The World Cup in Russia has become one of European dominance. The four teams that remain all hail from the continent: France, Belgium, England and Croatia will be battling in the semifinals Tuesday and Wednesday for a shot at glory in the final Sunday in Moscow. In this World Cup of Upsets, the French are the only consistently successful team left. Croatia and Belgium have never reached the final, while England’s only appearance was in 1966.
The first semifinal, France vs. Belgium, features the two strongest teams remaining in the competition, each with a Soccer Power Index rating of 87.5, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model. Belgium’s rating has improved steadily from before the tournament began, when it stood at 85.4, to after the dramatic quarterfinal win against Brazil, the tournament favorite. France, meanwhile, has strolled to the semifinals relatively easily, apart from a dramatic 4-3 victory against Argentina in the round of 16. While Les Bleus’ World Cup average of 1.12 expected goals per 90 minutes is the worst of the remaining teams, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, their 0.67 expected goals conceded per 90 leads the semifinalists and is fourth best in the tournament:
Croatia, which takes on England in the other semifinal, had just a 3 percent pre-tournament chance of winning the tournament and an SPI of 80.4, according to FiveThirtyEight’s predictions. The team is now at 18 percent with an SPI of 82.0, which reiterates the impressive run it’s been on, despite having to ride its luck in two consecutive penalty shootouts. Gareth Southgate’s young England squad, up to 85.2 in SPI, has fulfilled its pre-tournament dark horse expectations, taking advantage of a relatively easy draw to increase the chances of it finally “coming home.”
The brutal truth of knockout soccer, though, is that team strength counts for only so much; just ask Spain and Brazil, which went out to Russia and Belgium, respectively. Soccer is a random game, and this is exacerbated in situations where one win carries such importance.
Tactics also play a big part. Belgium was lucky in its 2-1 win over Brazil, to the extent that the South Americans had 3.01 expected goals to Belgium’s 0.52. But Roberto Martinez set his side up in a way that was designed to exploit Brazil’s limited weaknesses. Romelu Lukaku — normally the team’s central striker, with four goals already this World Cup — was moved out to the right wing to exploit the space behind Brazil’s marauding left back, Marcelo. Kevin De Bruyne, whom Martinez had underused in a deep midfield role, was shifted to the “false nine” position — in which an attacking midfielder plays nominally as a striker but drops deeper than typical to receive the ball — so that he could receive the ball behind the Brazilian midfielders and launch counterattacks quickly. The Red Devils may have ridden their luck, but they had a plan.
In the two semifinals, the stylistic clashes should make for an entertaining spectacle.
Belgium vs. France: divergent defending
Belgium and France are both comfortable teams on the ball. They both average more than four passes per possession, according to soccer media and technology company Football Whispers, putting them both in the top third of teams at this World Cup. The Red Devils tend to be slightly more patient, holding the ball for about 1.5 seconds more when they get it than France does, and they switch play from side to side more, with possessions that are wider (in terms of the distance between how far right and left they go) by about 3 yards.
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When they don’t have the ball, the two teams behave very differently. Belgium is much more willing to press high up the pitch, taking risks and committing men in the hope of a valuable turnover: They’ve regained the ball in their attacking third 5.2 times per game compared with France’s 2.6, while their possessions start an average of 48.92 yards from their own goal, compared with France’s 47.28 yards.
The downside to this sort of pressing, though, is that if the initial Belgian press is broken, its opposition can keep the ball under a lot less pressure and start to probe in attack. Belgium’s opponents have the ball for 2.61 seconds longer on average than France’s opponents do. Belgium’s opponents average well over four passes per possession, whereas Didier Deschamps’ side allows opponents just 3.63 passes, the sixth lowest of all teams in Russia.
Martinez will need a characteristically proactive game plan to avoid allowing France the room to counter that Argentina did — speedster Kylian Mbappe needs no second invitation. Martinez will also have to find a replacement for Thomas Meunier — his first choice to play right wing-back, who is suspended for receiving his second yellow card against Brazil — in a squad thin on full-backs. Deschamps will probably avoid tinkering, hoping that his balanced side will frustrate Belgium while relying on individual talent in attack.
England vs. Croatia: intense pressing and set plays
Despite being blessed with arguably the most talented midfield in the competition, Croatia doesn’t dawdle when it gets on the ball, moving it to the attackers quickly: Croatia has had the fewest passes per possession of the four teams remaining. England, conversely, has had the most. Some of this is because of the quality of opposition each side has faced, but it’s also a fair reflection of their respective directness: Gareth Southgate’s men hold the ball for more than 3 seconds longer when they get it, often using possession as a defensive tactic.
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Off the ball, both teams implement an aggressive press — but in subtly different ways. England looks to stunt its opposition’s attacks, allowing it to cycle the ball in its own half but not advance much: The Three Lions regain the ball, on average, 54.81 yards away from their own goal, the second highest distance of any team in Russia this summer, but they allow their opponents well more than four passes per possession. Zlatko Dalic’s team, on the other hand, regains the ball in the attacking third just 1.8 times per game compared with England’s 5.6, but Croatia allows its opposition only a little more than three passes per possession, the lowest of any side remaining. In other words, it’s easy to pass into Croatia’s half but difficult to do anything once you get there.
The stylistic factor most likely to influence this semifinal matchup, though, is England’s skill when it comes to set plays (corners and free kicks). Southgate has spoken about his focus on them as an opportunity for England to gain an advantage over opponents, with this strategy bearing fruit: England has scored five goals from them already, nearly half of of its total so far.
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Croatia has conceded only one goal from a set play — Russia’s equalizer in extra time of the quarterfinals. But it has conceded 22 shots from them so far, which is tied for the most in the tournament. This suggests that some luck has been involved — Russia, for instance, gave up the same number of shots from set pieces as Croatia did, but five of those shots resulted in goals against.
The game will probably be tense and closed off, with England’s willingness to patiently pass the ball in its own half combined with Croatia’s indifference to pressing high resulting in an overall lack of openness. The beauty of high-stakes knockout stage soccer, though, is that one goal can change everything.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.