A wonderfully unpredictable World Cup reached its climax with France beating Croatia 4-2 in an entertaining finale at the Luzhniki Stadium.
The tactical advancements across the board were truly fascinating in this edition as managers looked to extract the best from their sides.
Here’s a look at some of the most innovative and effective strategies that featured prominently in Russia.
FRANCE’S LOPSIDED SHAPE
Given the wealth of talent among their ranks, France’s World Cup triumph is one of the less surprising outcomes from a tournament that pitched so many curveballs. However, Didier Deschamps was focused on efficiency rather than blowing teams away.
While he was criticised for his cautious approach, his tactics were spot on and France’s lopsided 4-2-3-1 system was key to that. The use of a central midfielder – usually Blaise Matuidi – on the left of a three behind the striker was an innovative ploy and especially effective since it unlocked Paul Pogba.
Deschamps used the Manchester United midfielder on the right side of central midfield where his vision, flair and quick passing was complemented by the trickery and pace of Kylian Mbappe.
The formation allowed Matuidi to tuck inside and form a three-man central midfield. This made them difficult to break down through the middle but also set them up well in the transition. Pogba was quick to free himself up and carry the ball forward or make raking passes in behind for Mbappe.
Olivier Giroud meanwhile would show for the ball, offering the option to hold possession or exchange a one-two while Antoine Griezmann pulls wide to the left or comes short to support Pogba. The defence would be pulled in different directions and France often conjured clear-cut opportunities from those scenarios.
Going into this World Cup, Matthew Upson’s goal against Germany in 2010 was the last time England had scored from a set-piece at a major tournament. While at Euro 2012, the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, England had taken 72 corners without a goal.
Their run to a fourth-place finish in Russia though was largely owed to their conversion rate from dead-ball situations.
Gareth Southgate is a known admirer of NBA and NFL drills and chose to incorporate those movements in his set-pieces with forward coach Allan Russell leading the practice sessions.
England’s ‘Love Train’ was a consistent ploy from corners used to confuse defenders.
Four players lined up in a row from the corner, stopping opposition markers from getting close, before they would break off in separate directions.
Usually two players would dart to the front post, one peel off to the back, freeing up space in the middle for an unmarked header. One or two players meanwhile would focus on screening opposition defenders to the England targets could break free.
BELGIUM’S FORMATION SWITCH
Roberto Martinez’s systematic dismantling of Brazil in the quarter-finals will go down as this World Cup’s finest piece of tactical mastery. It left pundits trying to decipher the formation he used. Was it a 3-4-3, 4-3-3, 4-3-2-1 or something entirely different?
The general bewilderment is testament to the fluidity of his team. In its simplest form though, it was both a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-3 with the Belgians switching seamlessly between both formations.
They defended with a back four, denying Brazil’s dangerous wingers freedom of space, but with possession, they shifted to a three-man defence with Jan Vertonghen holding back while Nacer Chadli shuttled out from central midfield to the left flank.
Not only did this allow the West Brom player to use his pace out wide, but ensured Kevin De Bruyne had enough space through the middle in his false nine role. Meanwhile, Romelu Lukaku was deployed on the right of a front three to take advantage of Marcelo’s tendency to go forward. It worked like a charm.
Uruguay were among the best defensive sides at this World Cup. Key to that was an experienced goalkeeper in Fernando Muslera and the solid centre-back pairing of Atletico Madrid duo Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez.
New Arsenal signing Lucas Torreira proved crucial to their structure with Oscar Tabarez opting for a 4-1-2-1-2 formation, utilising a midfield diamond. The defensive midfielder screened in front of the centre-backs without the ball while pushing up into midfield with it.
The experience and tactical understanding of accomplished strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani came into play as well as they defended from the front with one pressing the man on the ball while the other supported Rodrigo Bentancur at the tip of the diamond, working to cover passing lanes.
With Torreira in behind, Uruguay were compact, forcing teams wide. Their work ethic though saw them shuttle out to the flanks in packs of three to box in a wide player in possession and if they did win the ball, one of the strikers were usually well positioned in space for the counter.
RUSSIA’S DIRECT ROUTE
Little was expected from a faltering Russian side ahead of the tournament but Stanislav Cherchesov’s switch from a 3-5-2 to a 4-2-3-1 made a world of difference. The full-backs and wingers both provided the width in the system while the double pivot is what made this structure work.
Yuri Gazinsky would drop off and support the two centre-backs when the full-backs pushed up. Aleksandr Golovin linked midfield and attack superbly while man mountain Artem Dzyuba was key to Russia’s route forward.
His aerial supremacy saw the striker often lay the ball off for Golovin or bring the wingers into play with flicked headers and knockdowns.
Russia’s aim was to get the ball to Dzyuba as quickly as possible and play from there. No one won more headers (41) than him at the World Cup while only Harry Maguire matched him having played two games more.
Paul Pogba is on top of the world at the moment, and he’s letting everyone know.
After scoring in France’s 4-2 win over Croatia in the World Cup final, the Manchester United midfielder has been celebrating with uncontainable glee, and many of his moments of triumph have made it onto social media.
The 25-year-old generally has a cheery, outgoing – some might even say outsized – personality, and while he’s drawn criticism for it in the past, Pogba’s silenced those critics with an outstanding performance all summer long, capped off by Sunday’s goalscoring, match-winning display.
Here’s a look at the best of Pogba on social media, including getting French president Emmanuel Macron to join him in a signature dab and a cheeky dig at England, as the Frenchman has been living it up during his moment of glory.
