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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.

[ MORE: Schedule for PL teams on US tours ]

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.

Deeney considers training return after talking with top doctor

Troy Deeney
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Watford captain Troy Deeney is considering a return to training after some of his concerns were allayed by a leading doctor.

Deeney, 31, declined to return to training last week due to fears of spreading the coronavirus to his five-month-old son, who struggles from breathing difficulties.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

He also expressed concerns over how the virus has disproportionately affected the black community.

Deeney stated he never said his absence from training was permanent and that talks with Jonathan Van-Tam, the government’s deputy chief medical officer, have helped him.

From Sky Sports:

“I’m potentially going to go in next week. Even if it’s just to have a conversation. I’ve already been in dialogue with all the players and all the management.”

Deeney also said he received some vile abuse directed at his son following his first comments, which is disgusting but unfortunately not surprising.

Watford is currently outside the Premier League drop zone on goal difference, one of three teams on 27 points. Deeney’s six goals share the team lead with Ismaila Sarr, and the veteran has scored 129 goals in his Hornets career.

Hornets goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes said this week that Watford “cannot afford” to be without the striker and that he believed the environment is very safe. Hopefully all things work out for Deeney and his family.

Bundesliga: Takeaways from Germany’s midweek matches

Bundesliga team of the week
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This midweek was all about Bayern Munich, who will win its eighth-straight Bundesliga title next month unless it suffers a shocking and historic collapse.

Bayern Munich’s 1-0 Tuesday defeat of Borussia Dortmund took the steam out of their Klassiker rivals’ title hopes, and it only got worse for fans wanting the title race to stretch deep into June.

[ MORE: Davies shines again | McKennie scores ]

Any club within shouting distance declined to raise a hand in protest, with RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach drawing lower-half sides and Bayer Leverkusen forgetting how to defend in a blowout home loss to Wolfsburg.

So now a Bayern team which has not lost in 14 matches, winning 13 of them, will need to fail miserably over the final six matches while someone else will need to take all 18 points available to them.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Der Klassiker ]

Good luck with that.

Bayern’s six remaining matches were enough to think there would be a title fight if Dortmund at least drew the reigning champs but find the eight dropped points that would allow a perfect BVB to pass them:

Saturday – v. Fortuna Dusseldorf
June 6 – at Bayer Leverkusen
June 13 – v. Gladbach
June 16 – at Werder Bremen
June 20 – v. Freiburg
June 27 – at Wolfsburg

Maybe next year, because it’s incredibly unlikely this year.

[ MORE: Latest Bundesliga news | Current table ]


Nagelsmann rages as Leipzig blows chance

RB Leipzig won’t have liked Bayern Munich beating Dortmund — it would’ve likely preferred a draw, but it would’ve liked almost everything else it liked on the scoreboard Tuesday.

So to allow an early goal off a set piece to bottom-half (but admittedly in-form) Hertha Berlin and then toss away the good fortune of taking a 2-1 lead despite being down a man is just terrible.

This is a Leipzig side which defends so well and entered the match week having allowed the league’s fewest goals.

“We started well, but fell behind because we defend a set piece like a school team,” Nagelsmann said after the game. “We simply did nothing, everyone is standing in position, yet (Grujic) could finish with his foot in the box. This is the second time in a row in a home game that we conceded from a set piece. We have to blame ourselves for this. We’re happy that we scored another point, but I’m not happy at all.”

Leipzig has a manageable run into the final day aside from a Dortmund visit. Nagelsmann’s boys otherwise face Paderborn, Koln, Fortuna Dusseldorf, Augsburg, and an uneven Hoffenheim. They had some hope of catching Bayern and gaining sharpness for the Champions League, but only the latter looks likely after dropping two points to Hertha


Player of the Week

Austrian youth international Christoph Baumgartner has been moved all over the pitch this season, but he was a wizard in the final third as an attacking midfielder.

Hoffenheim rebounded from a terrible first two matches since the return from the coronavirus pause to beat Koln 3-1 on Wednesday, red cards going to each team.

Baumgartner did his damage early in scoring twice and adding an assist in building a 3-0 lead. He had two key passes, was four-of-four in take-ons, and won eight of 11 duels over 77 minutes.

Still 20 until Aug. 1, Baumgartner six goals and four assists in his first Bundesliga season.

And he’s got audacity for days. Look at this drag and drop assist to Steven Zuber.


