The main event
His political compass may have gone haywire, but Arsène Wenger still knows his left wing from his right. In his latest tactical briefing as part of Fifa’s technical study group, analysing the data from the group stage, he drew attention to the fact that the majority of entries into the final third had come from the left and right channels – 30% and 28% respectively – while goals from crosses in open play were up 83% on Russia 2018. “Does that mean that the teams that have the best wide players are the teams that have the best chance to win the World Cup?” he asked with a rhetorical flourish. “I believe there is something in that and in the final result of the competition.”
Should that give England cause for optimism when they take on France in the quarter-finals? Wenger isn’t the only one who can ask leading rhetorical questions, clearly. In England’s case, the numbers actually suggest dynamic balance across the team. Of the 12 goals scored by Gareth Southgate’s side at the tournament so far, three have been assisted by crosses from the wide left channel and three from the wide right channel. To restate for those who prefer stats as fractions: half of England’s goals have been set up from wide areas.
In a testament to the fluidity across the front three, two of Harry Kane’s three assists have come from the right flank. His first, for Raheem Sterling against Iran, was a clever dinked cross after he had drifted out wide to gather a ball from Jude Bellingham. His second, for Marcus Rashford later in the game, came from a central area, but his third also came from the right flank when he flashed a ball across the face of goal for Phil Foden to rifle home at the far post against Wales. Foden, who has alternated between the wide positions, got his assists against Senegal from the inside left and wide left channels, teeing up Kane and Bukayo Saka respectively. Luke Shaw, Callum Wilson and Jude Bellingham have also teed up goals with crosses from wide areas.
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There’s little doubt England carry a threat out wide, then, whether through their wingers and full-backs or central players who have been willing to spread the play and attack the flanks. The obvious counter is that France have the most accomplished wide forward in the world in Kylian Mbappé who, with five goals and two assists, has the best attacking numbers at this World Cup. Inevitably, though, that gives France’s forward line a certain lopsidedness. Of the nine goals they have scored, two have been assisted from the wide left channel and three from the inside left in a reflection of Mbappé’s influence on that side of the front three. While Mbappé has been set up twice from the right, via Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann, Dembélé’s flank is the road less travelled in the build-up to France’s goals.
While it won’t be much comfort for Kyle Walker, England’s balance out wide could give them an advantage in attack. Southgate can also take heart from his side’s versatility, with two goals from set pieces – Harry Maguire’s knockdown for Saka at a corner against Iran and Rashford’s free kick against Wales – to one for France.
England have eight different goalscorers to France’s three and eight different assist makers to France’s six so far. If France have the best wide player at the World Cup, then England have perhaps the most rounded attack. There’s no accounting for the Mbappé factor but, up against a nosebleed left-back in Theo Hernández and a stand-in right-back in Jules Koundé, Southgate will still believe that his side can win the battle for the wings and, ultimately, the match. WM
Netherlands v Argentina an instant classic
Lionel Messi doing otherworldly things? Tick. A legendary manager throwing tactics out of the window? Tick. A Burnley flop turning the tie on its head? Tick. One of the all-time great World Cup free-kicks? Tick. An equaliser in the 11th minute of injury time? Tick. Tackles flying in during extra-time? Tick. A huge on-pitch melee? Tick. A raucous atmosphere? Tick. Just the 16 yellow cards? Tick. A red card that no one noticed? Tick. A referee that enjoyed blowing his whistle more than Mike Dean? Tick. Penalty shootout drama? Tick. Plenty of afters? Tick, tick, tickety tick. There are many elements that make for a classic World Cup tie – and this one seemed to have them all. Will there be any drama left for the semi-final with Croatia? Let’s hope so. GB
Croatia show Brazil that control is the key
Sometimes it’s more than just a team game, more than a game of systems – as Neymar proved by burnishing a hitherto poor personal display with a cool and decisive extra-time finish following a beautifully worked move to dismantle Croatia’s well-executed plan. But other times it’s all about collective control and will, as Croatia demonstrated for much of this quarter-final and in recovering from going behind. Though having to absorb plenty of pressure, Croatia had looked the more controlled side over the 90 minutes. The galloping first-half forays of Josip Juranovic rather belied their “walking footballers” reputation. Even though the Celtic right-back’s raids weren’t exactly matched by many of his teammates they did illustrate how Croatia were able to control the tempo for much of the tie, while Brazil’s attempts to force the pace often seemed hurried and lacking their usual fluidity. Add that to a resolute Croatian back four and a goalkeeper having a barnstormer in Dominik Livakovic and there seemed to be a creeping inevitability about how things would pan out – a fourth consecutive World Cup shootout win for Croatia, and a fourth quarter-final exit in five for Brazil. TD
