones such as Jules Kounde and Dayot Upamecano in defence and Aurelien Tchouameni in midfield. We say emerging, but these players play for Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid respectively, which underlines the embarrassment of riches at Deschamps’ disposal.

Perhaps, too, a slightly diminished selection has made the man-management of his squad that little bit easier. If there were any issues between Pogba and Mbappe, they have not been tested out in Qatar, while Giroud, even aged 36, has thrived after being restored to the No 9 position. Tchouameni, only 22, has formed a stylish partner to the conscientious Rabiot, who appears to have healed any prevailing wounds with other members of the squad. Antoine Griezmann, a different kind of player to the rapid forward of yesteryear, is working hard in an advanced central midfield position, while France still retain their explosive pace on the counter-attack with Ousmane Dembele and Mbappe.

Antoine Griezmann celebrates with Kylian Mbappe (Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Mbappe, for his part, appears liberated by the absence of other headline names and prepares to dovetail more neatly with Giroud than he has at times previously with Ballon d’Or winner Benzema. Not that it has always been straightforward between Giroud and Mbappe, with the former upsetting the latter before last year’s Euros by complaining in a press conference about the quality of the service. After this victory against Poland, Giroud actually referenced, in a positive manner, Mbappe’s passing and crossing when speaking to journalists.

When asked by The Athletic to explain the difference between this tournament and Euro 2020, Giroud said: “It was a weird game against Switzerland. We were 3-1 up and then we lost in a penalty shootout. If we went through, we wouldn’t talk about (other things). With COVID-19 requirements (at the time), it was so unpleasant. It was the same for every team but we could not see our families. It was a weird time, it was not the best to play a competition. So I can say this World Cup, it’s more freedom, more fresh air.”

Mbappe, in particular, is standing out and scored two more stunning goals to reach five for the World Cup this year. Matty Cash, the Poland and Aston Villa full-back tasked with marking Mbappe on the night, said: “He is obviously unbelievable, my toughest opponent by far. I spent the afternoon watching his clips and knew it would be a tough test. But when he gets the ball and then stops and moves, he is the quickest thing I’ve ever seen.” Cash may have endured a chastening evening but he did at least claim Mbappe’s shirt, which he will frame at his home back in England.

Mbappe, along with Hugo LlorisRaphael Varane, Griezmann and Giroud are the five French players who started both the World Cup final win over Croatia in 2018 and the victory over Poland on Sunday night.

Kounde, a relative newcomer to the starting line-up, says his team are dangerous opponents because they can create chances both through built-up possession and on the counter-attack. He also explained the fresher atmosphere. “We have spent more time with each other, we have more experience and more games together,” he said. “It’s how you build a group. The spirit is really good, the mix of generations is going well.”Lloris is now yearning after a second World Cup. He says: “When you arrive, you don’t want to fix a limit. You want to push as far as you can.”

England’s predictable World Cup results suggest beating France would be a surprise

England's forward Harry Kane reacts after the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 11, 2018. - Croatia will play France in the World Cup final after they beat England 2-1 in extra-time on Wednesday thanks to a Mario Mandzukic goal in the second period of extra-time. (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS        (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images)

By Michael Cox Dec 8, 2022


The most enigmatic team at World Cup 2022 were clearly Japan. They were eliminated in the second round, and their basic record of two wins, one draw and one loss is, on paper, fairly unremarkable.

The peculiarity, of course, came from assessing those results against specific opponents. Japan’s scores were essentially a mirror image of what you would have expected. They defeated Spain and Germany — two of the top-six favourites heading into the competition — but managed to lose to Costa Rica, considered the 32nd-favourite. It was a curious, almost illogical sequence of results, and yet it’s the kind of situation football throws up regularly. There are, presumably, lots of Japan supporters saying things like “typical us”, and “we never do things the easy way”. Football results regularly confound expectations.

Historically, though, England are the complete opposite of Japan at World Cups. England aren’t a brilliantly unpredictable outfit who outwit the big boys, then flop against minnows. They are very simple, and do precisely what you expect. They don’t wobble against small sides. They roughly match the performance of fellow sides on the fringes of the favourites. They tend to be eliminated by the first serious contender they face.

To test this theory, we can compare England’s World Cup results to the position of their opponents in FIFA’s world rankings at the time. Those rankings aren’t perfect and because they were introduced in the early 1990s, we can only use them as a measure from the 1998 World Cup onwards. But that still takes into account 32 matches, a decent sample.

Here, in chronological order, are the results. The colour coding is simple — green for victories, orange for draws, and red for defeats. The strength of the opposition is denoted by red for a team with a single-figure ranking, orange for a side ranked between 10th and 19th, and green for a team ranked 20th or below. A penalty shootout loss is denoted by an asterisk, a penalty shootout win is donated by two asterisks.

