Before the 2018 World Cup kicked off last week at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, much had been written about why Russia was so bad at soccer. A convincing 5-0 opening match win over Saudi Arabia — Russia’s first win at the tournament since 2002 also matched its largest margin of victory at a World Cup — surely helped to allay some of those criticisms. But there was still no looking past the fact that the host nation ranked 70th in the FIFA world rankings and was looked at by bookmakers as a relative long shot to win the whole thing.
Flash-forward a week, and Russia has already advanced to the knockout round thanks to another convincing win, this time 3-1 over Egypt. Forwards Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba are playing the best soccer of their lives. Russia’s eight goals are the most scored by a host nation through two games since the beginning of the modern World Cup in 1986,1 and before that, only Italy managed to score as many when it did so in the 1934 World Cup (seven of which came against the United States). The Russians have buttressed all that goal scoring with downright stingy defensive play — they haven’t conceded a single shot on goal in open play.2
It’s hard to deny the Russians’ early offensive onslaught or their potency on the defensive side of the ball. But they still face one big question: Are they actually this good?
A huge factor here is quality of opponent: Russia hasn’t exactly played against a top side yet. Egypt was the sixth worst team in the field entering the tournament, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index, and Saudi Arabia was the worst. Between them, the Egyptians and the Saudis have put just six shots on target through four games and have managed to score just once.
Russia’s shot conversion rate is also instructive. So far, Russia has had 10 shots on goal, scoring on an astounding eight of them.3 So they’ve been clinical when they’ve directed shots on target. But they’ve taken just 25 shots in two games (there are 14 teams taking more shots per 90 minutes than the Russians),4 while creating a just above average number of scoring chances per 90 minutes. This all makes it difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Russians remain on this blistering goal-scoring pace. They’ve roundly outperformed their 12th-best expected goals rate of 1.42 per 90 minutes — and they’re likely to regress.
Russia also hasn’t possessed much of the ball, retaining it just 44 percent of the time. (Only 10 teams have worse possession percentages.) And when they have possessed the ball, the Russians have been sloppy: They’ve successfully completed just 71 percent of their passes — only two teams are worse.
|Team||per 90 MIN.||ON GOAL per 90 MIN.||Shoot%||per 90 MIN.||Exp. per 90 MIN.||Difference|
Russia still hasn’t played Uruguay, the most difficult opponent in a historically lousy group. Unlike Egypt and Saudi Arabia, La Celeste have been playing positive soccer: Uruguay has managed seven shots on goal, and it (along with Morocco) has taken the fifth most shots among teams that have played two games. Limiting the chances of a Uruguayan side that boasts two of the world’s deadliest hitmen, in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, might prove more difficult than stopping a Saudi side void of a world-class forward and an Egyptian side reliant on a hobbled Mohamed Salah.
To this point, Russia’s goalie, Igor Akinfeev, has touched the ball in open play just seven times. And he’s had to make only one play on 27 crosses faced. These stats, coupled with the fact that the only shot he’s faced came from the penalty spot, suggest that his defenders have made life very difficult for opposing attackers. That’s the upside.
Monday’s match with Uruguay won’t decide whether Russia gets to play more soccer this summer. It will decide which team Russia faces next — very likely either Portugal or Spain. But in some sense, that also doesn’t matter much — either opponent would represent a major upgrade in class. Ceding possession to teams with less than positive attacks hasn’t hurt Russia, but don’t expect the same to be true when faced with Suarez and Cavani, Diego Costa or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.