In a World Cup that ended up being the third-most prolific of all time, high-class defending was at a premium. But there were a few exponents of football’s less loved art who stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Diego Godin was a prime example, as the centre-back who seems like a throwback to a bygone era, showed yet again why he’s considered one of the best defenders in the world.
The Uruguay man duly tops our World Cup centre-back rankings – here’s the full top five.
1. Diego Godin, Uruguay
Uruguay are blessed with attacking stars like Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, but no player personifies the team more than Diego Godin. The Atletico Madrid man gives no quarter and fights until his dying breath, much like his team.
Every bit the classic warrior-defender, the 32-year-old was at his best in the World Cup as he anchored a miserly defence that conceded just three times en-route to the quarter-finals, dominating in the air and serving as a roaring, inspirational leader.
2. Harry Maguire, England
Everyone knew a player named Harry would star for England at the World Cup. Nobody thought it would be Maguire, not Kane. As he has been at every stage of his rise to stardom, Maguire was a revelation this summer.
The Leicester City defender was a towering presence in the air in both his box and the opposition’s, and always looked unruffled on the ball. It was his goal that put England in the driver’s seat in the quarter-final.
3. Raphael Varane, France
Raphael Varane has long been marked out as one of the best young defenders in the world, but he’s had a shaky couple of years for Real Madrid. However, this summer, Varane took the next step on the journey to realising his potential.
The 25-year-old looked like he was relishing his role as the senior man in the heart of France’s defence, leading that rearguard to a World Cup title – and for good measure, he added a crucial knockout stage goal as well.
4. Jose Gimenez, Uruguay
The other half of Uruguay’s indefatigable central defensive partnership, Jose Gimenez was about as much of a warrior as Godin, with the duo close to unbeatable.
It’s remarkable that at 23-years old, Gimenez has carved out a reputation for himself as just as hard-nosed and reliable defender as senior colleague Godin – a reputation that grew even more at this World Cup.
5. Domagoj Vida, Croatia
Barring a controversy over a couple of politically charged videos, Domagoj Vida was the Croatian centre-back who made the least headlines. While Dejan Lovren was wondering why he’s not regarded as one of the world’s best defenders, Vida was the one putting in outstanding performances at the heart of his team’s defence.
And he was a dangerous presence in attack, as well, scoring a vital goal in Croatia’s quarter-final win over Russia and bagging an assist in the final, setting up Ivan Perisic’s first-half equaliser. The Besiktas man, who has been linked with Liverpool, was everywhere.
As soon as France lifted the World Cup to the sky, silly season went into overdrive.
Some of the brightest sparks in Russia have been linked to big moves and in a series of daily features, we reflect on their time at the tournament – and which teams should be poking around for their services.
WORLD CUP OVERVIEW
We’re hardly likely to forget one of the biggest thrashings dished out at this summer’s World Cup, as Croatia tortured international juggernauts Argentina 3-0.
Ante Rebic’s thunderous volley is the standout moment from that game, but he almost didn’t make the tournament. He wasn’t a favourite of previous coach Ante Cacic, but all that changed when former Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic came in and breathed life into a stuttering qualifying campaign last October.
Rebic was brought in from the cold and he was one of the players to catch fire during the tournament – pretty impressive considering the illustrious team-mates he has around him.
His seemingly ceaseless appetite for work and excellent engine were traits that proved pivotal to Croatia motoring into a first-ever World Cup final.
RATINGS FROM THE ARCHIVE
Croatia 2 Nigeria 0
7 – Worked hard and fashioned goalscoring opportunities for himself but failed to hit the target. Completed two dribbles though somehow managed to avoid getting booked despite committing five fouls.
Croatia 3 Argentina 0
8 – Very fortunate to escape horror first-half challenge on Eduardo Salvio but then popped up with superb winner following horrendous Willy Caballero mistake.
Croatia 2 Iceland 1
N/A – Did not play
Round of 16
Croatia 1 Denmark 1 (Croatia win 3-2 on penalties)
6 – Industrious as ever on that right flank and played a part in the equaliser. Always a willing runner and did well to win the penalty deep into extra-time.
Croatia 2 Russia 2 (Croatia win 4-3 on penalties)
6 – Didn’t quite scale the same heights of previous games in the tournament. His impact here was more as a willing, tireless runner than to produce anything spectacular.