England World Cup results, 1998-2022

YEAROPPONENTRANKRESULT
1998Tunisia252-0
1998Romania131-2
1998Colombia172-0
1998Argentina52-2*
2002Sweden191-1
2002Argentina31-0
2002Nigeria270-0
2002Denmark203-0
2002Brazil21-2
2006Paraguay331-0
2006Trinidad and Tobago472-0
2006Sweden162-2
2006Ecuador391-0
2006Portugal70-0*
2010USA141-1
2010Algeria300-0
2010Slovenia251-0
2010Germany61-4
2014Italy91-2
2014Uruguay71-2
2014Costa Rica280-0
2018Tunisia212-1
2018Panama556-1
2018Belgium30-1
2018Colombia161-1**
2018Sweden242-0
2018Croatia201-2
2018Belgium30-2
2022Iran216-2
2022USA150-0
2022Wales183-0
2022Senegal203-0

This table is sortable on desktop. If you click on “rank”, you can order those 32 games by the opposition’s world ranking. And, when you do that, a fairly obvious pattern emerges. When England face “green” opponents, they generally win. When they face “red” opponents, they generally lose.

And here’s the tally of whether the two categories match up. The three pink rows account for the results you would expect, the four silver rows show when there was something of a surprise, and the two blue rows indicate how many genuine shocks there have been.

OPPONENTRESULTMATCHES
GreenGreen11
GreenOrange3
GreenRed1
OrangeGreen2
OrangeOrange5
OrangeRed1
RedGreen1
RedOrange2
RedRed6

And from those 32 matches — World Cup 1998 onwards — in 22 (69 per cent) of them, England’s result is precisely what you would expect according to the strength of the opposition.

There have been three occasions when England have faced weak opposition and only drawn — all of them 0-0. The first was actually a perfectly good result, as a goalless draw against Nigeria in 2002 meant England qualified for the knockout stage, and the third was essentially a dead rubber against Costa Rica in 2014, as England had already been eliminated and fielded a reserve side. Therefore, of the draws, only the 0-0 with Algeria in 2010 can be considered a truly poor result.

The only time England have completely flopped against (on paper) weak opposition came in the semi-final at the last World Cup. Croatia were ranked just 20th in the world, and England were defeated in extra time. Perhaps that ranking slightly underestimates Croatia’s quality, but it does illustrate quite how simple England’s path to the final was.

In eight matches against “orange” opposition, England have, sure enough, drawn five. The positive results came against Colombia in 1998 and Wales this year. The defeat came at the hands of Romania in 1998.

And in nine matches against “red” opposition, England have won only one — the 1-0 group-stage victory over Argentina in 2002, thanks to David Beckham scoring a penalty won by Michael Owen from The Athletic columnist Mauricio Pochettino.

In fact, even the two draws against serious opposition were ultimately defeats on penalties, against Argentina in 1998 and Portugal in 2006. So if you consider those games to be losses, then England have lost eight of their nine matches against top-ten opposition since the FIFA rankings were introduced.

What’s the reason for this pattern? Maybe that’s a silly question, trying to find a reason for things generally going as you’d expect. But the experience of Japan (or Spain and Germany) shows that’s not always the case. England don’t suffer defeats as shocking as Argentina’s against Saudi Arabia, nor do they defeat stronger opponents the same way Belgium, for example, did against Brazil four years ago.

Maybe it comes down to the fact England are, in tactical terms, always rather beige. They’re not a high-risk attacking side who pile forward in numbers and leave themselves exposed at the back — that type of approach probably increases the chances of a shock result.

Equally, they’re usually not a flexible side who vary their approach in response to the approach of their opponents. Teams who work backwards from the opposition are often effective at blunting strong sides, but lack a positive identity to break down weaker opponents.

England are always just themselves; their approach is designed to suit their own players. There’s rarely enough tactical ingenuity to defeat a stronger side, but the quality of individuals is usually good enough to defeat weak opponents. It doesn’t bode well ahead of a meeting against fourth-ranked France, and perhaps demonstrates that some tactical flexibility, and a focus on blunting the opposition, might be in order.

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 30: Lionel Messi of Argentina controls the ball surrounded by eight players of Poland during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Poland and Argentina at Stadium 974 on November 30, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

This is how you can stop Lionel Messi

John Muller Dec 3, 2022

This article doesn’t matter.The way to defend him isn’t some big secret. Every player in the World Cup has been watching him half their lives.Teams will study this stuff. They’ll practise it. And then they’ll get out there on the pitch and 11 minds will go blank, like that nightmare about showing up to a final exam you completely forgot about. Because that’s just what playing against Lionel Messi does to you. He has too many ways to beat you.But if you’re unfortunate enough to try to stop Messi in a World Cup knockout game — and teams have to prepare for him now, because he’s coming — here’s how to do it.

Squeeze him out to the wing

The first thing you’ll need to know is where to find him. That’s easy: he’s the little guy trudging around with his head down like he lost a contact lens in the grass somewhere around the right half-space. Some years he plays more on the right wing, others more at the top of the box, but in this World Cup, Messi’s passes received have been pretty evenly distributed around the middle and right of the attacking half.

He isn’t a right-winger for Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina, but he isn’t a false nine either. He’s more like the right-forward in a striker pair alongside Lautaro Martinez or Julian Alvarez. As always, Messi has licence to go anywhere he wants when Argentina have the ball, but Angel Di Maria to his right and Rodrigo De Paul behind him in midfield have helped him get cosy in his favourite position.

