The trajectory of how attacking players are perceived as their careers progress almost always includes the one pivotal phase, where a player has shown enough potential to be considered a future great but faces criticism until they play up to that potential when it matters most.
Real Madrid target Eden Hazard has been through that, delivering full seasons of consistent excellence but still facing questions about how reliable he can be on the biggest stage. This summer, however, he blew those doubts away with a series of starring displays at the World Cup.
Even in Belgium’s last defeat, to France in the semi-final, Hazard was arguably the best player on the pitch, as he often was for the Red Devils. He was thus a shoo-in for top spot in our World Cup attacking midfielder rankings – here’s the full top five.
1. Eden Hazard, Belgium
Eden Hazard was a man transformed at this World Cup. He was consistently Belgium’s best player, and if his side had overcome France in the semi-final he would have rivalled Luka Modric for Golden Ball honours – indeed, he did end up winning the Silver Ball as the tournament’s second-best player.
The Chelsea man was constantly torturing defences, showcasing the dribbling ability that’s always been a trademark and showcasing his elite vision and passing to lead Belgium’s attack. And speaking of leading, who knew Hazard would make such a good captain?
2. Isco, Spain
It’s a shame that Isco‘s tournament ended as early as it did. It’s hard to fault him for Spain’s Round of 16 exit against Spain, when he’d been his team’s best player until that game and led their charge against hosts Russia in that encounter, too.
There’s no doubting that the Real Madrid star is one of the best at his position. One can only wonder if he’s missed out on Spain’s golden era purely by accident of birth, as he’s come along right as Spain have been pulled back into the pack they’d left behind eight years ago.
3. Aleksandr Golovin, Russia
No one gave Russia any hope of making a mark on their home World Cup. But everyone also agreed that if they were to show any sort of progress, it would depend on the performances of their young star.
Well, Golovin delivered, right from the off. His superlative display in the tournament opener gave Russia momentum that carried them all the way to the quarterfinals – and the CSKA Moscow man continued to shine throughout.
4. Philippe Coutinho, Brazil
Philippe Coutinho‘s form at this tournament was so good, it prompted discussions about whether he was a better candidate to be Brazil’s leading star than Neymar. And while such talk may still seem somewhat fanciful, consider his impact: his two goals included a stunning strike in a 1-1 draw and an injury-time goal that was Brazil’s first in a 2-0 win.
Add that to his assist during his side’s thrilling, if ultimately futile, attempt at a comeback from 2-0 down against Belgium in the quarter-final, and it’s safe to say that no player was more crucial to Brazil’s hopes at the tournament.
5. Christian Eriksen, Denmark
Being marked as the single-greatest threat for an underdog team is never easy – just ask Gylfi Sigurdsson and Iceland – but Eriksen handled the responsibility with composure, guiding his side through to the knockout stages.
Ultimately, he was outshone by a transcendent Luka Modric during Denmark’s Round of 16 loss to Croatia, but he left Russia with his head held high.
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
Before a ball was kicked in anger by an England player at the World Cup, everyone knew that if the Three Lions had any chance of roaring, Harry would have to be their hero.
He was. However, no-one envisaged Harry Maguire would come back from the tournament with reputation more enhanced than Harry Kane – especially as the Tottenham striker claimed only a second-ever Golden Boot for England and the first since Gary Linker 32 years ago at Mexico ’86.
Yet, Maguire was magnificent. A tank at the back while also proving he can make a massive impact at the other end of the pitch, with his giant 6ft 4in frame often causing havoc as England dominated set-pieces.
He scored the crucial opener in the 2-0 quarter-final victory over Sweden and was generally a commanding presence either with the ball in the air or, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, at his feet.
This from a player who only made his international debut in England’s final World Cup qualifier against Lithuania last October. His World Cup exploits proved the 25-year-old must be the bedrock of England’s defence moving forward.
RATINGS FROM THE ARCHIVE
England 2 Tunisia 1
7 – Emerged from some dicey moments at the back. Charged up field with confidence and used his presence to help set up Kane’s late winner.
England 6 Panama 1
7 – The towering Leicester City defender caused utter chaos in the Panama penalty box for every set-piece. Defending didn’t come under microscope.
England 0 Belgium 1
7 – Came on at the interval. Held his position and line effectively. Managed to showcase his raking switches at ease. Powered up the pitch with a grace that belies his big frame. Isolated when Danny Rose bombed forward.
Round of 16
England 1 Colombia 1 (England win 3-2 on penalties)
7 – Wherever the ball was, his head swiftly followed – except at the very last up against a leaping Yerry Mina.
England 2 Sweden 0
9 – The Leicester City man was a tank in defence, holding off all Sweden’s attackers whenever he was challenged. His movement to get in prime position for his goal was superb.
England 1 Croatia 2
6 – Can count himself very lucky that neither VAR or the on-field officials punished his first-half injury-time tug on Dejan Lovren.
England 0 Belgium 2
5 – Dominant in the air but had few options to work with every time he brought the ball out from defence.
WORLD CUP STATS
What a monumental 12 months it’s been for Maguire. Voted as Hull’s Player of the Year in a disappointing 2016/17 season that ended in relegation from the Premier League, he was rescued from dropping into obscurity last summer by Leicester City.
He played in every minute of the 2017/18 campaign as the Foxes finished a respectable ninth and again ended it with individual glory as he was awarded Leicester’s Player of the Season, as well as Players’ Player at the King Power Stadium club’s end of season awards.
