Where Will The Goals Come From In The World Cup Semifinals?
During the past three weeks, a lot of ink has been spilled to bemoan a perceived lack of goals scored at the 2022 World Cup. Whether due to a spate of early 0-0 draws during the group stage or goals being taken off the board by way of VAR — its dystopic eye focused on exerting maximum joylessness on a tournament already fraught with surveillance concerns — the claim remained the same: The first World Cup on Middle Eastern soil wasn’t producing enough scoring.
In reality, though, the 2022 World Cup is producing goals at precisely the same rate as almost every World Cup dating back to 1998.1 Including World Cup 1998 in France, four of the past six renditions2 yielded exactly 1.3 goals per game — the same rate as in Qatar, through the 2022 quarterfinals. By contrast, the 2006 (Germany) and 2010 (South Africa) World Cups produced just 1.1 goals per game.
And since this tournament isn’t some dull, goalless anomaly — but rather quite typical when compared with its predecessors — let’s take a step back before the semifinals to look at how those goals are being scored. Specifically, we’re going to focus on the four remaining teams and where their goals have been coming from — with an eye on where they may come from going forward as well.
La Albiceleste have scored 1.69 goals per 90 minutes in Qatar, making them the seventh-most prolific scorers at the tournament. In total, Argentina has scored nine goals — two from the penalty spot, and seven from open play. Predictably, Lionel Messi has been involved in six of those goals, scoring four and assisting on two others. In Qatar, Messi has nominally been deployed as a forward, but his role for club and country has always been more nuanced than the definitional realities of any one position.
Almost everything Argentina does going forward goes through Messi, who has mostly occupied spaces on the right and right-middle portions of the attacking third of the pitch at this World Cup. A quick look at an Argentinian “touch-map” in the attacking third (courtesy of ESPN’s Stats & Information Group) confirms this — these are the areas from which Argentina prefers to initiate attacks in the opposition’s half.
It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that four of Argentina’s seven non-penalty goals have come from the right side of the field.
World Cups don’t offer significant sample sizes — and they are full of chaos — so anything can happen during Argentina’s semifinal duel with Croatia. But if Messi and company do end up winning it all in the desert, it’s a safe(-ish) bet that the winning goal(s) will come from the right part of the attacking third.
There isn’t a ton to be said about Croatia’s goal-scoring prowess because Croatia mostly doesn’t have any goal-scoring prowess: In five games, the Checkered Ones have scored just six goals. They’ve only led their opponents for 46 minutes in Qatar,3 and four of their six goals came in the same match.4 What we do know about Croatia is that they spread attacking third touches pretty evenly across the pitch, and when they do score, they’re mostly doing so from the middle of the penalty area.
In 2018, Croatia made a habit of forcing penalty shootouts during the knockout stages en route to a somewhat unlikely run to the final. (They lost, badly, to France in that final.) The same has been the case in 2022 — two knockout stage matches, two penalty shootout wins in games they arguably deserved to lose.5 Croatia rode its luck in 2018, and that luck eventually ran out. But that team was different from the current iteration in one crucial way — it could score goals. Croatia’s 2.0 goals per 90 minutes were tied with France for the third-most at World Cup 2018 in Russia. Maybe Croatia’s stifling defense will be enough against Argentina. Maybe they can force another penalty shootout, and maybe they can break Messi’s heart. Or maybe their luck will run out a few days earlier this time around.
Les Bleus are the highest-scoring team remaining in Qatar, and most of their goals are coming from two sources: left winger Kylian Mbappé and center forward Olivier Giroud. As such, most of their goals are coming from the left or center of the penalty area.
The distribution of French touches in the attacking third is relatively balanced between the left and right sides of the pitch (if a bit skewed to the left because a lot of the offense works through, or to, Mbappé).
Expect more of this in France’s semifinal matchup against Morocco. Les Bleus can attack the left flank with Mbappé, a lightning-fast winger,6 or they can switch play to the right and focus on crossing the ball to their more traditional target man, Giroud. Either way, expect them to be dangerous … and expect them to be hungry. No team has repeated as World Cup champions since Brazil in 1962.
The Atlas Lions have only scored five goals in five games in Qatar. That hasn’t mattered, however, because they’ve only conceded once — an own goal in the group stages against Canada.7 Indeed, they’ve been the stingiest team at the tournament, allowing just .19 goals per 90 minutes, by far the fewest.
Alas, this piece is about goals scored, not goals conceded (or the lack thereof). Which brings us to Morocco’s goal chart:
Aside from one goofy Hakim Ziyech goal scored from way outside the penalty area — caused by a ridiculous error by Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan — every Moroccan goal has come from inside the box. Again, it’s not a lot of goals. But due to historically great defense from this Moroccan team, goals have been rendered nearly immaterial.
The Atlas Lions have already made history as the first African team to reach a semifinal at the World Cup. If they keep defending the way they’ve done to this point — and find a way to pop a few more goals in the box (or maybe get another gift or two from an amenable goalkeeper) — they might rewrite the history books a couple more times before this tournament is over.
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