Paul Pogba’s instagram live after winning the World Cup has me dying of laughter (a thread) pic.twitter.com/tV6Pd2hnhY— Asha (@sasselbaye) July 15, 2018
President Emmanuel Macron dabs with Benjamin Mendy & Paul Pogba. What a world, what a day. pic.twitter.com/CcPuYIKDgQ— Get French Football News (@GFFN) July 15, 2018
Paul Pogba winding up England fans after winning the World Cup! 🏆— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) July 16, 2018
🗣️ "It's coming home!" 🎣 pic.twitter.com/gdCwFRPq9J
After 31 days, 64 games and 169 goals, one the greatest World Cups of all time came to a close on Sunday, as France beat Croatia 4-2 in a memorable final to win it for the second time.
The tournament has been lit up by a string of stunning performances from the best players in the world. From Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick to Kylian Mbappe’s brace against Argentina, there have been some unforgettable individual displays.
Here we pick out our Team of the Tournament, taking a look at the best 11 players from this summer’s spectacle in Russia…
GK: Jordan Pickford
Thibaut Courtois may have got his hands on the Golden Glove, but Pickford’s performances in helping England reaching the semi-finals cannot be underestimated. A penalty save in the shootout win against Colombia and three superb stops against Sweden in the quarter-finals helped the Three Lions believe they could reach the final. Despite a number of excellent saves in the semi-final against Croatia, Pickford’s efforts went unrewarded, as England were knocked out. Errors in the final from both Hugo Lloris and Danijel Subasic cost them a place.
RB: Kieran Trippier
Quite how England would have fared without the marauding Tottenham Hotspur man on the right wing is anyone’s guess. Trippier’s delivery from both set pieces and open play proved fundamental for the Three Lions. The right-back was incredibly the World Cup’s chief creator, setting up 24 chances for his teammates across the tournament. Trippier’s excellent free-kick in the semi-final was not enough to book a final spot, but helped cement his place in our World Cup XI ahead of Thomas Meunier.
CB: Raphael Varane
The Real Madrid man is going to need a new trophy cabinet. At just 25 years-old, Varane has quite the haul – the World Cup, the Champions League (four times) and La Liga (twice). He was exceptional for the eventual winners throughout the tournament, forming an excellent understanding with Barcelona star Samuel Umtiti. Varane made 39 clearances, 47 recoveries and five blocks at the World Cup, with his heroic defensive display against Belgium in the semi-finals his standout performance in Russia.
CB: Andreas Granqvist
Diego Godin and Harry Maguire may feel a little aggrieved, but Granqvist’s leadership of Sweden was deserving of a place in the team. The 33-year-old was an exemplary captain, helping his nation finish top of a group containing 2014 winners Germany and the entertaining Mexico. He made 43 clearances, 32 recoveries and 12 blocks in his five games, as well as netting two penalties, and could do little about Sweden’s exit at the hands of England.
LB: Jan Vertonghen
With Nacer Chadli or Yannick Carrasco on the left-wing for Belgium throughout the tournament, Vertonghen – part of a back three more often than not – spent much of his time covering at left-back for Roberto Martinez’s side. Scorer of a vital goal in the comeback win against Japan, atoning for a slight error, the Tottenham man had an excellent tournament defensively. Vertonghen made 22 clearances and 32 recoveries to help Belgium to their best-ever World Cup finish.
CM: Paul Pogba
Having faced so much criticism throughout the season with Manchester United, Pogba went a long way to silencing the critics thanks to his performances in Russia. Forming an excellent understanding with midfield partner Kante, Pogba was superb on the ball and offered protection defensively when required. The 25-year-old completed 83% of his passes over the course of the tournament and netted a deserved goal in the final.
CM: N’Golo Kante
He may have saved his worst performance of the tournament for the final, but by that stage Kante had done enough to earn his spot. Superb up until the showpiece in Moscow, the Chelsea man covered an astonishing amount of ground to help France win back possession and control proceedings on their way to the final. Kante made 61 recoveries and 11 clearances, covering an impressive 30km when not in possession of the ball.
CM: Luka Modric
The Real Madrid man has been regarded as one of the finest midfielders of his generation for years now, but away from the plethora of headliners at the Bernabeu, this was his chance to stand out. He did just that. Modric lead by example to help Croatia to their first-ever World Cup final. Goals against Nigeria and Argentina, as well as converting from the spot in both shootouts – despite missing an extra-time penalty against Denmark – prove his contribution was invaluable to Zlatko Dalic’s side.
RW: Kylian Mbappe
Aged just 19, Mbappe took the tournament by storm, breaking a host of records along the way. France’s youngest scorer at a World Cup. The first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele. Only the third teenager to play in a World Cup final. The PSG man was sensational for Didier Deschamps’ side, netting against Peru, Argentina and Croatia to help France to their second World Cup triumph. It’s frightening to think Mbappe may be able to feature at another four World Cups.
With no out-and-out striker truly standing out over the course of the tournament, Griezmann gets the nod. Playing just off Olivier Giroud from the second game, Griezmann excelled for Deschamps’ side. Three confidently-taken penalties and a fortuitous strike against Uruguay, as well as assists for Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti in the knockout stages, highlight Griezmann’s worth. His teasing free-kick also led to the opener in the final.
LW: Eden Hazard
Belgium’s captain played a key role in helping his nation to their best-ever World Cup finish. Hazard troubled defenders every time he got possession, linking up superbly with Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne. The Chelsea man netted three goals and grabbed two assists, including a superb cross for Marouane Fellaini to net the vital equaliser in the comeback win against Japan. The Real Madrid target was fully deserving of the Silver Ball.