The top of the La Liga table is nowhere near straightforward this season.
Barcelona failed to build a gap at the summit as they fall 4-3 at home against Real Betis on Sunday. Lionel Messi scored twice in his return from a broken arm, but was unable to overcome a multitude of defensive mistakes.
Junior Firpo, Joaquin, Giovani Lo Celso, and Sergio Canales all found the scoresheet for the visitors at the Camp Nou as they routed the Barcelona back line.
The first came from 22-year-old Firpo in the 20th minute who finished with his right foot one-on-one against Sergi Roberto after a brilliant long-distance feed from William Carvalho. Barcelona would fall 2-0 behind before halftime as Clément Lenglet whiffed attempting to clear a cross that skittered across the face of goal, and with the defenders all sucked towards net by the fast paced counter-attack, Cristian Tello cut the ball back into the middle where Joaquin was waiting to finish with a nifty little flick. Messi brought Barcelona a goal back from the penalty spot past the hour mark, but Giovani Lo Celso found space in the box just three minutes later and powered it home past Marc-Andre ter Stegen who got a touch.
Arturo Vidal again drew Barcelona within one before Betis would find the ultimate winning goal in the 83rd minute in a vicious flurry. Betis forced ter Stegen to come off his line and make a smothering save near the left post, which he did before booting the chance clear. It came right back at the Barcelona defense, however, as a streaking Junior Firpo cannoned the ball across the face of goal where Sergio Canales split Lenglet and Roberto with a sliding finish.
Barcelona’s defense has suffered greatly in the absence of Samuel Umtiti, who was unable to return from his knee injury in time to be fit for the match against Real Betis, having missed nearly six weeks. Lenglet has filled in during Umtiti’s absence, and Barcelona has conceded nine goals over the last four matches with the understudy in the lineup. Thomas Vermaelen has also been absent with a hamstring injury suffered after he played 90 minutes against Valencia in early October.
With the loss, Barcelona holds just a one-point lead over Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, and Alaves at the top of the La Liga table, with Espanyol three points back and Real Madrid still seven points behind.
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.
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:
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:
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:
xG map for the World Cup Final. Very hard to say this was an impressive team performance by #FRA, but Umtiti and Varane prevented #CRO from creating clear chances and Mbappe and Pogba made the needed plays in attack. Individual talent won out. pic.twitter.com/oMfePQ6V1R
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.
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.
Yes, Antoine Griezmann is a midfielder, but he’s a fourth forward if N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba are at their very best. Croatia’s midfield triangle has been responsible for much of its World Cup success, and will need to keep that up if it hopes to collect an upset.
Mandzukic renews acquaintances with La Liga CBs…
Two goals in the Champions League semifinals against Real Madrid, one the year before in the final, and an assist in that UCL run-up versus Barcelona.
So, yes, Real’s Raphael Varane and Barca’s Samuel Umtiti have tangled with him a time or two. And the big Croatian striker Mandzukic really seems to be rounding into form.
…And Giroud versus Lovren and Co.
Olivier Giroud has yet to score in the tournament, but sleeping on his industrious performance up top is a mistake. Dejan Lovren has branded himself “one of the best defenders in the world” based on this tournament and his Champions League run with Liverpool.
If France needs to whip crosses toward Giroud, we’d expect things could look a bit like the below highlight reel. Check around the 1:00 mark of this video:
Two years to the day after losing in the final of the 2016 European Championship on home soil, France booked their place in the final of the 2018 World Cup with a 1-0 victory over Belgium, narrowly besting their northern neighbors in a exciting, back-and-forth affair at the Krestovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Samuel Umtiti scored the game’s only goal, though 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe will undoubtedly be remembered as the star of 2018’s first semifinal for his constant threat on the counter-attack, and one moment of individual flair and brilliance against a packed-in Belgian defense.
Hugo Lloris began the battle of the goalkeepers when he denied one of four current of former Tottenham Hotspur teammates-turned-foe, thwarting the game’s first clear-cut scoring chance in the 22nd minute. Toby Alderweireld corralled the ball in the box after Nacer Chadli‘s corner kick near the penalty spot. Alderweireld turned on the ball and fired through a sea of bodies toward Lloris’ right-hand post, but the French captain went full-stretch to make a stunning save.
Lloris’ opposite number and London rival, Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois, made a save nearly as impressive six minute before halftime, denying Benjamin Pavard who made a long, underlapping run into the penalty area and fired toward the far post from a tight angle with a reactive kick-save.
France needed just six second-half minutes to find the breakthrough, and it came as so many goals have done during this tournament: via a set piece (WATCH HERE). 69 of this World Cup’s 158 goals have been scored from set pieces. Antoine Griezmann served it up to the near post, where Marouane Fellaini was matched up against Umtiti, but it was the Barcelona defender who won the battle for positioning and rose highest to head past Courtois.
Lloris was forced to come up big again in the 81st minute, when Axel Witsel unloaded a low, swerving drive toward his left-hand post. Hit from all of 25 yards out, Witsel’s shot violently moved left to right, but Lloris got two hands behind it and punched it away to safety.
France will now wait 24 hours to learn who they’ll face in Sunday’s final in Moscow. England are favorites against Croatia, but that has meant very little — as in, next to nothing — during this tournament.