World Cup preview

I think four and only four teams have a legitimate chance to win this World Cup. I rate them thus: Germany, France, Brazil, and Spain. Every other side has major weaknesses that will, I believe, at some point in the tournament be exploited. Belgium is quite weak in midfield (especially with Nainggolan out) and Argentina is topheavy with forwards — forwards who tend to be unproductive for their country in contrast to consistent club brilliance — and shockingly undermanned in defense. If De Bruyne can be the constant creator for his side, and Messi for his (Argentina have zero chance unless Messi plays largely as a creator and provider for his teammates, and they finish their chances), then maybe those teams could get to the semifinals. But I doubt it.

Among those four I have identified as having the best chance, Germany is the most complete. At first glance they might seem to be a little thin at forward, with the elderly Mario Gomez and the youthful Timo Werner being the only classic forwards on the whole squad, but Thomas Müller always Müllers his way to goals, and have you seen that midfield? Khedira, Reus, Gundogan, Brandt, Özil, Draxler, Goretzka, Rudy — there are plenty of goals in that group. I don’t see any worries there, or in defense, or in goalkeeping. It would be an unmitigated catastrophe if Germany didn’t make it at least to the semis, and I think anything less than an appearance in the finals would be a disappointment.

France has a few more worries. LLoris is a magnificently athletic keeper but also mistake-prone, something you have to worry about on a stage with lights so bright. Varane is one of the best defenders in the world, but I am not as confident in Umtiti or any other centerback. But my greatest worry for Les Bleus involves the transition from midfield to attack. They desperately need, but do not have, a principal creator — if not a metronome (there are few of those in the world of soccer today) then at least someone who can consistently receive a pass from the defense and distribute efficiently to this side’s terrifying roster of attacking talent. But who will that be? You certainly can’t count on Pogba to do anything of the kind. Could Tolisso possibly step up and handle the job? If so, this tournament could be a star-making turn for him. But I have my doubts.

Spain we know. A solid defense, especially at the fullback position, backed by the best keeper in the world; and some magnificent midfield creators (how France would love to steal just one of them). But none of their forwards has been reliable at this level. I think they’re going to struggle to score. And their central defense is aging, which also worries me a bit. I would not be surprised to see them in the semis, but I don’t favor them for the finals.

I’ve saved Brazil for last because they’re the wild card, bitches. Except for Marcelo, who despite his occasional forgetfulness of his defensive duties remains pretty much the best fullback in the world, they look just as shaky on defense as they were in their catastrophic 2014 World Cup. But … they have in front of that defense the absolute best holding midfielder in the world, Casemiro, and behind it some excellent goalkeeping in Alisson and Ederson. And with Coutinho, Fred, and the rejuvenated Paulinho leading the midfield attack, bringing the ball to … just pause for a moment and think about this collection of forwards: Douglas Costa, Willian, Firmino, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar … are you kidding me? That’s terrifying. The key question for me is this: Will they be more mentally and emotionally resilient than they were four years ago? If so, they could be the surprise winner of this World Cup. I kinda hated them in 2014; I’m kinda rooting for them in 2018.

But not really. My loyalties will be divided between England and Mexico — though if either of them made it even to the final eight I would be very, very pleased.

So, officially, I have France v. Brazil and Spain V. Germany in the semifinals, Brazil v. Germany in the finals, and yet another World Cup for the Germans.

 

7 Replies to “World Cup preview”

  1. You know how much it hurts me to agree with you, Alan, but I think this is spot-on. I also think that so conspicuously disincluding Sané and Götze (Götze who scored the winner in the previous world cup final!) is a very clever mind-game by Low, designed to destabilise the confidence of the other teams. Not being a Gooner myself, I have mixed feelings about Ozil, I must say: he seems to me a player who, sometimes, just can’t be bothered. But when he brings his A-game he’s astonishing. Then again, I understand Low has instituted a no-sex rule for his players for the duration of the tournament, which strikes me as a strategy that might backfire on him …

    1. Someday, Adam, I’m going to write The Great Mesut Özil Post, but here’s my theory in a nutshell: there are chronos footballers and kairos footballers. Almost all defenders are (because they have to be) chronos players; most strikers are (because they have to be) kairos players. Midfielders can be one or the other, but fans almost always give their affection to chronos midfielders.

      Özil is a kairos player, simply waiting for the appointed time, the decisive moment, to take action. And he is really, really shrewd at discerning those moments — which is why his stats over the long term are so impressive. For instance, since 2013 he has more assists than any other Premier League player. It’s just that sometimes making that one pass that creates a goal seems to be the only thing he does in 90 minutes.

      Chronos players — who always are thought to “put in a shift” — come in two varieties: the controller (think Xavi, or maybe, now, Luka Modric) and the hustler (think Alexis). But, especially in the latter case, observation of such players can deceive. No one who watches much of Alexis charging around the pitch would think it even remotely possible that Özil runs as much per 90 minutes as Alexis — but in fact he runs more.

      Kairos players do best when they can be, by fans and teammates on the bench and players on the pitch alike, largely ignored. Then they can be free to wait for the appointed time “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The kairos player at his best has this negative capability. That’s why Özil is so uncontroversial on his national team: Germany has so many superb chronos players that they have plenty of room for Özil to be his own weird self.

      If I were still an Arsenal supporter, I’d be pleased with the signings the team has made so far, because I think they’re getting closer and closer to being the kind of side that can let Mesut be Mesut.

      1. Wait, you’re not a Gooner anymore? I guess I’m a short-listener, first-time caller here, so maybe there’s something further back that I missed, but this is news to me.

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