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Why 2018 World Cup Final was one of the weirdest soccer games ever

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More often than not, in the modern game, high-stakes tournament soccer games are played in a cagey, cautious manner with teams afraid to risk elimination, believing that the negative pitfalls of conceding goals often outweigh the reward of creating chances on the offensive end.

The 2018 World Cup final was not that. Mostly. I think.

Croatia and France matched up in Moscow, Russia to determine who would be engraved into soccer immortality on Sunday, and fans were treated to undoubtedly one of the weirdest games ever played on such a grand scale. We’ve had 72 hours to digest the final result, and it seems to make less sense the longer one chews. Six total goals were scored over the 90 minutes, and France scored four of them. Yet, every piece of postgame analysis and every statistical scan of the match tells us just how wildly absurd that is.

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First, Croatia dominated France in every attacking statistical category. Croatia out-passed France 440-198 and out-possessed them 65.5-34.5. They out-passed France in the attacking third 99-28 and in the penalty area 14-5. They created 11 chances to France’s 4. They attempted 14 shots to France’s seven. Six Croatians completed more passes than anyone on the French team.

Farther than any one particular number the statistical review could bring you, here is one image that speaks louder than any words or numbers can:

The top passing combinations in the 2018 World Cup final (via StatsZone mobile app)

Not only did the Croatians wipe the French off the passing leaderboard, but only one French combination appears on the list – goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to striker Olivier Giroud. In one word: HOOF.

To reinforce this point, the French attempted 55 long balls to Croatia’s 33. Upon closer inspection, we find an even bigger discrepancy. Of the French long balls attempted, only four of them were square across the pitch. Almost all of them were vertical. Meanwhile, over half the Croatian long balls were attempted square across the pitch, meaning they were used to switch flanks and shift possession, not to launch forward and bypass the midfield. Visual evidence:

The discrepancy in tactics between France and Croatia is further visualized in the map of long-balls attempted (via StatsZone mobile app)

When you really think about it, this tactic is not terribly surprising. France knew that Croatia possessed one of the best – if not the best – midfield in the entire World Cup field with Luka Modric spearheading the more box-to-box style of Ivan Rakitic and defensive cover Marcelo Brozovic. Bypassing that trio was a relatively straightforward tactic, and it allowed France to utilize their strength of pace and aerial prowess more effectively. Still, it’s striking to see a team loaded with such sheer talent utilize a tactic more often reserved for less talented underdogs taking on the Goliaths of the world.

Still, it worked. Or did it?

Maybe the most jarring statistic from this game:

Expected goals isn’t the greatest tool to summarize a single 90-minute outcome, since it is a statistic far better deployed over a much larger sample size than a single match, but it remains stunning that France generated just 0.3 xG in this contest. They created almost nothing up front. Their two open-play goals both came on speculative shots from outside the box that slid by a hapless Danijel Subasic who failed to even challenge the attempts. Pogba’s shot generated a 0.07 xG, while Mbappe’s carried just a 0.03 xG. Still, France put six of its seven shots on target and didn’t miss the frame once, and that persistence paid off as Subasic was uninspired.

Croatia high-pressed France early, and that early turbo produced one of the more stunning results of the entire tournament: it neutralized the world’s best defensive midfielder and potentially most valuable formational cornerstone N'Golo Kante. The 27-year-old rock completed just eight passes – two of them were forward, while just one landed in the attacking half of the pitch – it went square. He was 1/3 tackling, including a failed tackle through the middle and one in France’s own penalty area. He had just four ball recoveries, his second-lowest mark of the tournament. He committed three fouls, drawing a yellow card (that, in fairness, was extremely harsh). With Kante now timid playing on a yellow, he was yanked before the hour mark, and France finished with a 63% pass completion rate, by far their lowest of the tournament.

Kylian Mbappe, meanwhile, was unquestionably France’s best outlet as he has proven all tournament. His bursts of energy continually troubled the Croatians, nearly punishing them for their forward-thinking mindset on a host of occasions. The Young Player of the Tournament was the best player on the pitch, despite Croatia’s perceived dominance on the ball. He was aided by Paul Pogba‘s brilliance, with the Manchester United midfielder feeding Mbappe continually with deliciously weighted through-balls.

And yet, the difference in this match came down to defending and, quite frankly, luck. As Caley implies in the tweet above, simply put, Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane outplayed Domagoj Vida, who had been one of the best center-backs in the tournament prior to the final. While Croatia passed France out of possession, their only good chance was the Mandzukic goal on the Lloris howler, which carried a huge 0.54 xG value. Take that goalkeeping mistake out, and Croatia generated just 0.7 xG throughout the entire match.