Step one for stopping Messi: crowd the middle and don’t give him space between the lines. If he’s dropping outside the defensive block to receive on the wing, you’ve already forced him away from the most dangerous part of the pitch.

Track the overlapping left-back

Argentina’s lopsided formation — a right winger pushed up alongside two forwards, but no one out wide on the left — is a little puzzling if you’ve ever watched Messi at Paris Saint-Germain, where his favourite passes are through-balls to Kylian Mbappe running in behind from the left wing. Who’s he supposed to play that ball to for the national team?

It’s not just an Mbappe thing. As a famously left-footed passer, Messi has always been at his most dangerous when he’s moving right to left and looking for long diagonals behind the defence.

The lack of a target for those passes was a real problem in Argentina’s first group game, against Saudi Arabia, when the 34-year-old Papu Gomez started in left midfield but didn’t have the pace to run onto Messi diagonals over the top.

Since then, Scaloni has found a solution in the overlapping left-back Marcos Acuna. Messi will start to curl around the defence on the dribble, drawing the opposing right-back inside to stop him, and then just like he used to do with Jordi Alba at Barcelona, he’ll loft the ball over the top for Acuna’s well-timed overlapping runs.

If anything, this year’s Argentina are actually more reliant on long Messi diagonals to the left despite not playing with a fixed left-winger. Tracking Acuna’s runs is key to denying Messi his pet pass.

Actually, just don’t let Messi go left at all

Even if you take away the diagonals, you still haven’t stopped Messi’s main target: the left forward cutting behind the centre-backs. Through the three games of the group stage, Messi’s most valuable passes by far have been to Lautaro Martinez.

Plugging the inside channel to Martinez or Julian Alvarez while also tracking the overlapping runner — and, oh, by the way, also not letting Messi dribble straight into the box and shoot because you’re too busy worrying about his passing — is a hopeless task.

Instead of trying to stop Messi’s playmaking, it might help not to let him turn onto his left foot at all. Remember those pass sonars we saw a minute ago, how Messi’s passes are shorter when he’s forced to move to his right? Do that.

Easier said than done, of course, but there are a few strategies teams have used to force Messi to his weak side.

One is to pressure him from behind when he drops to receive the ball. There’s always the risk that he’ll spin around the pressure, but usually if he can feel a man at his back keeping him from turning the way he wants to go when he receives a pass, Messi will do the responsible thing and lay the ball off.

Another thing defenders can do is literally just stand to his left. This feels kind of dumb, because it lets Messi simply dribble straight ahead toward goal, but taking away his ability to cut inside onto his left foot is just that important.

The ideal way to stop him is with a two-man flanking manoeuvre where one guy gets goalside and another comes around to keep Messi from cutting left. You’ll often see Messi lose the ball in situations like that. Unfortunately, you’ll also see him find all kinds of creative ways to take advantage of the space created behind and around the double-team.

Don’t let him lurk at the back post

If you plotted all the bajillion shots Messi has taken in his career, they would form a beautiful little rainbow of destruction arcing from the right half-space outside the box to the left corner of the six-yard box, along the path he dribbles as he looks for a shot.

At this World Cup, he’s looking more for the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow: high-percentage close to goal, to the left side of the penalty spot.

Since Argentina’s attack leans so heavily to the right — Di Maria, De Paul and the right-back Nahuel Molina are among the top creators — Messi will sometimes wander around to the other side of his centre-forward and lurk at the back post.

All things considered, defences would probably rather have Messi as a target man off the ball than a playmaker on it, but they should keep an eye on that lurking. Seven of Messi’s 11 non-penalty shots at this tournament have been inside the box, his highest ratio at any World Cup.

Stop Di Maria and De Paul

Say this all actually works. Say you actually do manage to take Messi out of the game. Who do you have to worry about then? Same as usual: Di Maria and De Paul.

Even if you remove Messi’s actions and the two actions after that — effectively looking at plays that didn’t involve him — Argentina’s ball progression is still heavily up that right side. Molina’s crosses have been the team’s most dangerous passing option without Messi, and Di Maria and De Paul stand out as two-way creators on or off the ball.

Marking those two isn’t as hard as stopping Messi, and breaking up the triangle that supports him and creates most of Argentina’s threat apart from him is key to any good Messi-stopping strategy.

If all else fails, give Messi a penalty

He’s only average at those. Good luck!

Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands are a tactical outlier at this World Cup

Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands are a tactical outlier at this World Cup

By Michael CoxDec 5, 2022 43


On the one hand, it was a game that came down to finishing. If Christian Pulisic had scored his very presentable early chance, this would have been an entirely different contest. The U.S. had other fine chances, and the Dutch were simply more clinical.

On the other hand, the Dutch were also superior tactically. Yes, the U.S. scored, and they had chances, but they tended to come from freak events. The Netherlands’ goalscoring opportunities came from more deliberate play and more obvious combination football.

