World Cup XI: the team of the tournament (so far)

Seb Stafford-Bloor
FourFourTwo

GK: Jordan Pickford (England)

Putting aside the high points, Pickford really hasn’t put a foot wrong in Russia. He incorrectly took the blame for Adnan Januzaj’s goal for Belgium, but without any real justification. His handling has been faultless and his distribution has been consistently excellent. They might be the more mundane aspects of goalkeeping life, but they’ve been essential to England’s stability.

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His highlights will live for a long time: the penalty shootout save against Colombia, but also the three saves which kept Sweden’s comeback at bay in the quarter-final. Pickford has been both solid and spectacular and, at the time of writing, has produced one of the finest goalkeeping debuts the World Cup has seen for some time.

RB: Kieran Trippier (England)

A revelation. Rewind 11 months and Tottenham were spending a lot of money on Serge Aurier because they didn’t feel that Trippier could be a passable first-choice full-back. Now, he’s inarguably his country’s best.

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The set-piece delivery is certainly part of his inclusion here - it’s been excellent - but the security he has offered on the right side of the pitch, both with and without the ball, has been critical to Kyle Walker’s own fine performances at centre-half. It’s not a coincidence that England have encountered so few difficulties on the right side and have also been at their most dangerous in that area.

CB: Diego Godin & Jose Gimenez (Uruguay)

Why separate them now?

Uruguay’s progress to the quarter-finals was a group effort and that centre-back pairing benefitted from Diego Laxalt’s performances outside of them and Lucas Torreira’s in front. Nevertheless, defence is the key area for any side who operate on the counterattack and Gimenez and Godin were formidably rugged. They emerged from the group without conceding a goal, neutered Cristiano Ronaldo in the last 16 and, goalkeeper Fernando Muslera’s aberration aside, exited the tournament without having conceded from open play.

England’s Harry Maguire and John Stones have had fine tournaments, Raphael Varane has certainly been an asset for France, and Andreas Granqvist was front and centre for Sweden before their elimination. We’re playing 4-2-1-3 here at FourFourTwo, though, and the central pair picks themselves.

LB: Diego Laxalt (Uruguay)

Terrific. Genoa’s converted winger isn’t the glossiest player, in fact he can be quite awkward to watch. Nevertheless, that suited the tone of the Uruguayan side and he was the nuggety, back-and-forward full-back Godin and Gimenez deserved to have outside them.

His finest moments almost all came against the French. Uruguay may have lost the game, but Laxalt dealt with Kylian Mbappe better than any other full-back who faced him in Russia. If it wasn’t established that World Cups are often false economies, every medium-to-large club in Europe would have been in touch with Genoa by now.

CM: Luka Modric (Croatia)

A pick which makes itself, but not just because of the reputation Modric brought with him to the tournament. He and Ivan Rakitic were instrumental in cutting Argentina to ribbons during the group, as Modric scored a fine goal in the process.

Maybe it’s something inspired by the troubling legal situation bubbling in the background, but Modric has also played with a fire he’s not generally associated with. A captain’s tournament, without question. In both the last-16 tie with Denmark and the quarter-final win over Russia, he played the full 120 minutes and remained startlingly vibrant throughout. He’s playing with a chip on his shoulder, clearly, and that's been very much to his country's benefit. 

We know that Modric is technically gifted and one of the finest passers in world football, but his energy levels have been extraordinary. It’s been the foundation graft which has underscored a really excellent tournament.

CM: Paul Pogba

France have creaked to life in this tournament and Pogba has been part of that evolution. His time at Manchester United seems to have suppressed his self-belief, but there have been shades of the old Juventus player in Russia.

Breaking free of their inhibitions has required dramatic contributions from France’s key players, not least Kylian Mbappe, but Pogba has been a great enabler too. His long-range passing has, at times, been fabulous, and those surging runs forward - last seen in Turin - have started to reappear. Belgium will be a different sort of challenge, one which will examine the defensive side of his game, but away from Old Trafford he looks an entirely different player.

AM: Eden Hazard

It’s staggering that Real Madrid aren’t doing everything in their power to lure Hazard away from Chelsea. At the end of a domestic season during which, as always, he has spent 30-odd games being kicked to pieces, he has been absolutely sensational. It's a testament to his durability as much as anything else.

It was also fitting that it was his Belgium which eliminated Neymar’s Brazil. As the latter flopped and flounced, drawing the headlines in the process, Hazard drove his team forward. He would never help them to find a clinching third goal, but those moments offered precious relief when it was needed most. Arguably, it was the competition’s signature performance.

Philippe Coutinho produced some excellent moments across the tournament and Kevin De Bruyne could yet set the World Cup alight, but Hazard has - at times - been a joy to watch.

RFW: Kylian Mbappe

The world got a little carried away with his performance against Argentina and was certainly a little eager to elevate him to a status which hasn’t quite earned. Nevertheless, Mbappe has been one of the key differences between the stale, cautious France seen over the first two weeks and the one which has emerged since.

His acceleration is incendiary, but his close control makes him a threat from wherever he collects the ball. He hasn’t just spent the competition racing on to long balls, but has actually often provided a critical gear-change from deep for a side who can look very one-paced.

Whether it’s illusory or not, these tournaments are supposed to make stars and nobody has burned more brightly.

LFW: Romelu Lukaku

His four goals haven’t been incidental, but they’re not really the point - Lukaku’s main contribution has been in the areas of his game which have been assumed weak for some time. His awareness of other players has noticeably grown over the last year and had a profound effect - his stepover opened the door for Nacer Chadli to put Japan away in the first knockout round and his all-round performance against Brazil, particularly the run and pass which led to Kevin De Bruyne’s goal, showed his evolution as a player.

His range has improved too, because he hasn’t played as an orthodox centre-forward. Roberto Martinez is owed recognition for creating the circumstances under which Lukaku could do most damage, but the player himself has really furthered his reputation - and perhaps quelled the last remaining doubts over his elite status.

CF: Harry Kane

Currently odds-on for the Golden Boot, Kane’s statistical contribution has - of course - mainly come from the penalty spot (counting for three of six goals, while he also succeeded in the shootout against Colombia). In fact, the tournament has seen little of his typical contribution and, not counting that curious deflection against Panama, he has had precious few shooting chances.

Instead, he’s shown his full range as a forward. Tottenham supporters have seen that breadth many times before, but this has been a step beyond for his country: when he’s been needed in critical moments he has delivered without fail, and his willingness to drop deep in games has helped England’s pursuit of attacking continuity.

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