Manager: Roberto Martinez
Bench: Courtois, Pickford; Hernandez, Kolarov; Miranda, Gimenez, Maguire, Granqvist; Trippier, Fagner; Casemiro, Rakitic; Pogba, Quintero; Coutinho, Messi; Griezmann, Perisic; Kane, C. Ronaldo; Cavani, Cheryshev
Best Player: Mbappé (but see below)
Best Team: Brazil
Best Match: France – Argentina
The selection is, as always, based on quality and quantity of performance alone. This is about who played the best (not the most iconic, memorable, most improved, etc.).
In 2014 Manuel Neuer had what I consider to be one of the greatest World Cup’s ever by any goalkeeper. 2018 saw no similar achievement. Having said that, a couple of shotstoppers did indeed have a fine tournament. Igor Akinfeev, the Russian captain, is my pick of the bunch. Other contenders where Courtois and Pickford, who weren’t far behind Akinfeev in my book.
After being hardly tested in the first two matches, Akinfeev’s tournament really began in the last group match against Uruguay. Many observers thought of him as having performed rather badly in that game, mainly because he conceded a freekick that landed in the goalkeeper’s corner. However, he performed multiple fine saves in that match and Suarez struck said freekick really well. His finest hour came undoubtedly in Russia’s surprise win (after penalties) against Spain. The way he saved Iago Aspas’ penalty with his foot impressed me in particular. While Akinfeev will never be the next Yashin or Dasayev, he has finally delivered a tournament performance to match his talent.
One of the best central defenders of the last ten years once again showed his class. Thiago Silva is arguably the finest Brazilian centre-back of all time and impressed in what might have been his final World Cup. What really catches the eye about Silva’s game is the utter cleanliness apparant in almost everything he does. When he lunges to intercept a cross: expect him to make clean contact with the ball, sending it out of the danger zone. When he makes a tackle: expect it to be all ball and no man. When he passes: expect it to be well-weighted and reach its destination. When he positions himself: expect him to stand just where he is supposed to be. Thiago Silva basically is a textbook on defending that came alive. In a game that is often messy and frenzied, time seems to pass a bit slower for this particular Brazilian, allowing him to fulfill his duties with utmost composure. Key to all this, of course, is his surpreme understanding of football. While Silva is a complete defender with brawns accompanying the brains, it’s his cerebral qualities that are ultimately the key to his class.
Silva is one of the very few players who impressed me in all the matches he played in at this World Cup. His finest performance, in my opinion, took place in the knockout match against Mexico. If Brazil had made it into the semi-finals and had Silva produced one more fine performance, he would have big chances of becoming my player of the tournament. Alas, the World Cup isn’t always fair for its best players.
Godin is a different beast than Thiago Silva. While the former’s approach is marked by cool effectiveness, Godin prefers a more passionate and hands-on kind of defending. In a moment I will praise him for just that. But before, let’s keep in mind that Godin is also a very good passer of the ball, strong at intercepting passes, and willing to push forward if need be. Short: Godin is by no means a single-minded man-marker. With that out of the way, let us celebrate him for those more classical elements of his game. If I had to choose one defender from all the players at this World Cup for the task of marking the best striker of the opponent out of the game, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second: Diego Godin is my choice. What makes him so great is that he does the basics of defending with greater competence than arguably any other defender around. Sergio Ramos is on a similar level when it comes to doing the dirty in-fight part of defending, but Godin largely does without the former’s antics.
Godin played at a consistently high level at this year’s World Cup. A particular highlight was the way he and Gimenez marked Cristiano Ronaldo out of the tournament in the round of last 16. However, that was very much a team effort and the rest of Uruguay’s defence should be praised as well. Godin’s performance against Egypt might just have been his best on an individual level.
Now, onto the third outstanding centre-back of this tournament. Raphael Varane has over the last couple of years evolved from being one of the greatest talents around into becoming a reliable world class performer. This World Cup further consolidated that status. There are some knowledgeable people who are willing to go even further and call Varane the best defender or even best player on the planet full stop. I don’t quite rate him that highly. While I get that he is a player who ticks all the boxes a modern centre-back should tick and combines them with a physique that is an ideal mix between power and speed, I don’t quite see what he has that someone like Thiago Silva doesn’t have. And I don’t see in which regard his game is as special as, say, Mats Hummel’s passing ability is special. However, just because I don’t think he has broken the boundaries of “ordinary” elite defending yet, doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate him for being the world class player he undoubtedly is.
As I see it, his World Cup was marked by cool, efficient defending, very few mistakes (one early on in the final and one against Argentina), a key goal against Uruguay and some outstanding defensive moments. The most spectacular came against Belgium when he put in a crucial last-ditch tackle to deny Eden Hazard.