Louis van Gaal’s approach at this tournament is very familiar to anyone who watched his Netherlands side at the World Cup in 2014. It bears little resemblance to the type of football Van Gaal has preached throughout his club career, which is possession-based, features structured defending and proper wingers.

At international level, Van Gaal favours counter-attacking, man-marking and wing-backs sprinting forward. It worked pretty well in 2014 — the Dutch only lost to Argentina in the semi-finals on penalties — and it might well work again here.

(Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The Netherlands play football unlike anyone else at this tournament. Their man-marking in midfield feels like something out of a different sport entirely, and the approach of their back line just feels bizarre to watch, with one defender regularly 10 yards behind his colleagues in response to the movement of the U.S. attackers.

Here’s one example of the midfield marking: Frenkie de Jong, Marten de Roon and Davy Klaassen simply picked up the nearest of the three U.S. midfielders, and stuck with them across the pitch. The U.S. knew what the Dutch game plan was, and it was common for two of their players to rotate in an attempt to drag the Netherlands out of position. But it was still extremely difficult for the U.S. to play through the middle.

It’s pretty much the same approach in defence. Here, you could look at the Netherlands and think they’re playing with two lines of three — a classic old-school 3-3-1-3, perhaps? Not quite. The third ‘midfielder’ here is actually Virgil van Dijk, pushing high up the pitch to close down Jesus Ferreira…

…while, out of shot, left-sided Nathan Ake is about 15 yards behind right-sided Jurrien Timber, because Timothy Weah was playing higher up than Pulisic. It meant the Netherlands’ defensive line was extremely lopsided, but there were few runs in behind from anyone other than Weah to exploit this.

And of course, when Weah dropped deep, Ake followed him. Here’s an extreme example — the Netherlands are without the ball, but their left-sided centre-back Ake is higher up the pitch than their No 10 Klaassen, because Weah has dropped back behind holding midfielder Tyler Adams.

In possession, the Netherlands tended to play on the break. But their first goal was magnificent, a sublime passing move from back to front that might go down as the goal of the tournament. It’s impossible to analyse every aspect of the move, but it’s worth pointing out that it started when De Jong dropped into defence before twisting and turning away from pressure…

… and ended with this measured pull-back from Denzel Dumfries, when others might have flashed a ball across the box.

That gave the Dutch licence to play on the break. They kept Memphis Depay and Cody Gakpo in clever positions, in the channels. They weren’t acting as a proper front two, nor where they tracking back with the U.S. full-backs, who were the spare players. Instead, they simply remained in a position to counter.

And, on a couple of occasions, they nearly did so to devastating effect. Here’s Depay dropping deep and playing in Gakpo…

…who couldn’t quite take the ball in his stride to speed past Tim Ream.

And Van Gaal actually increased the level of counter-attacking threat at the break, introducing a third attacker in Steven Bergwijn, in place of Klaassen, more of a midfielder. This meant Gakpo dropping back to play the No 10 role, and situations like this, where the Netherlands attacked with a speedy front three.

Here’s another example, this time joined by a fourth runner.

And, to a certain extent, the Netherlands became a broken side. Five defenders, two to shield them — and then three attackers left high up the pitch to attack.

Of course, the goals didn’t actually come on the break — they came from the wing-back. Dumfries, the game’s key player, was a constant threat down the right. Here’s a cut-back he played 20 minutes after his assist for the opener — almost the same ball.

And here, on the stroke of half-time, is his second assist of the game, for Daley Blind, the opposite wing-back. Johan Cruyff always used to say his favourite goal was one full-back crossing for the other. It’s debatable whether that applies to wing-backs, and Cruyff didn’t go out of his way to praise Van Gaal, to put it mildly. But this was, from a Dutch perspective, a lovely goal.

And, of course, Blind returned the favour to put the game to bed, playing a deep cross for Dumfries to volley home at the far post.

From a U.S. perspective this goal was far too simple. We’ve seen examples of a back four being overloaded by a fifth attacker at this tournament, most obviously in Japan’s comeback against Germany. But the U.S. had the numbers to cope, and the time to realise where the threat was.

The Netherland always seemed likely to impress more against opponents who came onto them, rather than sitting back. It remains to be seen whether their clash with Argentina produces such a good performance. Yes, Argentina are a good side, but they’re a side who are up for a fight as much as they’re up for an open game.

The meeting between the sides in 2014 produced no goals in 120 minutes, and very few chances. We could be in for the same thing again.

Michael Cox concentrates on tactical analysis. He is the author of two books – The Mixer, about the tactical evolution of the Premier League, and Zonal Marking, about footballing philosophies across Europe. Follow Michael on Twitter @Zonal_Marking

Brazil 4-1 South Korea: Richarlison wondergoal, Tite’s dancing, Neymar one short of Pele’s record

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 05: Neymar of Brazil celebrates with Raphinha, Lucas Paqueta and Vinicius Junior after scoring the team's second goal via a penalty during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Brazil and South Korea at Stadium 974 on December 05, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

By James Horncastle and more Dec 5, 2022 88


A rampant Brazil dominated South Korea at Stadium 974 to emphatically seal their spot in the World Cup quarter-finals.