BEST XI

Sommer (Gladbach)

Baku (Mainz) — Boateng (Bayern) — Pongracic (Wolfsburg) — Davies (Bayern)

 Grujic (Hertha) — Kimmich (Bayern) — Arnold (Wolfsburg)

Baumgartner (Hoffenheim) — Grifo (Freiburg)

Hennings (Fortuna)

Notes

  • Croatian center back Marin Pongracic was one of several big names to leave Salzburg in January, and the big man delivered for Wolfsburg in a big way with two goals in a 4-1 win over Bayer, also making four clearances, blocking two shots, intercepting two passes and winning four of six duels.
  • Fortuna needed a win in a bad way, and two come back against Schalke has to feel good. Veteran striker Rouwen Hennings turned back the clock and scored his 12th of the season in the win and first since before Christmas.
  • Gladbach’s 0-0 draw with Werder Bremen would’ve been worse if not for goalkeeper Yann Sommer. Bremen forced seven saves out of the veteran, who passed at 83 percent and completed 8 of 13 long balls.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]


SCORES

Borussia Dortmund 0-1 Bayern Munich — RECAP | Kimmich reacts
Werder Bremen 0-0 Borussia Monchengladbach — RECAP
Eintracht Frankfurt 3-3 Freiburg — RECAP
Bayer Leverkusen 1-4 Wolfsburg — RECAP
RB Leipzig 2-2 Hertha Berlin — RECAP
Augsburg 0-0 Paderborn — RECAP
Union Berlin 1-1 Mainz — RECAP
Hoffenheim 3-1 Koln — RECAP
Fortuna Dusseldorf 2-1 Schalke — RECAP | WATCH: McKennie’s goal

WEEK 29 SCHEDULE (Full season schedule here)

Freiburg v. Bayer Leverkusen — 2:30 p.m. ET Friday
Mainz v. Hoffenheim — 9:30 a.m. ET Saturday
Wolfsburg v. Eintracht Frankfurt — 9:30 a.m. ET Saturday
Schalke v. Werder Bremen — 9:30 a.m. ET Saturday
Hertha Berlin v. Augsburg — 9:30 a.m. ET Saturday
Bayern Munich v. Fortuna Dusseldorf — 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Borussia Monchengladbach v. Union Berlin — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Paderborn v. Borussia Dortmund — Noon ET Saturday
Koln v. RB Leipzig — 2:30 p.m. ET Monday

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 28 20 4 4 81 28 53 10-2-2 10-2-2 64
 Borussia Dortmund 28 17 6 5 74 34 40 10-3-1 7-3-4 57
 RB Leipzig 28 15 10 3 70 29 41 7-6-1 8-4-2 55
 Mönchengladbach 28 16 5 7 53 34 19 9-2-3 7-3-4 53
 Bayer Leverkusen 28 16 5 7 53 36 17 7-4-3 9-1-4 53
 VfL Wolfsburg 28 11 9 8 40 34 6 4-6-4 7-3-4 42
 1899 Hoffenheim 28 11 6 11 39 48 -9 6-1-8 5-5-3 39
 SC Freiburg 28 10 8 10 38 40 -2 6-2-5 4-6-5 38
 FC Schalke 04 28 9 10 9 34 45 -11 5-6-3 4-4-6 37
 Hertha BSC Berlin 28 9 8 11 41 50 -9 4-3-7 5-5-4 35
 1. FC Köln 28 10 4 14 44 52 -8 6-3-5 4-1-9 34
 FC Augsburg 28 8 7 13 40 54 -14 5-4-5 3-3-8 31
 1. FC Union Berlin 28 9 4 15 33 48 -15 6-2-6 3-2-9 31
 Eintracht Frankfurt 27 8 5 14 44 52 -8 6-4-4 2-1-10 29
 FSV Mainz 05 28 8 4 16 37 61 -24 4-2-8 4-2-8 28
 Fortuna Düsseldorf 28 6 9 13 31 53 -22 4-4-6 2-5-7 27
 Werder Bremen 27 5 7 15 29 59 -30 1-3-9 4-4-6 22
 SC Paderborn 28 4 7 17 31 55 -24 2-2-10 2-5-7 19

Bundesliga wrap: Fortuna sinks Schalke, Hoffenheim flies

Bundesliga
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Goals and tired legs were everywhere in the midweek matches of the Bundesliga’s restart.

