As the business end of the World Cup approaches and the draw pits world football’s giants against each other, the margins between success and failure will become ever finer.
To work out which of the tournament favourites would have the edge in specific match-ups, we’ve analysed every goal scored and conceded since the start of last season to identify each team’s strengths and weaknesses.
With Lionel Messi in their ranks, it’s no surprise to learn the Argentines lead the way when it comes to scoring from outside the penalty area – over a quarter of their goals have come from this range. They’ve also held the line flawlessly when defending set pieces and are difficult to break down early on in games. However they struggle to open the scoring themselves and even when they do, they have a frustrating tendency to throw away leads, while also not offering much in the air.
The current ‘golden generation’ is spearheaded by Romelu Lukaku, who is responsible for almost a third of their goals. His presence in the box puts them out in front when it comes to close-range strikes, with almost a quarter of their tally coming from inside the six-yard box. Roberto Martinez’s side also excel at protecting a lead and they’re fit enough to press late in games, having netted the highest percentage of last goals in matches during this period. However, they’ve found it difficult to score early in games and also lack a reliable long-range goalscorer to beat the sort of well-organised defence that they’re likely to encounter as the tournament progresses.
Neymar is key to both creating and converting chances for his national team, so will be an obvious target for opposing defences. The Brazilians have been superb at closing out leads, with their mean defence having not been breached at all in the last 15 minutes of matches since the start of last season. They’ve also been alert to shots from long range, although set-piece deliveries have been the cause of half of the goals they’ve conceded. Their defence seems to lack confidence in the air, with headers having been their main downfall, and they’ve also struggled to break opponents down early on.
England have showed plenty of character and organisation under Gareth Southgate, leading the way in terms of set-piece goals, with their ability to recover from falling behind and score late in games – as they demonstrated against Tunisia – also making them stand out. There has been a heavy dependence on Harry Kane for goals, though, which makes them relatively predictable going forward, and they’ve also suffered from some worrying lapses. A high proportion of the goals they’ve conceded have come late in matches – often cancelling out a lead – and they rank worst for the proportion of long-range goals conceded.
The French tend to start matches well, having scored the highest proportion of goals in the first half of matches, and even when they don’t draw first blood they’ve excelled at recovering with goals of their own. Their defence is also well-drilled in the air, having not conceded a single header since the start of 2016/17. However, for all their talent in midfield, they rarely score from outside the box or set pieces, which may see them struggle to break down a stubborn defence, and their knack of conceding penalties is a worrying one in the knockout stage of a major tournament.
The Germans spread their goals around the team, so marking a single player out of the game won’t do you much good. Joachim Low’s side are fast starters, with almost a quarter of their goals arriving in the opening quarter of an hour, and when they go ahead they tend to stay there. In matches where they took the lead, they ended up with almost 95% of possible points, and with their organised defence the only one of the eight not to have conceded a penalty in the last two seasons they’re clearly a difficult side to fluster. Close-range shots have been their Achilles’ heel, however, as have late goals and a worrying inability to recover after falling behind – Toni Kroos’ last-minute free kick against Sweden a rare exception.
The reigning European champions are clearly reliant on a seemingly ageless Cristiano Ronaldo, but they have other strengths in their locker too. While their impressive aerial threat and knack of scoring late goals surely owe plenty to their leading goalscorer, their defence has been superb at keeping things tight early on while the rest of the team settle. However, their back-line has been less proficient at dealing with their opponents’ headers and close-range efforts, while their attack has offered little from set pieces at the other end. Ronaldo’s wonder strike to cap off a 3-3 draw with Spain at the start of the tournament distracted from the 44 attempts he’d missed at major tournaments before that one flew in.
The Spanish attack is blessed with a variety of goalscoring threats, but if you can only focus on one man then make it Manchester City’s David Silva, who tops both their goalscoring and assist charts in the last two seasons. Spain are fantastic at breaking the deadlock thanks to a defence which starts games incredibly well, and they’re one of the best at scoring after the break too. They’ve struggled to protect a few of those early leads, however, and don’t offer much from set pieces, while a vulnerability to long shots has the potential to cause their undoing.
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