Tite’s side were full of confidence as they put four past the South Koreans in the first half, including another outrageous goal by Richarlison. There was so much to like about that third goal: Richarlison dribbling with the ball on his head, the two Brazil players involved in the build-up on the edge of the box being their centre-backs Marquinhos and Thiago Silva, and then there was their 61-year-old manager throwing shapes in the dancing celebrations.

The superb performance took the attention away from what was quite a risky selection decision by Tite — starting Neymar after the forward had missed the final two group games with an injury to his right ankle. But Neymar looked chirpy throughout, dancing, dribbling, nutmegging and showing no signs of discomfort when he stuck a penalty past Kim Seung-gyu to make it 2-0.

South Korea scored a late consolation goal through Paik Seung-ho, beating Alisson from long range.

James Horncastle, Felipe Cardenas, Charlotte Harpur and Maram Al Baharna analyse the key talking points…


Brazil have arrived

Horncastle: The legendary Brazilian commentator Galvao Bueno was sat a couple of rows down from The Athletic at Stadium 974. He spent half-time mopping his brow over and over again, as if he needed to cool down after Brazil’s performance against South Korea. It was 4-0 Brazil at the interval and could have been six.

On the eve of the game, Tite had been telling reporters to consult the statistics. Brazil were creating plenty without taking their chances. That changed tonight by the waterfront in Doha. A team that hadn’t scored a first-half goal yet at this World Cup made up for lost time — and in what style too.

Richarlison’s scissor-kick in the opening win over Serbia was an early contender for goal of the tournament. He is his own competition now. His team-mates might be his closest competition. Brazil didn’t score an ugly goal tonight — even Neymar’s sauntering, stutter-step spot kick reduced Kim Seung-gyu in the South Korea goal to a jittery mess.


Another Richarlison wondergoal

Al Baharna: Even Tite got involved in the dancing following the goal that made it 3-0. That says everything about Richarlison’s screamer.

It wasn’t just the final shot, but everything leading up to it.

Everything about it was so Brazilian.

It begins with Richarlison challenging for a loose ball and morphing into the seal-dribble sensation, Kerlon, as he flicks the ball up, balances it on his forehead and juggles it.

All Lucas Paqueta can do is hold his hand to his head and watch as Richarlison then lays it off to Marquinhos, the first centre-back involved in the goal but certainly not the only one.

From there, everything moves so quickly…

A sharp pass arrives at the feet of Thiago Silva, their other centre-back, also up on the edge of the South Korea box (what was he doing there?), and he delivers the perfectly-weighted assist to Richarlison making a run in behind.

It was fast and it was furious. And the football was just as entertaining as the dancing that came after.

Was starting Neymar worth the risk?

Harpur: On the whole, yes. Neymar appears to have come through unscathed after playing 80 minutes here. Of course, more minutes means more opportunities for him to pick up another injury and Brazil fans will have been relieved to see his number come up on the substitutes’ board.

Tite would be damned if he did and damned if he didn’t start Brazil’s star forward. He obviously felt confident Neymar was fit enough to get into duels, knowing he’d be heavily marked. Take Brazil’s first goal, for example — Raphinha’s cutback fell to Neymar, but he was met by a sliding challenge and missed the ball, Vinicius Junior taking his chance instead. 

Neymar stepped up and coolly slotted home from the spot for Brazil’s second and there were plenty of glimmers of his change of pace and forward balls to Vinicius, but at times his decision-making was poor.

That goal takes him just one short of Pele’s all-time record of 77 for Brazil, and Neymar will have his eyes on that in what could be his final World Cup (he’ll be 34 years old by the time the 2026 finals kick off).

Brazil didn’t need it to be the Neymar show tonight, but he was still part of a superb team performance. 


Raphinha repays Tite’s faith

Cardenas: How important is Raphinha for Brazil? We all see his long strides. We marvel at the cannon he has for a left foot. And when Brazil turn on the style, like they did here against South Korea, Raphinha wants to be invited to the party. 

But a lot of what he does for Brazil goes unnoticed, and that’s why he’s keeping other talented wingers on the bench. Raphinha is tireless on that right flank. 

Raphinha looks comfortable in a wing-back role, which comes as no surprise after playing for Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United. He pokes balls away in midfield, cuts off passing lanes and tracks back to defend. On top of all that, set pieces are his specialty. 

He is a constant threat in the attacking third, in spite of all the work he does off the ball. Brazil’s first goal of the game came from a darting Raphinha run down the right. His pass scattered into the box and found Vinicius, whose tidy finish opened the floodgates and started the dancing. 

Antony, Rodrygo and Gabriel Martinelli are quality wingers. Each offers something special for Brazil. But it’s clear that Raphinha does so much more for Tite. 


Tite uses every player in his squad

Tite introduced his third-choice goalkeeper Weverton for Alisson with 10 minutes to go; in doing so, he has now used every player in his 26-man squad.The 34-year-old Palmeiras player is very much third in line behind two of the best goalkeepers in the world — Liverpool’s Alisson and Ederson of Manchester City — but it was a nice gesture from the Brazil coach to a player who has now appeared nine times for his country since making his debut six years ago.Weverton had little to do during his time on the pitch, but did complete three of his five passes.