[ MORE: Every PL kit for 2018/19 season ]

In short: the best chance on either end came on a goalkeeping mistake from a Golden Glove contender.

The luck factor played a huge role as well. France’s first goal was entirely generated via luck, with Griezmann drawing a phantom foul leading to a Mario Mandzukic own-goal with Pogba offside, carrying an extremely unfortunate deflection past a wrong-footed Subasic. That left Croatia chasing the game, although they seldom looked truly rattled. Still, France was able to defend in numbers with the lead, and that helped alleviate some pressure brought on by the high Croatian press.

None of this is to diminish France’s achievement and accomplishment, which ranks among the best in history. In the end, France manager Didier Deschamps favored pragmatism over flair, and he delivered the goods. He molded his team to his players rather than the other way around, a rare approach in today’s game of tactical nuances. It is almost better that France prevailed despite the adversity it faced, rather than prevailing with such dominance that it avoided facing adversity at all. Still, the duality of the statistical analysis juxtaposed with the actual result presents us with one of the more wild and nonsensical soccer games ever played in such a high-stakes environment, and the fans are the real winners.

Bundesliga wrap: RB Leipzig, Dortmund keep pace with Bayern

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(Photo by Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images)
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There were plenty of young American players on show Saturday as the Bundesliga title race continues with at least three contestants.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

RB Leipzig smashed Schalke and BVB took care of business at Werder Bremen to stay close to Bayern Munich.

Borussia Monchengladbach slipped a bit off the pace with a draw, but still has a match-in-hand on the three teams ahead of it.

Werder Bremen 0-2 Borussia Dortmund

Erling Haaland scored his 40th goal of a season spread between BVB and Red Bull Salzburg to salt away a two-goal win a relegation-threatened Bremen.

Dan-Axel Zagadou scored BVB’s other goal, with Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hazimi getting assists. Dortmund is four points back of leaders Bayern and three back of Leipzig. They face Bayern on April 4 and Leipzig on May 9.

American teen Giovanni Reyna followed up his first UCL assist at midweek by making another substitute appearance. He completed all 12 of his passes, making one key pass and winning 2-of-3 duels in 13 minutes.

Fellow USMNT man Josh Sargent played 11 minutes for the hosts, converting his only dribble attempt and winning his only 50-50 while registering an interception.

Schalke 0-5 RB Leipzig

Five different players scored for the visitors in a humbling of David Wagner‘s top four hopefuls in Gelsenkirchen.

Marcel Sabitzer’s last name sounds like a weapon, and he put Schalke on notice with a bullet after 55 seconds before Timo Werner, Marcel Halstenberg, Angelino, and Emil Forsberg joined in on the fun.

USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie was subbed off in the 55th minute with the score 1-0, so he was spared a bit.

Elsewhere
Bayern Munich 3-2 Paderborn — Friday
Hertha Berlin 0-5 Koln
Freiburg 0-2 Fortuna Dusseldorf
Borussia Monchengladbach 1-1 Hoffenheim
Bayer Leverkusen v. Augsburg — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Wolfsburg v. Mainz — Noon ET Sunday
Eintracht Frankfurt v. Union Berlin — 2:30 p.m. ET Monday

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 23 15 4 4 65 26 39 8-2-2 7-2-2 49
 RB Leipzig 23 14 6 3 61 25 36 7-3-1 7-3-2 48
 Borussia Dortmund 23 13 6 4 65 32 33 8-3-0 5-3-4 45
 Mönchengladbach 22 13 4 5 43 25 18 8-2-1 5-2-4 43
 Bayer Leverkusen 22 12 4 6 38 29 9 5-4-2 7-0-4 40
 FC Schalke 04 23 9 9 5 32 32 0 5-5-2 4-4-3 36
 1899 Hoffenheim 23 10 4 9 34 36 -2 5-1-6 5-3-3 34
 SC Freiburg 23 9 6 8 31 33 -2 5-2-4 4-4-4 33
 VfL Wolfsburg 22 8 7 7 28 28 0 3-5-3 5-2-4 31
 Eintracht Frankfurt 22 8 4 10 37 35 2 6-3-2 2-1-8 28
 FC Augsburg 22 7 6 9 34 45 -11 5-3-3 2-3-6 27
 1. FC Union Berlin 22 8 2 12 27 35 -8 6-0-5 2-2-7 26
 1. FC Köln 22 8 2 12 33 42 -9 5-1-5 3-1-7 26
 Hertha BSC Berlin 23 7 5 11 27 43 -16 3-2-7 4-3-4 26
 FSV Mainz 05 22 7 1 14 31 48 -17 3-1-7 4-0-7 22
 Fortuna Düsseldorf 23 5 5 13 23 46 -23 3-2-6 2-3-7 20
 Werder Bremen 23 4 5 14 25 53 -28 1-2-8 3-3-6 17
 SC Paderborn 23 4 4 15 29 50 -21 2-1-9 2-3-6 16

What we learned in the Premier League

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What did we learn in the Premier League on Saturday?

