France enters today’s semifinal match against neighboring Belgium as the favorite to win the 2018 World Cup. At least on paper, though, France has been the least remarkable team of the four that remain: Les Bleus have scored fewer goals than each of the other semifinalists, they’ve possessed less of the ball than two of the other semifinalists, and they’ve taken the fewest shots.
Advancing to the World Cup semifinals is no small feat — and, indeed, France’s impressive 4-3 win over Argentina in the round of 16 was the most thrilling match of the tournament so far — but the offensive numbers to this point don’t exactly suggest that France has done enough to enter the penultimate stage as favorites.
But when you take a look at the French roster’s combined market value, it begins to make more sense.
According to TransferMarkt.com, a website that lists the market value of each player in world soccer, the French roster is valued at more than $1.2 billion, which is significantly higher than the other semifinalists. France’s starting roster is the most valuable in the tournament,1 and France’s bench alone is more valuable than the starting rosters of 11 teams that made it through the group stage to the round of 16, including Uruguay, Portugal, Argentina and potential championship match opponents Croatia. And that’s not to mention some of the players France left home, such as Karim Benzema, Adrien Rabiot, Kingsley Coman and Alexandre Lacazette — all of whom are worth at least $45 million.
France manager Didier Deschamps was in an enviable position entering the World Cup — if things weren’t clicking going forward, he knew he could turn to Ousmane Dembélé, Nabil Fekir or Thomas Lemar to provide an offensive spark. The three attack-minded players are worth a combined $241 million on the open market. But that $241 million worth of soccer ability has gone mostly unused; the trio has combined for zero goals and zero assists and has added just 0.34 combined expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes. The rest of the French bench has been similarly unproductive. Despite its massive price tag, the bench of Les Bleus has been relatively invisible compared with the benches of the other semifinalists: It has added the fewest expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes, with just 0.6 for the entire tournament.
A bleu bench, freighted with gold
Transfer value and production at the 2018 World Cup for France’s reserves*
|Player||Expected goals plus assists per 90 min.||Minutes played||Transfer value|
Belgium’s bench — primarily on the back of Michy Batshuayi — has added a whole three more expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes than its rival semifinalists, while England’s has added 1.4 more. Croatia’s 0.9 expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes from the bench isn’t much better than France’s — but then again the Croatian bench is about 30 percent as valuable as the French.2
Some of this difference in usage can be explained by injuries, yellow and red card troubles, and tactical shifts: The clash between Belgium and England in their third match of the group stage was relatively meaningless because each team had already punched its ticket to the knockouts, so players outside each team’s traditional starting 11 got to see more playing time than they might have in a game with more serious implications. France’s bench has provided the least help in terms of expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes, but France’s bench has also played the fewest minutes of the semifinalists. Part of this is a product of situation: Except for a brief window where the French fell behind Argentina, they haven’t reached a desperation point — either within a single game or going into a match — where more attacking help was needed off the bench.
Aside from perhaps Germany, which flamed out of the tournament in historic fashion, France may have had the deepest pool of talent entering the 2018 World Cup. But so far, that pool hasn’t yielded much beyond what the starting 11 has provided. Les Bleus may be able to claim their second FIFA World Cup trophy without the help of their bench, but the task will be made easier if those players contribute as much as the handful of club owners who pull the transfer market strings believe they can.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.
CORRECTION (July 10, 2018, 11:30 a.m.): An earlier version of this story said France didn’t qualify for the round of 16 as early as Belgium and England did. All three teams were guaranteed spots after the second game of the group stage.