Playing for Brazil for 10 minutes (plus added time) at a World Cup? I don’t think anyone would say no…


Brazil fans send support to Pele

Harpur: In the 10th minute of each half, the sea of yellow Brazilian shirts was temporarily covered by an even bigger expanse of yellow. 

A huge tifo with the image of Brazil’s iconic No 10 rippled over 20 rows. The message read: “Pele, Get Well Soon.”

(Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

The 82-year-old tweeted earlier that he would watch the match from hospital, where he has been since Tuesday to treat a respiratory infection aggravated by COVID-19. He is also undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer.

Who knows if the Brazilian fans got the banner printed in Doha or if they were so prepared they brought it over from South America with them. 

What is certain is that the Brazilian legend will be very pleased with his country’s masterclass tonight — even if Neymar is ever closer to surpassing his all-time goalscoring record. 

(Additional contributors: Maram Al Baharna, Felipe Cardenas)

Portugal – Cristiano Ronaldo + Goncalo Ramos = Freedom

LUSAIL CITY, QATAR - DECEMBER 06: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal reacts during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Portugal and Switzerland at Lusail Stadium on December 06, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)

By Tim Spiers Dec 8, 2022


It’s the year 2000, folks. The millennium bug hasn’t destroyed the planet, Tony Blair’s really popular, Bradford City v Charlton Athletic is a top-flight fixture and people using this newfangled internet thing (i.e. geeks and nerds) are dubious as to whether Ian McKellen will make a good Gandalf.

If you weren’t too busy listening to Macy Gray on MiniDisc you may have watched Euro 2000. It was a great tournament and in one of the semi-finals Portugal played France, losing 2-1 to a golden goal in extra time.

What’s the significance of this and why won’t you just get to the damn point, I hear you ask. Well, dear reader, before Tuesday night, that was the last time Portugal played a knockout-stage match in a World Cup or Euros without Cristiano Ronaldo in the starting XI.

Laurent Blanc played in that match. He’s 57 years old now.

It’s important to bear in mind that weight of history when dissecting Fernando Santos’ decision to drop Ronaldo, who — let’s not forget — is the top scorer in the history of international football.

Fernando Santos made the big call to drop Cristiano Ronaldo to the bench against Switzerland (Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

It wasn’t the only bold call Santos made with his line-up — he left out one of the foremost full-backs in world football in Joao Cancelo, he benched Ruben Neves and he placed his faith in a 21-year-old striker with 33 minutes of international experience to his name in Goncalo Ramos — but it was the most seismic. Ronaldo isn’t just a player, he’s an entity and a demigod. He also carries an increasingly farcical circus around with him, one which Santos has undoubtedly had enough of.

Agonising over the call probably added a few more wrinkles to Santos’ asperous, brow-beaten 68-year-old mush. Once, rightly, seen as a pragmatic, and rather dour, safety-first manager (particularly after Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph, described in some quarters as anti-football), Santos’ team are now the joint-top scorers at the tournament with 12 goals.

https://theathletic.com/report/podcast-clip/?clip_id=6697

Ronaldo isn’t the first Portugal hero he’s dispensed with lately. Twelve months ago, the team’s spine comprised Rui Patricio in goal, Joao Moutinho in midfield and Ronaldo up front. All the wrong side of 34 but all cap centurions with vast experience and having done great things for their country. All three are now out (Moutinho isn’t even in the squad) and the one old-timer Santos has retained, Pepe, has been solid so far and scored against Switzerland.

Is Santos liberated, perhaps in the same manner as Gareth Southgate, because he/they know this is probably their last tournament? Maybe. Or maybe they’re both just playing to their team’s strengths. To add an early caveat, Switzerland were awful and Portugal (like England) are yet to face top-class opposition in the competition, against whom the temptation will be to go safety-first.

But for now, Portugal look free. And it seems fair to suggest that Ronaldo not being in the side played a sizeable part in that.


What difference does it make when Ronaldo doesn’t play?

Here’s their pass matrix in their previous ‘proper’ game against Uruguay (Santos rested half the team for the defeat to South Korea with Portugal having already qualified).

One of the things that immediately sticks out is Ronaldo’s proximity to Joao Felix, whose job it was to dart inside from the left. Ronaldo would often come deep and roam, alongside Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes.

He would pop up in the penalty area occasionally, but as you can see from his heatmap below, he spent most of the match in deeper areas linking with Bernardo, Fernandes, the rest of the midfield and the full-backs.

This was a fairly typical picture of how Portugal would build up play against a defensive-minded Uruguay, with Ronaldo dropping not just in front of Uruguay’s defence but also in front of their midfield to get involved in play.

A few seconds later the attack isn’t really progressing and Ronaldo catches the attention of William Carvalho, asking for the ball. He duly gets it, recycles possession and then does finally head for the penalty area, but the attack comes to nothing. It’s a relatively easy situation for Uruguay to defend when a lot of the play is in front of them.

