Into the last stages of the 2018 World Cup we head, but with all four semifinalist teams being from Europe, one may be tempted to write off the penultimate stage of the tournament as one without much variety.
At first glance, it may even seem true. It, however, is anything but. Belgium, France, England and Croatia are the four teams that remain from the 32 that entered the World Cup a little less than a month ago, and there is little to no common string to bind them together with. All of them are European teams – which is where the similarities end.
Distinctive playing styles mark all four teams, and Saint Petersburg and Moscow will witness two clashes of great variety and full of tactical inventions when the semi-finals come about. We take a look at the designs of all four teams, starting with Les Bleus.
France: Defensive monsters, sub-par attack
France have emerged as the defensive monsters of this World Cup. Their two centrebacks are in top form, while N'Golo Kante continues to do some insane legwork in front of them. France have conceded 42 shots, the fewest of all the semifinalists, clearly suggesting their tactical designs lie in keeping things tight at the back. Also backing up that suggestion is their total successful defensive actions (tackles + interceptions), which is the highest (137) among the last four teams.
Further forward, France aren't even remotely close to exciting as their star cast of attackers suggest they should be. Their total of 55 shots is the lowest of all the teams in the last four, a reflection of manager Didier Deschamps' inability to get the best out of the world-class forwards at his disposal.
Les Bleus deploy a perfect link striker in Olivier Giroud around whom their attacking play primarily revolves, while Antoine Griezmann acts as the chief creative hub from his free role behind the centre-forward and does his work across the breadth of the pitch.
France's stable defensive structure allows them to nullify opponents' threat, all the while making themselves conducive to counter attacks where the explosive pace of Kylian Mbappe is the most effective. However, Les Bleus have hardly played on the counter (no goals or shots from counters yet) owing to being the more dominant team throughout this World Cup, but Mbappe has sparkled nevertheless.
Belgium: Attacking variety, leaky defence
Belgium have emerged as the favourites for crowning glory after somehow seeing off Brazil in the quarter-finals. The Red Devils have a potent attack – their front three of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku were a handful against Brazil – but questions still remain over their defence.
Belgium have attempted more shots (85) than any other semifinalist at this World Cup, and they have attempted shots from left, right and centre, a pointer to their dominance over teams until than ran into Brazil last time out. They play with wingbacks, inside forwards and no proper defensive midfielder so are vulnerable to counterattacks, but as the Brazil game showed, they can sit back and soak up pressure when the situation demands, although they aren't quite the experts at it (Brazil managed to get 27 shots away in the quarter-final).
While they are really good at generating positional attacks, Belgium also showed their counter-attacking aptitude against Brazil. They deployed De Bruyne as a false nine in the quarter-final, with Lukaku and Hazard as wide forwards, suggesting their tactical adaptability but that might not even be necessary against France who themselves like to defend passively.
Another advantage Belgium's variety in attack brings is that the Red Devils have players like Hazard who have the ability to break past massed defences on their own. Of the last four teams, Belgium lead the way in terms of successful dribbles (66).
England: One-dimensional, set-piece dependent attack, tight defence
England have not exactly set this World Cup on fire with their attacking excellence but they still have scored the second most number of goals (11). Eight of their 11 goals have come from set-pieces which explains their mediocre and one-dimensional attack. Of the remaining four teams, England have attempted more shots from set-pieces than from open play (55%), and they also lead the way in the number of headed shots (18) at this World Cup.
The Three Lions' attacking designs look basic at best, reinforced by the fact that they are the second most prolific crossing team remaining, behind Croatia. They have also had the fewest open play shots out of the four semifinalists, suggesting that Gareth Southgate has focused more on controlling standard situations rather than improving his team's creative output from chaotic, open play situations.
That said, England have had a solid defence to fall back on so far. Southgate's men have conceded the second fewest shots (48), behind defensive rocks France, as their three centrebacks – Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire – have covered well for an undermanned back of midfield, while goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has also made some fine saves. Stones and Maguire's effectiveness in the air has seen England win the highest percentage of aerial duels (60%) out of the four semifinalists.
Raheem Sterling has received some stick due to his woeful finishing at this World Cup, but for the set-piece and cross heavy style that England prefer, Sterling has been their most creative player. He has had more key passes (5) than any other attacking player for England, while his dribbling and ball advancement have helped his team earn freekicks and corners, which have been great chance creation outlets for the Three Lions.
Croatia: Aerial prowess, quality shooting, in-form goalkeeper
It seems there isn't much to shout about Croatia but they are in the World Cup semi-finals for a reason. The Vatreni have bulldozed opponents using their aerial superiority. They have one of the world's best strikers in the air, Mario Mandzukic, and have tried to maximise that obvious advantage by playing a crossing game.
Of the four semifinalists, the Vatreni have attempted the most number of crosses (92) and only trail England for number of headed shots (14) at this World Cup. Croatia have two of the best midfielders in the world – Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic – yet their attacking designs are based on circulating the ball into the wide channels and then swinging it into the box.
That said, Zlatko Dalic's team have also perfected the art of shooting from strategically strong zones of the pitch. Of their 64 shots so far, 41 have come from inside the box, the highest percentage (64%) of all the semifinalists. Furthermore, in open play, Croatia take more shots from central zones than any other World Cup semifinalist, clearly suggesting their plan to get good quality shots away.
Also, worth mentioning is the form of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. Subasic has been Croatia's hero in back-to-back penalty shootout wins over Denmark and Russia, but more significantly, it is his exploits in regulation and extra time that merit appreciation. Of all the goalkeepers in the semifinals, the 33-year-old has saved the most shots (8) from inside the penalty area, a pointer to the form he's carrying into the penultimate round of the tournament.
Croatia can certainly bank on the experienced custodian to pull off another majestic display in the semis.
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Updated Date: Jul 10, 2018 00:29:17 IST