It was a World Cup in which the most consistent string of performances usually came from defensive players. The three centre-backs in my first team being prime examples. Offensive players had a harder time impressing me on a continued basis. This can (at least partially) be attributed to the general tactical trend of the World Cup: teams played it safe, making life easier for defenders than for attackers. Eden Hazard is the exception to the rule. While I don’t want to claim that all of his performances were outstanding, he never played less than well in this year’s World Cup.
The basic characteristics of his game are well known, since Hazard has been a part of the world elite for a couple of years now. His dribbling stands out but he is more than just a someone who can beat his man with pace and trickery (although he certainly can do that as well). He can act both as a true winger and as a playmaker behind the attackers. More often than not, he functions as a hybrid between these two roles. One thing that stands out is his maturity. His game has a certain no-nonsense rationality to it, that I value very highly. Also, he is a hard worker when it comes to the more mundane aspects of the job. This is why he Roberto Martinez felt confident enough to play him as a (very attacking) left wing-back during parts of the semi-final. This is the position he takes in this team as well. To be sure, his main position is further forward. Am I therefore cheating a bit? Well, yes, but only a bit. He did play as a LWB during this World Cup and possesses the necessary qualities to do so on a high level. Together with the fact that no regular LB or LWB really impressed me in this tournament, I took the liberty of fielding Hazard here.
In a time when there is (arguably) no right-back of truly exceptional quality, players from the 2nd row can grab the chance and become the best in their position (even if it might just be for a little while). This is just what Thomas Meunier has done at this World Cup. He had some shaky moments – Marcelo, who is a truly great fullback, toyed with him during parts of Belgium’s QF against Brazil – but by and large produced a string of fine performances. One might even raise the question whether Belgium’s semi-final exit had something to do with him being suspended for that particular match. Belgium played a back 3/5 and Meunier acted as a right wingback. This meant that he was used as much as an offensive player than a defensive one. Meunier even scored a goal in the 3rd place match against England but it were his crosses and diagonal runs into the box that made him a threat in the first place.
What made me choose him ahead of other attacking right-backs like Trippier was that he looked a bit more solid defensively than they usually did. Let’s see whether he can keep playing at this level in the 18-19 season or whether his World Cup was a one-off. Meunier’s best performance, in my opinion, came in the group match against Tunisia.
Up until the final Kanté was my pick for Player of the Tournament. In the final itself, he produced one of the weaktest performances I have seen from him. Media reports suggest that a stomach bug might have been the reason. Whatever the reason, his uncharacteristic performance in the final ultimately made me decide against him as Player of the Tournament. With that out of the way, let us focus on what he did during the rest of the tournament. N’Golo Kanté played a major part in France’s run to the World Cup title. While it would be wrong to claim that France conceded few goals on their way to the title (6 is quite a lot), they rarely seemed in great trouble defensively. This was both down to their general setup (only a few players allowed to push high up the field at a time), but also to the performances of some of the individual players. Varane has already been mentioned. Umtiti played well, too (except for isolated moments in which he played really badly). But there is a reason why so few attacks reached the last line of defence in the first place. That reason is 1,69m tall and goes by the name N’golo Kanté.
Kanté is the complete modern defensive midfielder (well, almost complete, he could be taller). He is very adept at getting close to the opponent, tracking their every move and finally taking the ball from them. But he is equally adept at intercepting passes and closing down passing angles. His possession play is equally classy. Kanté is a fine passer of the ball and an intelligent player in all regards. He rarely goes for the outrageous but his well-weighted passes often manage to reach his teammates further up the field and between the opponent’s lines. He lacks Busquets’ eccentric genius, but plays in a way that just makes him the most serious guy around. When it comes to the mindset behind his way of playing, he is actually quite close to the attitude described in my portrait of Thiago Silva. Kanté is cut from the same cloth.
A particular highlight was his duel with Leo Messi. To say that the shut Messi down would be hyperbole (Messi created two goals in that match), but it was a memorable duel at a very high level and Kanté more than held his own.
Kevin De Bruyne
Kevin De Bruyne continues to make the case for him being the premier attacking midfielder of the post-Iniesta era. (I count Modric as a central midfielder.) He just is the best creative passer of the ball in world football (other than Messi). The way he passed Tunisia to bits, for example, was one of the highlights of the tournament from a playmaking perspective. His multiple short passes through the packed England defensive in the 3rd place match are worth a mention as well.
De Bruyne is one of those players who don’t have to play above their usual level to make a team like this simply because he marks the current peak in his respective position. In line with this observation, one can note that De Bruyne did few things that were special even for him in this World Cup but still earns a place in this team.
Roberto Martinez’ s decision to play De Bruyne rather deep in the opening matches limited his effectiveness early on, but by the second game De Bruyne had properly arrived in the tournament. His long-range goal against Brazil showed that it is not just his passing that makes him so dangerous. De Bruyne is a complete, a ‘totaal’ midfielder who might just be the closest thing we have right now in world football to the unmatched completeness of someone like Alfredo Di Stefano.