While Portugal won the game pretty comfortably 2-0, they did so by scoring from a left-wing cross which went straight in and a penalty (both courtesy of Fernandes). While it was a satisfactory result, it wasn’t a particularly fluid attacking performance.

And passing to Ronaldo is a theme that many think has inhibited Portugal. He wants the ball a lot and his standing in the group dictates that they pass to him. If they don’t, he’ll have a strop. Likewise when the ball ricochets off his back from a corner and South Korea score in Portugal’s final group game, he immediately starts blaming others.

His personality is all-encompassing and there’s been a growing school of thought for some time that Portugal play better without him (a poll in Portuguese paper Record on the eve of the Switzerland game resulted in 70 per cent voting that he shouldn’t start). They have enough vibrant young talent that they can cope without him. The Switzerland performance and result only added to that theory.

Tactically, the introduction of Ramos, a penalty-box striker, facilitated a change in the team’s attacking dynamic.

Ramos is not really involved in build-up play and his zippy presence around Switzerland’s centre-backs means Felix no longer has to play off the last man (Felix wasn’t doing this constantly in Portugal’s previous games but it was part of his remit). So from being (fractionally) Portugal’s highest attacker against Uruguay, Felix was the fourth highest against Switzerland.

He played a deeper playmaker role which mean he could do stuff like this…

In other words, idle sensually past one man, play a give-and-go and then caress a first-time love bomb on to Ramos’ toes.

Felix was excellent, but, more importantly, Ramos’ position on the last man occupied Switzerland’s back line, stretched play out and created a hole behind their midfield in which Felix, Fernandes and Bernardo operated whenever Portugal advanced.

Their back line was in disarray when Ramos darted through at 2-0 to collect Fernandes’ through ball.

In fact he really should have scored from here.

The goals he did score saw him take the ball in the penalty area. Here’s the first, when he turned and fired through the narrowest of gaps at the near post.

This was his second goal when he fired in Diogo Dalot’s low cross.

And this is the hat-trick goal when he took Felix’s pass (occupying that space in front of the defence again) and dinked over Yann Sommer.

Given where Ronaldo had been stationed earlier in the tournament, it’s hard to imagine he’d have replicated Ramos’ positioning for all three of those goals, if any. The fact Switzerland would have prepared their game plan with Ronaldo in mind is another factor worth taking into account. They just didn’t know how to cope with Ramos, or how to plug the gaps that his presence helped generate.

Again here, Ramos (the central of the three attackers) is eyeing up a dart beyond the last man, as are full-backs Raphael Guerreiro (left) and Dalot (right). If Fernandes (in possession) spots this and plays to Felix, he can turn and immediately have three runners to find with a through ball.

Ramos’ heatmap against Switzerland is vastly different to Ronaldo’s against Uruguay.

And that’s the way he’s tended to play his football. He is a striker who comes alive in the penalty area with exceptional movement, a natural instinct for where the ball is going to be and a clinical finishing ability.

He’s the top scorer in Portugal this season (nine in 11), he’s scored 14 in 18 for Portugal Under-21s in the past couple of years and he was top scorer at the Under-19 Euros in 2019.

All of which makes it feel pretty unlikely that Ronaldo will be drafted back into the side for Portugal’s quarter-final against Morocco.

That game will be a totally different proposition — for a start, Sofyan Amrabat can cover the cavernous hole Switzerland left behind their midfield on his own — and, in what could be a tight game of few chances, Ronaldo may very well come off the bench to score the winner, perhaps with a header, perhaps from the penalty spot (probably not a free kick though).

https://theathletic.com/report/podcast-clip/?clip_id=6692

Morocco will likely find Portugal a much tougher side to deal with than Spain, though. The prospect of Bernardo, Fernandes (two goals and three assists in three appearances this tournament) and Felix buzzing behind Ramos, with support from two attacking full-backs, is an exciting one.

In one fell swoop, Santos has loosened his own shackles to produce an attacking performance which will be one of the most eye-catching and memorable of this World Cup while also taking off the Ronaldo-shaped shackles too. And Portugal looked much better for it.

The World Cup of tiredness: Who is running fast or slow, playing most and resting least?

Mark Carey

Dec 8, 2022

29

Today I feel… pretty tired.

It takes a lot of energy to keep across all 56 games played so far during the World Cup

And it takes far more energy to actually play international football in a humid climate — for many of those being asked to do so, in the middle of a gruelling domestic season with just a few days’ preparation time.

The party line from FIFA has always been that player welfare is of utmost importance, but an ever-growing fixture schedule across all competitions suggests otherwise. Players are pushed to their limits, with many at serious risk of injury within this tournament — and the managers are not happy.

“It is impossible to prepare for such a game after 72 hours, I don’t think anyone can do it after the physical burnout there was in the previous games,” said now former South Korea manager Paulo Bento before their last-16 clash with tournament favourites Brazil, which came three days after a draining final group match against Portugal

“There is also the emotional burnout and that’s why the players had the day off yesterday and started to train this morning. This is uncomfortable for the teams.”

This multifaceted effect of fatigue is supported by research. 