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There were six Premier League games across three time slots and plenty had huge implications in the top four battle, European battle and relegation scrap.

Here’s a look at the big talking points from around the Premier League as the drama really never stops.


VAR steals the show

In both Chelsea’s win against Tottenham and Bournemouth’s hammering at Burnley, VAR stole the show. And not in a good way. Spurs’ Giovani Lo Celso somehow stayed on the pitch but Stockley Park later said he should have been sent off. Bournemouth were hard done by as two goals were chalked out at Burnley and the second one was in such a cruel manner as they had a goal taken away and a penalty awarded against them which put the game to bed.


Giroud now the main man

Chelsea have been missing a target man and Olivier Giroud stepped up against Spurs to put them in the driving seat in the Premier League’s top four race.. Big time This is just what he does. For some reason Giroud has been the third-choice striker all season at Chelsea and he looked likely to leave in January. Chelsea will be glad he didn’t. Tammy Abraham is young and has cooled down after a red-hot start to the season and Michy Batshuayi doesn’t have Giroud’s composure or experience in key moments. Giroud jumped off the bench on Monday against Man United and scored but was just offside and he has the knack of being in the right place at the right time. We spoke with Giroud after his display against United and he said he was fired up and ready to start, especially with a place in France’s EURO 2020 squad on the line. With Bayern Munich coming up in the Champions League last 16 on Tuesday, surely he has to lead the Chelsea line. With his clever runs and flicks, Giroud linked up defense and attack perfectly. This is just what he does and it is a mystery as to why he hasn’t played more this season.


Man City’s tough week ends well

It has been a rough seven or so days for Man City off the pitch but on it they have pretty much wrapped up second place in the Premier League. After their two-season European ban their fans have been revolting against UEFA and Pep Guardiola has insisted he will stay at the club. Winning away at Leicester City with another clean sheet showed plenty of character after a win against West Ham on Wednesday. After Sergio Aguero had a late penalty kick saved it would have been easy for City to sulk. Even if VAR, or a lack of it, may have helped them on a Kevin De Bruyne possible handball, they dug deep to get a late win which they deserved. They now sit seven points above third-place Leicester and Man City will finish second this season. Liverpool’s title party should start soon if it hasn’t already as they can go 22 points clear once again with a win on Monday against West Ham. Man City are hanging in there and ahead of their game against Real Madrid on Wednesday they are showing plenty of grit to put the UEFA troubles to one side.


Villa, Bournemouth in big trouble

Aston Villa and Bournemouth are in real trouble and their final 11 games are horrendous. Where are Villa and the Cherries going to get their points from? Villa were awful as their seething manager Dean Smith saw his side totally outplayed by Saints. Bournemouth were unlucky due to VAR but with Chelsea and Liverpool in their next two and Spurs, Everton, Man City, Leicester and Man United still to come, where are Bournemouth’s points going to come from? Villa are in a similar predicament and also have the distraction of the League Cup final against Man City at Wembley next weekend.

Man City grabs late winner at Leicester City

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Gabriel Jesus‘ 80th-minute goal gave Manchester City a 1-0 victory over Leicester City at the King Power Stadium on Saturday.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The three points give Man City 57 on the season, seven more than third-place Leicester City. Liverpool leads the league with 76 points and a match-in-hand.


Three things we learned

1. Ederson flashpoint: James Maddison swept a cross over the Man City back line and Iheanacho raced into the 18 to head it on goal. Iheanacho didn’t get much of it and Ederson did before his parry landed flush with Iheanacho’s chin. Social media was a buzz with cries for a red card, but it’s difficult to see what Ederson could’ve done other than allow Iheanacho to head home.

2. Moral victory for Leicester in loss: Brendan Rodgers‘ men were absolutely clobbered in three previous matches with their perceived top three rivals, but Leicester was good money for a point on Saturday. The Foxes should be encouraged despite the death of their top two hopes. Still holding a 10-point lead on fifth and sixth, Leicester may well focus a bit more on the FA Cup.

