Updated entries for France, Croatia and Belgium
Spain – Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, *Andres Iniesta
While it was certainly the last we’ll see of Andres Iniesta, the future of the three current Barcelona players is less straightforward at national level. With the depth of Spain, it could be the end of all three and that’s with the caveat that Pique doesn’t retire from international duty like he has said in the past. For more on Pique’s future at Barcelona, check out TBPod.link/93.
Group Stage Matches: 3-3 v. Portugal, 1-0 v. Iran, 2-2 v. Morocco
Round of 16: 1-1 (3-4 P) v. Russia
Argentina – Lionel Messi, *Javier Mascherano
After the win against Nigeria and an unbelievable escape from elimination, Argentina found themselves toe-to-toe with a squad that the aging South Americans couldn’t contend with. Playing Messi as a “false 9” didn’t appear to be the right tactical decision, but it’s also possible that there was no magical solution that would have helped their defense contend with the pace of Kylian Mbappe. Messi still finished the match with two assists, 85% passing and 3 successful dribbles, but by playing closer to the French defense N’Golo Kante didn’t have to mark him one-on-one and was able to harass and cut out passes in the midfield. In the aftermath, Mascherano immediately retired after the match, and now the question becomes whether or not Messi will continue playing for the national team or retire for the second time. Nevertheless, when one looks back on the Argentina side assembled and the quality of the group that they were drawn into (Croatia may have been the best side in the group stage), it should be seen as a triumphant success that they managed to get out of the group stage before being knocked out by a much deeper and skilled squad. Messi’s leadership skills and role in the chaos surrounding the team will rightfully be criticized, but the problems in Argentina certainly go much deeper than their captain and may take years to mend.
Group Stage Matches: 1-1 v. Iceland, 0-3 v. Croatia, 2-1 v. Nigeria
Round of 16: 3-4 v. France
Brazil – Philippe Coutinho, Paulinho
The world’s attention was always going to be on Neymar, and even some sensational performances by Coutinho couldn’t prevent the power of narrative. Albeit for a late miss in the match and a few moments where composure was lacking in the face of an ever-changing defense (which switched to four at the back with impressive precision), Coutinho controlled play in Russia in ways that a proper midfielder does. Alongside Paulinho, they combined well with teammates and although Coutinho would never be considered a defensive stopper, he did his job and there were few moments when the Brazilian midfield looked lacking in that area. Paulinho’s recent transfer news have dominated the headlines, but just as when he moved to Barcelona in the first place, the player the world sees playing for the Selecao is one of the top midfielders in doing the things that he does best. A good tournament for two players that ends with a difficult result.
Group Stage Matches: 1-1 v. Switzerland, 2-0 v. Costa Rica, 2-0 v. Serbia
Round of 16: 2-0 v. Mexico
Round of 8: 1-2 v. Belgium
France – Ousmane Dembele, Samuel Umtiti
Much will be written about the French attackers, but after being the hero against Belgium, Umtiti was back to his best on the defensive side of the ball against Croatia and helped win his country their second World Cup. Umtiti’s seven clearances and desire to put his body on the line are the kinds of things that allowed the squad to keep its shape and his 87% passing were vital to their ability to play out of the back when necessary. The former Lyon defender is already one of the top defenders in the world and already the question presents itself; what trophy is next on his list?
Dembele went from a starter in the World Cup friendlies and group stage to an unused substitute for the knockouts (he played the last two minutes against Uruguay), but that was the choice of Didier Deschamps to go with the personnel that was working in the system he was employing. Dembele still played a role in his country’s journey, and he returns to the Camp Nou as a World Cup champion. On an individual level, he still has tons to prove and this season will serve as a major benchmark in his development as a top-level player.
Group Stage Matches: 2-1 v. Australia, 1-0 v. Peru, 0-0 v. Denmark
Round of 16: 4-3 v. Argentina
Round of 8: 2-0 v. Uruguay
Semifinal: 1-0 v. Belgium
Final: 4-2 v. Croatia
Germany – Marc-Andre ter Stegen
With Germany out in the group stages, the only silver lining for ter Stegen is that he’ll have a few extra weeks of vacation.
