The 2018 FIFA World Cup is a week old, and every team has played at least once. We’ve seen a little bit of everything so far.
World Cup fans have been treated to great matches, great goals, controversies, and records falling like flies. As we approach the halfway point of the Group Stage, here are several observations about the tournament thus far.
The World Cup of the Set Piece
28 of the first 51 goals scored at the World Cup have come off of set pieces. That’s 55 percent. What???
A total of nine penalty kicks, eight corners, 10 free kicks, and one throw-in have been scored. Additionally, every single African nation (Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia) has conceded at least once off a set piece. Both goals Nigeria and Tunisia conceded in their opening matches were off set pieces.
What does this tell us about the tournament?
For one, the set piece defending has been rather sloppy. Goalkeeping mistakes, defenders not marking properly, blown assignments, and poor organization all play into it.
VAR also plays a factor. Now that fouls, particularly inside the 18-yard box, can be reviewed at the referees’ leisure, it was inevitable that the number of set pieces would increase, and with it, the goals.
However, no one could have expected the proliferation of set-piece goals that have taken place. Whether or not this is a fluke or a recurring theme remains to be seen. You’d like to think that once the weaker competition gets weeded out, set-piece goals will become far less common.
The Favorites have Underwhelmed
For me, this is the most important observation of the World Cup thus far.
Heading into the tournament, there were five prohibitive favorites to win it all: Germany, Brazil, Spain, France, and Argentina. Arguments could be made for teams such as Belgium, Uruguay, Portugal, and Colombia as well.
So far, none of them have performed up to standard.
Germany, the defending champions, were thoroughly outplayed by Mexico, who easily could have won by three or four goals. They were slow, lacked positional or possessional awareness, and were deserved losers.
Brazil and Argentina, despite taking the lead against Switzerland and Iceland, respectively, failed to impress, finishing with lukewarm 1-1 draws in which their respective superstars made headlines for all the wrong reasons (Neymar was fouled 10 times; Lionel Messi missed the go-ahead penalty).
Spain and Portugal were each impressive in their opening match. Spain dominated for large stretches, looking much more like the 2010 Spain than the 2014 Spain, but Portugal matched them blow for blow, largely due to the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo.
In their second matches, however, they both failed to impress, grinding out subpar 1-0 wins. Portugal was outplayed by Morocco, and won because of heroic performances by Pepe, Jose Fonte, and Rui Patricio; Spain needed VAR and a lucky deflection to best Iran. Neither has sealed progression to the last 16 after two matches.
France beat Australia in their opening match, but by the skin of their teeth. The Aussies defended resolutely and lost on an unlucky own goal. Despite their bevy of attacking talent, the French also needed VAR and a lucky deflection to beat the Asian outfit.
Uruguay has two 1-0 victories, and a max six points out of six. They were also thoroughly underwhelming, beating an Egypt team without Mo Salah in stoppage time, and capitalizing on a goalkeeping error to beat Saudi Arabia 1-0 (Russia, by comparison, beat the Saudis 5-0).
Belgium looked terrific in the second half against Panama, but they were stagnant and predictable in the first half and relied solely on talent to knock off one of the worst teams in the tournament.
Colombia, so creative and brave in Brazil four years ago, was bested by a Japan team that they thrashed 4-1 in 2014.
Is this good for the overall competition? Absolutely. This tournament is wide open.
But so far, none of the big sides looks at all ready to hoist the trophy. Progress must be made across the board.
Russia has been brilliant, outscoring their opponents eight goals to one. Aleksandr Golovin has been a creative force, and forgotten men Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba have been banging in goals for fun.
While it is still safe to assume Russia’s best case scenario is the Round of 16, it’s always more fun when the host nation does well. So far, the lowest ranked team in the tournament has taken it by storm. We’ll see how they fare against their first real case of good competition in Uruguay. We’ll see how many goals Cheryshev can score against Diego Godin.