The 2018 World Cup marked the moment Luka Modric established himself as one of the best players on the planet in the perception of the wider public. This says more about the wider public than about Luka Modric. The Croat has been among the standout performers for a couple of years now and had a major part in securing Real Madrid an unprecedented series of three Champions League triumphes in a row. He is the legitimate heir to Xavi’s throne as the best central midfielder in world football.
In some aspects Modric wasn’t even as good as he can be at this year’s World Cup. His creative passing and the sheer number of genius solutions to intricate midfield problems he presented us with was below the level he usually shows at Real Madrid. This was probably down to the fact that he had just played another seemingly neverending season (including yet another CL final). However, his creative output was still significant and what was missing he more than made up for through sheer willpower. His workrate during the knockout matches in particular was a thing to behold. He ran, and ran, and ran some more. All, of course, while contributing productively to his team’s offensive and defensive game. After every 90… I mean, 120 minutes he seemed half-dead. Then, a few days later, he did it all over again. Add to that 2 goals and 1 assist and you have a truly special World Cup.
(Nearly?) all teams at this year’s World Cup played with a true central striker. Since I want this team to (roughly) align with the positions that have featured prominently in the tournament, I had to field a central striker, too. The problem is: no central striker fully convinced me. Harry Kane obviously has German ancestors given his excellence at penalties, but he didn’t shine too much apart from that. Edinson Cavani produced the best individual performance of a striker in the game against Portugal but rarely impressed in the other matches. Cristiano Ronaldo started very brightly but soon faded. Players like Dzyuba and Giroud were solid at holding the ball but too harmless in front of goal. (Dzyuba scored 3 goals, which looks decent, but one was a penalty and the others came against Saudi-Arabia and Egypt.)
This brings me to Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku had some very bright and some not so bright moments at this year’s tournament. He had a dream start to the tournament with braces against Panama and Tunisia. These goals, however, were the only ones he scored in the whole competition. What speaks for him, and why I chose him for this team, is that he managed to produce some outstanding contributions without scoring. Remember De Bruyne’s long-range shot against Brazil that I talked about a minute ago? Have another look at the video. The way Lukaku uses both power and technique to break through Brazil’s midfield was a big part of that goal. His finest non-scoring moment came against Japan, though. To have both the courage and the creativity to let the cross pass him by so that Chadli can tap it in was remarkable. Certainly one of the most genius moments of the World Cup. Lukaku didn’t always play that well, though. His first touch let him down multiple times, for example against England. Lukaku’s strenghts are his intelligence and his physicality. His technique is more hit and miss. All things considered, I nevertheless think he was the best central striker at the 2018 World Cup.
El fenomeno 2.0? The next Pelé? The player who sent the Messi-Ronaldo generation into retirement? Mbappé is currently the most hyped player on the planet. And there is no denying that he had a hand in that. Mbappé was the most spectacular player in the competition. His pace, both in terms of top speed and acceleration, are a thing to behold. In that regard, he really reminds me of the young Ronaldo (although post-PSV he combined that trait with even more strength). He is one of the best players in the world when it comes to ripping an opponent apart on the counterattack. Just look at this run against Argentina. Actually, watch the whole video. His whole performance against Argentina is among the highlights of the tournament. The finest single moment, though, came against Belgium. This is certainly one of the most outrageous passes/pieces of skill by any player during the whole World Cup.
So, will Mbappé be the next player to dominate the world stage for years to come? I doubt it. First of all, C. Ronaldo and Messi aren’t finished. Both seem to have at least 1-2 strong years in them. Also, there is the case of Neymar. Talent-wise he still seems to be the next big thing to me. If he doesn’t stand in his own way, he looks likely to become the world’s best for a few years. And Mbappé needs to find a way to continously impress in situations where he can’t use his space. Top players play in top teams. And top teams face, for the most part, opponents that sit very deep. Mbappé must find ways not just to use space but to create space in order to become a true great. For now, his biggest strengths rely on there being space for him to use in the first place. However, moments like the pass against Belgium or his first goal against Argentina suggest that maybe, just maybe he might master this greatest individual challenge in the world football. I’m just not sure yet.
A note on selecting the Best Player:
This was a tough decision this time around. Here are some of the players who I think have a fair shout: Mbappé, Hazard, Kanté, Thiago Silva, Modric, Varane (roughly in that order). This is quite a long list for such a short tournament. Or maybe it is such a long list precisely because the tournament was much shorter than a regular season and players had less room to shine (or take themselves out of the race). In the end I think Mbappé’s great moments came just frequently enough to make up for the small inconsistencies in his game. Hazard was the more reliable performer but didn’t quite hit the heights as often as Mbappé did. But it really was a close decision. All the mentioned players were very close to claiming the top spot.