Croatia 2 England 1
5 – Fired in several wild shots and could do nothing with the rebound when Perisic’s second-half shot hit the woodwork.
France 4 Croatia 2
5 – Has been a constant threat this month and jointly led Croatia in dribbles (2), but lacked the incision he has brought to this side.
WORLD CUP STATS
Rebic’s World Cup form mirrors that of his 2017/18 club season with Frankfurt, where he was a vital part of the Eagles’ flight to eighth place, their best finish in five seasons.
They will be playing Europa League football next season for the first time in five years and Rebic is a huge reason for that, scoring a brace as Frankfurt memorably beat Bayern Munich 3-1 to claim a fifth DFB Pokal title.
His 1.5 dribbles per game last term led Frankfurt and was 16th overall in the Bundesliga, which in turn led to him being fouled on average 1.4 times per game. He bagged six league goals, third only behind forwards Sebastien Haller and Luka Jovic, while he was also one of the hardest working, making 1.5 tackles per game.
He’s a menace – As evidenced in Russia, Rebic is a pest with a penchant for scoring. He is tireless, tenacious and will be a nuisance in both attack and defence. He committed more fouls (21) than any other player so he’s probably going to see yellow often, but he doesn’t know when to quit.
That can also be a virtue on the other side of the ball, with Rebic leading Croatia at the World Cup in dribbles (3.2 per game) while only Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic were fouled more times (1.8 per game), so full-backs won’t be getting any respite. Neither, perhaps, will goalkeepers as his 2.5 shots per game was second most.
Passing – Rebic has a lot of plus points for prospective teams eying him up, but they will not be signing him for his passing range and vision. His pass success rate at the World Cup with Croatia was a woeful 59.8 per cent, and that was not an anomaly.
His figure of 56.9 per cent from the Bundesliga last season was even worse. Luckily, with his ability as a counter-attacking, ball-winning winger, he was able to leave the job of keeping and utilising possession to the likes of Perisic and Luka Modric.
Frankfurt are said to value the winger at around £44 million, but after helping the Vatreni (the Blazers) reach the final, that figure could easily rise.
Manchester United are certainly keen to try some Croats on for size with a double swoop for both Rebic and Ivan Perisic for a combined £92m in the offing. If United are prized out of a move for the Inter Milan wideman, Rebic could be a more viable option.
And Red Devils coach Jose Mourinho will definitely value his pace on the counter and industry.
After a 2017 summer of relative inactivity, Tottenham can’t afford to fall behind in 2018. Mauricio Pochettino’s speedy attack is orchestrated by Christian Eriksen and spearheaded by Harry Kane. And Rebic’s boundless energy and incisive running could help create chaos.
Napoli ultimately fell short of wrestling the Serie A crown from undisputed kings Juventus last season, but came mighty close. Carlo Ancelotti has replaced Maurizio Sarri and with Dries Mertens possibly off, the relentless Rebic would be a welcome addition to a bustling array of fast forwards that includes Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon.
If the Nerazzurri struggle to keep hold of Perisic, then they would do well to keep it Croatian when looking for a replacement. Perisic has been a tireless up-and-down winger during his time at the San Siro and they would get a like-for-like player in Rebic.
With the conclusion of the 2018 World Cup, we rank all 32 teams with 17-32 in this installment as Egypt hit rock bottom but Morocco are surprise high movers.
Fortune favours the brave and perhaps had Aliou Cisse’s side followed that mantra they would not have needed to rely on the agony of exiting on yellow cards.
A win over Poland was deserved but they lacked discipline beyond bookings to twice surrender an advantage against Japan and then regrettably retreated in the decider with Colombia. They are at the forefront of African football so they were missed in the knockouts.
Morocco were the dark horse tip to emerge from a group of sharks but it was Iran who actually came closest with four points.
Carlos Queiroz sent out of his side to strangle rather than entertain. Their discipline delivered against the Atlas Lions and they battled well against Spain before almost embarrassing Portugal. Sardar Azmoun didn’t score but at 23 impressed with his aerial prowess and protection of the ball as the loneliest frontman in Russia.
Bold to have Morocco so high on the list considering they were bottom of Group B with a point, but context is everything.