3. Striker swap pays off: Aguero had one goal ruled out for offside and saw his penalty saved by Ederson, and Guardiola’s decision to give Gabriel Jesus a run paid off within minutes. The soon-to-be 23-year-old Brazilian striker got his 10th goal of the PL season to go with five assists when he swept a low shot past Schmeichel. His 17 goals in all competitions have him four goals from equalling his best Man City campaign.

Man of the Match: Leicester fans won’t like it, but ex-Foxes star Riyad Mahrez was everywhere. He edges six-save Kasper Schmeichel, as well as Ricardo Pereira and Rodri.


Vardy let Man City off the hook for a giveaway that sent him 1v1 with Ederson, pushing a shot past the keeper but off the post.

Former Leicester star Riyad Mahrez forced Kasper Schmeichel into a parry at the other end.

Man City was all over the Foxes, and Rodri claimed a loose ball to set up a bounding Benjamin Mendy shot that led to a corner.

Mahrez set up De Bruyne for a shot near the top of the 18, but the Belgian struck wide of the near post.

The Foxes earned a dangerous free kick against the run of play, but James Maddison’s 29th-minute shot turned off the wall and into the hands of Ederson.

There was a 39th-minute flashpoint went Ederson went fists first into Kelechi Iheanacho‘s head in a bid to parry a Maddison cross. The Brazilian got the ball first, but Iheanacho spent a lot of time on the turf with a clear injury.

Aguero had the ball in the goal off a De Bruyne-led counter-attack but was a yard offside and the match soon met halftime.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

Leicester came out of the team room with vigor, and Ederson had to stymy a 46th-minute cross from newly-introduced Harvey Barnes.

Aguero’s rough day continued when he saw his penalty saved by Schmeichel, but Jesus gave City all three points on a rough-and-tumble day in Leicester.

Aston Villa fuming after Saints defeat

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SOUTHAMPTON — Saints battered Aston Villa on Saturday and to make sure you have every angle covered for the marquee Premier League games, our new feature “In the Mixed Zone” will take you behind-the-scenes and into the tunnel areas to hear from the star players moments after their magic has decided games or drama has ensued.

[ MORE: In the Mixed Zone ] 

The idea is to set the scene of being inside the tunnel area in Old Trafford, by the dugouts at Stamford Bridge and in the swanky new players area in Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium as Premier League stars walk out of the dressing room and break down the game with media members around the world. We will tell you what they are saying and the kind of antics going on amid the hubbub of the mixed zone as players from both teams have their say on the 90-plus minutes of action we’ve just witnessed.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Here’s the scene from St Mary’s Stadium as Saints were relieved that they finally sealed the win in stoppage time, while Aston Villa were downbeat after another defeat and this time their manager Dean Smith was far from happy.


WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Southampton midfielder Will Smallbone, who turned 20 on Friday, made his Premier League debut and excelled in midfield with plenty of composed passes and he almost scored with a deflected shot which hit the post.

“Good celebration for my 20th birthday and then to get a start and a win today in the Premier League, yeah, it was good,” Smallbone said. “It was different. To play in the Premier League, it was a lot harder. I thought I handled it okay and did alright.”

Smallbone joins the likes of Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Luke Shaw in coming through their academy and being graduated to the first team.

“We’ve had quite a lot of players come through the ranks and you look up to them when you’re younger. To come through myself and hopefully do the best I can, it is very special.”

Smallbone is a special player and slotted in seamlessly to Saints’ midfield on his debut and sprayed the ball around nicely.

Dean Smith, Aston Villa’s manager, was absolutely fuming..


MIXEDZONEOLOGY

Jack Grealish was downbeat as he got onto the Aston Villa team bus and his mood reflected that of every Villa player.

What was most surprising was that Grealish got off the team bus and went away in a private taxi after the game instead of going back with the rest of the players and coaching staff. John Terry appeared to do the same.

For most away games that happens and players make their own way home or visit other places for promotional events etc.

But given Smith’s strong words about Villa’s display, it was surprising to see Grealish leave his teammates for the trip home. Grealish and Pepe Reina looked very downbeat and those two are Villa’s only hopes of staying in the Premier League.


IN AND AROUND

Michal Obafemi and Nathan Redmond were hanging around the mixed zone and the likes of Conor Hourihane and Alex McCarthy were on their cell phones loitering around.

Southampton’s players were all very happy as this win all but secures their Premier League status for another season. Villa’s team bus was a pretty miserable place as Dean Smith got on with a look of despair. Next stop: League Cup final against Man City.