[ MORE: Latest Bundesliga news | Current table ]

First, the 10 men of RB Leipzig saw their title hopes drift away in a 2-2 draw with Hertha Berlin.

Then came the 2:30 p.m. ET kickoffs, which saw a wonderful goal from an American at Schalke and an even better assist from Hoffenheim’s Christoph Baumgartner.

Read on, as the relegation and seventh-place pictures swung a little on Wednesday.

Fortuna Dusseldorf 2-1 Schalke

USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie’s diving header of a 54th-minute free kick gave goal starved Schalke a lift, but Fortuna Dusseldorf knocked it back to earth in painful fashion.

Rouwen Hennings and Kenan Karaman scored six second-half minutes apart as Fortuna picked up a huge three points for its bid to stay in the top flight. Fortuna moves a point back of safety and five points clear of 17th place Werder Bremen.

Schalke is now winless in 10 and sits ninth, dropping five points back of sixth-place Wolfsburg and two behind Hoffenheim. Seventh place may be enough for a Europa League spot.

The 21-year-old McKennie’s second goal of the season came in his 70th career Bundesliga match. It was just Schalke’s third goal since Jan. 17, and only two have come in the last seven (both from McKennie).

[ WATCH: McKennie’s diving header goal ]

The hosts dominated the early stages of the match but Schalke had the first real danger when Daniel Caligiuri used a slick flick and hard shot to force a fine save out of Florian Kastenmeier.

Fortuna had 76 percent of the ball at halftime and a 5-2 advantage in shots, but Everton loanee Jonjoe Kenny could’ve easily had it 1-0 to Schalke after the break had he got his foot around a Guido Burgstaller feed.

Kevin Stoger’s smashed free kick was only palmed into the air by Schalke keeper Markus Schubert in the 63rd minute and Hennings nodded the equalizer over the line from close range.

Hoffenheim 3-1 Koln

The red mist went both ways as 10-man Hoffenheim rebounded from a slow restart to Bundesliga life and collected a 2-0 home win over 10-man Koln.

Christoph Baumgartner’s two goals and an assist joined a 26th-minute red card for the visitors to build a 3-0 advantage, but Hoffenheim’s Benjamin Hubner picked up a second yellow in the 50th minute to put both sides down a man.

Jacob Bruun Larsen and Robert Skov played providers for Baumgartner and Steven Zuber also scored as Hoffenheim climbed into seventh with 39 points. Seventh could still be a Europa League spot depending on the winner of the German Cup.

Koln’s Florian Kainz scored at the hour mark but Mark Uth saw a late penalty saved by Oliver Baumann. Koln fails in a bid to join the top half and leaves Wednesday in 11th with 34 points.

Just look at Baumgartner’s pass on the third goal. He was absolutely feeling it.

Union Berlin 1-1 Mainz

A bonafide relegation six-pointer, Union and Mainz traded goals in the first 33 minutes before a second Robert Andrich yellow card put the hosts in danger of slipping closer to the relegation places.

Union remained strong at the back, with 15 tackles, 11 interceptions, and 15 clearances to collect a point and, more importantly, keep Mainz three points in the rear view mirror.

Union sits 13th with 31 points, while Mainz’s 28 is just one more than 16th-place Fortuna Dusseldorf.

Augsburg 0-0 Paderborn

Last-place Paderborn needs wins but collected its third-straight draw of the restart and remain dead last with 19 points.

The visitors will feel they were the better win on the day, out-shooting Augsburg 15-11 but missing two big chances.

Augsburg is now just four points clear of the bottom three with 31 points.

WATCH: USMNT’s McKennie scores diving header for Schalke

Weston McKennie goal video
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Schalke hasn’t been able to buy goals lately, but its USMNT midfielder went to the dirty areas to steal his side a Wednesday lead.

Weston McKennie’s diving header of a Bastian Oczipka free kick gave Schalke its third goal since Jan. 17. McKennie has Schalke’s only two goals in their last seven matches.

Schalke has four draws and five losses in the stretch, and has conceded twice since McKennie’s opener in the 10th match of the winless run.

[ MORE: Latest Bundesliga news | Current table ]

Take nothing away from the quality of McKennie’s 54th-minute goal.

The 21-year-old’s second goal of the season came in his 70th career Bundesliga match and 86th senior appearance for the Royal Blues.