Herve Renard’s limited tactics infuriated long before the own goal against Iran yet they battered Portugal. A genuine No9 married to their enterprise would have seen them challenge and the 2-2 draw with Spain – owed only to late VAR controversy – showed what this talented crop is capable of.
Peru didn’t capture a knockout spot but they did conquer our hearts.
Their fervent fans brought plenty of personality to Russia and it was replicated on the pitch through their attacking endeavour. A missed penalty in the 1-0 loss to Denmark was ruinous and by the time they found a finish to their flow against Australia, the damage was done.
The swirling hype created by their vibrant kits was immediately drained away by the colourless opening defeat to Croatia.
However, a shift from 4-2-3-1 into a 3-5-2 for the second half of the Iceland clash saw them burst into life with Ahmed Musa a lethal weapon on the counter. They needed to draw with Argentina but crumbled. However, this is a young exuberant side, one for the future rather than the present.
Few teams frustrated like Serbia. The man mountain Sergej Milinkovic-Savic arrived with a big reputation but failed to build on his eye-catching display against Costa Rica before missed chances cost them dearly against Switzerland.
Brazil caught fire as they cooled off in the final fixture but had they not collapsed against the Swiss in the second game, they’d have gone through.
23) South Korea
A tough group so expectations were understandably kept to a minimum. But while they were impotent against Mexico and Sweden, struggling to create the same attacking atmosphere Son Heung-min enjoys at Spurs, against Germany they got it together in a big way for the shock of the tournament.
Goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo is an emerging star, too.
Iceland were far from the limited side many predicted and while their tower of strength was predictably at the back, they meshed their steel with a cutting counter-attack style.
The high point, of course, was drawing with Argentina. Hannes Thor Halldorsson’s save to deny Lionel Messi will live long in the memory but they could have harvested more from this tournament were it not the second-half capitulation against Nigeria.
The Germany blueprint may not need ripping but it is certainly back to the drawing board after the holders finished bottom of Group F.
Indeed, they unravelled spectacularly against Mexico, were suffocated by Sweden before South Korea embarrassed them. Joachim Low made tactical blunders so their ignominious exit was uncharacteristic rather than systemic. They’ll be back but their dire defence will take some forgetting.
Robert Lewandowski evaporated defenders in qualification and for Bayern Munich so it was a shock to see him disappear in Russia.
Yet blame is apportioned to Adam Nawalk because given the talent at his disposal it was scandalous that they lacked any coherent plan other than to lump hopeless balls from the back.
27) Saudi Arabia
The lowest ranked side in the tournament were set to become the World Cup’s worst ever team after being hammered by the hosts to open the competition.
But they gave a good account of themselves against Uruguay and then grabbed a memorable win over Egypt to ensure a much more rosier outlook for the Green Falcons.
Unlucky against the Three Lions with Harry Kane pouncing to secure three points, a draw would have changed the complexion of Group G entirely.
As it was, though, Nabil Maaloul’s anaemic attack was always going to struggle and alongside a porous defence, they were indebted to Panama’s ineptitude for their three points.
29) Costa Rica
Oscar Ramirez opted for cold caution and although they were a little unlucky against Brazil with that style, ultimately they heated up when on the attack, as they did against Switzerland when it was far too late after the group opener defeat to Serbia proved a high-priced result.
The managerial merry-go-round was never going to be conducive of a good tournament but Australian fans would have expected more than the point garnered against Denmark.
Bert van Marwijk’s pragmatic approach and bizarre substitutions blunted any promise and it was shame we didn’t see more from teenage talent Daniel Arzani.
Purely because the expectations were so low anyway, their credible performance in defeat to Tunisia lifts from the bottom. They were shapeless and shocking against Belgium and England but in scoring against the latter and in their final game, they deserve some praise to avoid being this tournament’s worst team.
If the size of support equated to shape of success then Egypt would be inside the top 10.
However, Hector Cuper’s counter-attacking style lost its focal point with Mohamed Salah struggling to shoulder the burden through injury and their tragic campaign ended with appropriate last-minute disaster against Saudi Arabia.
Much more was hoped for from the Pharaohs, even with their Egyptian King struggling and so having scored the same goals with just a point more than Panama, they sit bottom.