The chief executive of the Qatar World Cup, Nasser al-Khater, was roundly criticised by human rights groups on Thursday for the dismissive nature in which he dealt with questions about a Filipino migrant worker who died on a World Cup site this week. By failing to give satisfactory answer he caused a problem for the France manager, Didier Deschamps, as journalists continued to ask questions about the issue of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers during his pre-match press conference. Had Khater displayed some leadership it might not have been left up to Deschamps to speak on the subject, which he clearly found difficult. “It’s always a sensitive topic, it’s not something I want to talk about at length,” said Deschamps. “It may be a priority for you today but my priority is the match tomorrow. We’re involved in a tournament here. That doesn’t mean we’re totally insensitive to what goes on outside the football, but you shouldn’t mix everything up.” GB
The media in Morocco are understandably jubilant about their team’s progress so far – and future prospects. In Assabah, the view was that “amidst distinguished and professional performance, unlimited ambition and a solid will to achieve victories, Walid Regragui’s cubs are going into this difficult match with high spirits”. Morocco’s support has become one of the stories of the tournament, with MWN reporting that national carrier Royal Air Maroc launched special flights for supporters travelling to Doha, and that ticket resale sites had more availability for the other three quarter-finals than the in-demand Morocco-Portugal clash. The Tanja7 site in Tangiers highlighted the local tourism industry benefiting from what it termed the “unprecedented propaganda” of the team doing so well on the global stage. Meanwhile Jamel Debbouze, the French-Moroccan actor and stand-up comedian, is in Le Matin discussing the tantalising possibility Morocco could face France in a semi-final: “I want to see this match but at the same time I dread it because I won’t know how to live this moment. It would be like my father playing against my mother. It’s a very complicated dilemma.” MB
The internet reacts
You almost have to admire Croatia’s insistence that tournament knockout matches require at least 120 minutes. Juranovic was the breakout star of the quarter-final for some corners of the internet. A shining example of not spending so much time worrying about what your opponents can do and letting that hamper your natural game – take note Kyle Walker – at times he seemed to be gifted the freedom of the Education City Stadium by Brazil, like a little hobbit running free in the Shire sunshine.
Juranovic plies his trade at Celtic, and their fans were quick to appreciate the impact the game might be having on the bean counters at the Scottish champions.
Adding to the way people responded to how he consoled teammate Daizen Maeda after Croatia knocked out Japan, Juranovic’s stock on social media has risen and risen in Qatar. And he gets to go again on Tuesday. MB
Morocco v Portugal, (Quarter-final, 3pm GMT, ITV1) Having found their flow against Switzerland without Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal come up against possibly the best defensive team in the tournament. The North Africans carry the hopes of the Arab world and are the best-supported team in the last eight. A gruelling but vindicating win over Spain may well have drained Regragui but they will try to take Portugal down to the wire. The prize of being their continent’s first semi-finalists is huge, while Portugal look to reach their third semi having got there in 1966 and 2006. JB
England v France (Quarter-final, 7pm GMT, ITV1) For much of the English press it’s been a case of stopping Mbappé and rolling on to the semi-finals, though it will be a little more complicated than that. Both Deschamps and Southgate are careful, cautious tacticians blessed with attacking riches their critics would like them to untether. Not since Brazil, losing finalists in 1998, has a defending champion been past the quarter-finals. France must bury that curse, while England have not beaten a higher Fifa-ranked team at a World Cup since Argentina in the group stage in 2002. JB
Player to watch
Sofyan Amrabat Globalisation and the internet has reduced the ability of players to make breakthroughs at a World Cup. But after his masterful display in damping down Spain’s midfield, Amrabat presents something of a throwback; as a Dutch-born Moroccan, he has played all his career in Europe. Well-travelled, he’s into his third season at Fiorentina via spells at FC Utrecht, Feyenoord, Club Brugge and Verona. With the European transfer market set to reopen in just three weeks, Amrabat is the subject of transfer speculation; he is seen as a solution to Liverpool’s problems in midfield. Tottenham are also linked, but neither of those clubs’ interest in his talents began with his performances in Qatar. Scouts and data departments will know all about him, but his asking price will doubtlessly have multiplied. For Morocco, against Portugal, the likes of Bruno Fernandes, William Carvalho and Bernardo Silva must try to prosper where Sergio Busquets, Gavi and Pedro could not. In the last 16, and over 120 minutes, he appeared to be everywhere. JB
And finally …
The UK may not be experiencing the sort of weather compatible with showering people in lager at large gatherings (though when is it?), but the beleaguered pub industry is confident England’s quarter-final can boost beer sales by six million pints. The British Beer and Pub Association’s chief executive, Emma McClarkin, said: “This match’s Saturday-night slot will hopefully deliver good trade for pubs, with people able to head to their local early to secure a spot and cheer on the Three Lions. The World Cup has been providing a boost to beer sales and if England manage to see off France this will hopefully continue. Pubs need this as they continue to weather what was already set to be a difficult winter.” TD