Only Wilfred Ndidi won more aerial duels on average than Maguire’s 3.1 per game but no-one made more clearances (4.6), while he was impressively third for assists (4) behind Marc Albrighton and Riyad Mahrez.
Tough yet talented – A glance at Maguire’s CV and where he comes from tells you much of what you need to know about the type of player he is. The 25-year-old came through the ranks at hometown club Sheffield United and then Barnsley, so you know he’s developed a hardened, physical style.
He has the look of an old school brute of a centre-back, big and burly and not the quickest. But while he is capable of mixing it in a physical confrontation and you aren’t going to knock a man standing 6ft 4in off the ball easily, Maguire is very much a ball-playing defender.
This was evidenced in Russia and throughout last season as he was extremely adept at winning the ball and bringing it out of defence.
‘Slab head’ is a threat in both boxes too, with his height, bravery and eye for goal posing problems for opposition defenders.
Positioning – His positional sense often leaves him exposed and though he led Leicester in clearances last season, a lot of last ditch blocks and tackles could have been avoided with a heightened sense of where he needs to be.
Likewise, he likes to venture forward with the ball, which all modern managers appreciate in their centre-backs. But Maguire can too often run out of ideas and lose the ball high up the pitch due to dallying in possession. If he can decipher when to carry on with his run and when to pass to a more creative player in a better position, he could reach elite standards.
CLUBS LINKED TO AND BEST FIT
Although Leicester will be keen to build an assault on the European places around their commanding centre-back, his stock has risen rapidly following his exploits in Russia, and they may struggle to hang onto him.
On the other hand, if a monster offer comes in, as evidenced by the reported £50m Manchester United are willing to spend to take him to Old Trafford, Leicester may feel that would be a healthy return for a player that cost them just £17m a year ago.
For United, the allure of Maguire is obvious. He’s young and English but has plenty of experience. And in a defence which was rigid last season, yet has the far from commanding Chris Smalling as its leader, with Eric Bailly, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones all struggling to stay out of the treatment room, Maguire would likely walk into the starting XI.
You could equally see Maguire settling in well at Arsenal who were a disaster in most areas of the pitch last season, but especially at the back. The once commanding Laurent Koscielny endured a nightmare campaign, while the high hopes for Shkodran Mustafi have fallen off a cliff.
With a new man finally at the helm after Unai Emery replaced the legendary yet increasingly languid Arsene Wenger, Maguire’s arrival could really fire the imagination of Gunners’ fans.
A move abroad seems unlikely for Maguire, but after a disastrous World Cup campaign at which Jerome Boateng proved once and for all that he is not an elite defender, Bayern Munich could do worse than bringing in the England man.
Commanding and imposing – two things Boateng and even Mats Hummels have not looked in recent times – the Bavarian giants’ signing of a strong centre-back would surely see their grip on the domestic scene tighten.
The Croatia midfielder’s performance this summer was a dream unfolding in reality: a brilliant player sprinkling the perfect blend of class, elegance, and genius on the world’s biggest stage to lead his side upon a glorious run to the final.
This tournament saw quite a few midfielders treat the world to displays of the utmost excellent, but no one did it quite like Modric, the man who tops our World Cup rankings for central midfielders. Have a look at our top five.
1. Luka Modric, Croatia
This was Luka Modric’s World Cup. That he ended up on the losing side in the final was equal parts heartbreaking and inconsequential – Croatia weren’t even supposed to be there. But they were, simply because, every time they played, Modric was everywhere, doing everything.
The Real Madrid midfielder delivered a masterclass in how one player can control a game. His passing, vision, and ability to keep hold of the ball were of a trademark high quality, and he added a stunning, signature goal against Argentina. But what was equally outstanding was that, at 32, he ran a greater distance than any other player. Winning the Golden Ball was just reward.
2. Paul Pogba, France
Here’s Paul Pogba‘s World Cup story: going from getting booed by his own fans at a pre-tournament friendly to grabbing a goal and an assist in the final. Along the way, Pogba grew into the player his talent had always promised, controlling France’s midfield and setting the tempo whether they were in attack or defence.
For a player who has been so criticised by the pundits and fans, this was a stunning riposte.
3. N’Golo Kante, France
That Pogba was able to be so effective and brilliant owed much to the player stationed alongside him. It’s been a remarkable rise for N’Golo Kante, going from France’s lower divisions to winning the World Cup in just five short years.
Kante was excellent in just about every game he played, but he’ll be remembered for his performance against Argentina in the round of 16, when he neutralised the threat of Lionel Messi. There aren’t many players who can say that.
4. Ivan Rakitic, Croatia
Modric took all the plaudits – including from Ivan Rakitic himself – but the Barcelona midfielder’s influence for Croatia cannot be understated. He was nearly as good as Modric, which, this summer, is the highest praise a player can get.
His goal against Argentina will live long in the memory, as will his contributions to Croatia’s two straight penalty shootout wins: it was Rakitic who scored the winner both times.
5. Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium
Fresh off leading Manchester City to a dominant Premier League title triumph, the World Cup was another stage for Kevin De Bruyne to strut his stuff. He wasn’t quite as spectacular as he’d been during the domestic season, and he was outshone by compatriots Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, but he was nonetheless a classy presence in midfield.
And he did have his spectacular moment – the long-range strike against Brazil will go down as one of the biggest goals in Belgium’s history.