An annual player workload report conducted by FIFPRO, the sport’s global players’ union, outlined the consequences of frequent match exposures toward player welfare, which included mental health effects alongside sleep disruption, training consistency, travel fatigue, and increased injury risk.

The scheduling within this World Cup is one thing, but many players arrived in Qatar last month with an already increased risk of injury. A second FIFPRO report, published on the eve of the World Cup, highlighted just how challenging the schedule is for all players compared with previous years.

Using the Premier League as an example — as the league with the most player representation at this World Cup — the time between the final league fixture and the first World Cup game was just seven days; one week, including long-haul travel, for players to prepare for a major tournament is simply not enough time when compared with a gap of at least three weeks, as was the case in years gone by. 

Similarly, there is just an eight day turnaround between the World Cup final and the return of the Premier League on December 26, putting strain on players and coaching staff during an always-congested festive schedule. 

Yes, this is an unprecedented winter World Cup for northern hemisphere nations, but the warning signs are there that players are simply at risk of breaking down.

One obvious case study is Sadio Mane, who was forced to withdraw from the Senegal squad on the eve of the tournament with a leg injury picked up on club duty. FIFPRO’s findings revealed that Mane had played the third-most minutes of any player named in squads for the tournament since the start of last season, for club and country. 

Above Mane? The Netherlands’ Virgil van Dijk and Joao Cancelo of Portugal — both of whom will expect to rack up more minutes this tournament with their teams having progressed to the quarter-finals. 


At squad level, Portugal were the most overworked of the 32 squads arriving in Qatar since the start of the 2021-22 season, based on the combined minutes played by those named in the final 26-strong squad — closely followed by Brazil.

Both countries faced a combined workload of more than 30,000 minutes since the start of last season, which was more than double some squads in the tournament. Indeed, with both Brazil and Portugal progressing to the knockout stages early after winning their first two group games, coaches Tite and Fernando Santos rung the changes in their third match to rest some key men and manage the squad.

This was a luxury also afforded to France in their group finale. The defending world champions have had the highest volume of changes among the tournament’s quarter-finalists.  

Rotations within games are also interesting here, with Brazil and Portugal two of only three sides to have used all five permitted substitutes across all four of their games. Indeed, Tite took this to the very extreme by introducing third-choice goalkeeper Weverton with 10 minutes to go in the last-16 win over South Korea, becoming the first manager at this World Cup to use every player in his squad.

At the other end of the scale, England and Croatia are the only two sides across the tournament to have named an unchanged side so far. A wise or naive choice to put the strain on a specific starting XI? Time will tell.

When looking at the distribution of minutes played among the eight quarter-finalists, it reflects the squad management approach by each manager. Where Brazil and Portugal have been able to rotate, the likes of England, the Netherlands and Croatia in particular have relied upon a core group of players to play nearly every minute.

Of course, Morocco and Croatia’s last-16 triumphs via extra time and penalties do shift their players’ average minutes played (white line), but it’s clear Brazil, France and Portugal have looked to keep things fresh as we get to the business end of the tournament. 

This is not by accident.

Tite is acutely aware of the demands placed on each squad and has seen the weaknesses play out across the other sides in the tournament.

“I watched the third match from Group C, Poland against Argentina, and we saw how the intensity from Poland was getting weaker, but they needed a good result,” Tite said.

“Almost 40 per cent of their high-intensity actions were worse than normal. I don’t know how to say this, but the World Cup is very demanding mentally. It absorbs and drains you.”

Using data from FIFA, we can quantify this across Poland’s games.

They made 452 sprints in their first group game against Mexico and 509 sprints against Saudi Arabia in the second one. Their third game? Against Argentina they were down to 369 sprints.

Game state, game importance and tactical setup must play a role here, as physical data is intrinsically difficult to interpret in a vacuum, but the notable drop-off in high-intensity running was telling for Poland. They simply ran out of steam and were beaten comfortably by France in the first knockout round.

So, what of the eight surviving teams? How has their high-intensity running changed across each game so far? Using FIFA’s dataset, we can track the high-speed running distance per game that each team got through.

As you can see below, Argentina’s high-speed running is particularly low — fuelled by a certain 35-year-old strolling around the pitch. Their average high-speed running distance of 12.3km is the lowest of any side remaining in the competition.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Portugal look to have a higher average across their games so far. Aside from Croatia — whose numbers are boosted by 30 minutes of extra time against Japan — the Netherlands’ and Portugal’s average high-speed running distance of 15.5km each is the highest of the remaining sides.

With the Dutch now playing Argentina in the quarter-finals, the difference could simply come down to the intensity of the two sides at either end of the scale.


The drama has certainly built across the tournament, but I leave you with this question: could we have seen an even better spectacle?

Precisely half of the 48 group games were goalless at half-time — a potential quirk of the early stages of the tournament, sure, but could one explanation be that the players are simply shattered?

Whatever the answer, expect this issue to continue into the domestic seasons when they resume over the coming weeks. FIFPRO has highlighted that the lack of recovery time among those who reach the final stages in Qatar will increase mental stress when they return to their clubs.

Quite simply, something has to give.

Currently, it’s the players’ welfare.

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