Group Stage Matches: 0-1 v. Mexico, 2-1 v. Sweden, 2-0 v. South Korea
Uruguay – Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez served as more of a distributor in his battle with Umtiti and Raphael Varane as he did somewhat languish without his normal strike partner Edinson Cavani, who was replaced by Girona’s Cristhian Stuani. Uruguay was forced to defend deeper in their half than we’ve seen them this tournament, and Suarez did not shirk his defensive duties. Suarez didn’t see much of the ball as finally Uruguay’s midfield met their match. While the loss stings, the tournament was a success for him, if not for the simple fact that he didn’t have one major moment of villainy as he did at the last two editions of the World Cup. He still showed that he is a master of the “dark arts” if you will, but no action was particularly notorious. If he is able to come into the new season looking like the goal-scoring, lively threat that he was in Russia, some of the criticism and questions of age being thrown his way may find a reason to temporarily muffle their bile.
Group Stage Matches: 1-0 v. Egypt, 1-0 v. Saudi Arabia, 3-0 v. Russia
Round of 16: 2-1 v. Portugal
Round of 8: 0-2 v. France
Croatia – Ivan Rakitic
The miraculous run by Croatia and their bid for their first World Cup may have come to an end, but Rakitic gained major plaudits for a consistently terrific tournament. He will forever be overshadowed by the Golden Ball winner Luka Modric, but the simple observation that different match reports list Croatia as either playing a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 is a testament to the work horse that Rakitic has proven to be. Working in tandem with Marcelo Brozovic when Croatia were defending while partnering with Modric when shifting into attack, this midfield trio was the best of the tournament. Having played in more matches than anyone else in the top leagues this season, Rakitic was bound to finally slow down and France’s game-plan finally troubled him. His passing wasn’t as crisp (though he did play the game’s only reported long through ball) and he was dispossessed on three occasions, the most of any Croatian player. His tournament may have ended on a sour note, but his glorious month in Russia should not be forgotten as Barcelona’s midfield begins to look younger and will once again be relying heavily on the 30-year-old this season.
Group Stage Matches: 2-0 v. Nigeria, 3-0 v. Argentina, 2-1 v. Iceland
Round of 16: 1-1 (3-2 P) v. Denmark
Round of 8: 2-2 (4-3 P) v. Russia
Semifinal: 2-1 (AET) v. England
Final: 2-4 v. France
Colombia – Yerry Mina
Yerry Mina had one of the moments of the tournament with another header goal, his third of the tournament, in stoppage time. Colombia didn’t play a game that won them many fans, but Mina was arguably their best player once again. He is playing well and with other teams potentially looking at him with wanting eyes, his unclear future at the Camp Nou may have more options after his last few weeks in Russia. For more on his place in the squad, check out TBPod.link/93.
Group Stage Matches: 1-2 v. Japan, 3-0 v. Poland, 1-0 v. Senegal
Round of 16: 1-1 (3-4 P) v. England
Belgium – Thomas Vermaelen
Vermaelen not only won a third place medal, but he played a part in the victory over England. Having started the match on the bench, he was called in to service in the 39th minute to substitute Nacer Chadli. Belgium moved from their three-back system into a more traditional back four and Vermaelen only had 23 touches for the rest of the match. He had to deal with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Kieran Trippier on his side of the field and he clearly did just enough, even blocking a shot in the 56th minute. If nothing else, he has presented his case for being a serviceable back-up and continuing that same role with Barcelona for another season. Unless he chooses to cut his vacation short, he will return to the squad for the Joan Gamper Trophy match in August.
Group Stage Matches: 3-0 v. Panama, 5-2 v. Tunisia, 1-0 v. England
Round of 16: 3-2 v. Japan
Round of 8: 2-1 v. Brazil
Semifinal: 0-1 v. France
3rd place game: 2-0 v. England