The quarterfinals of the 2022 World Cup kick off on Friday — and as it stands, Brazil remains favored to win the whole thing (at 33 percent), while Portugal (14 percent), England (14 percent), Argentina (13 percent), and France (12 percent) have roughly the same odds of lifting the trophy two Sundays from now. Ordinarily at this stage in the tournament, we’d break down each head-to-head matchup and try to figure out which teams stood the best chance of advancing to the semifinals. On this occasion, however, we thought it would be fun to profile individual players instead.
Based on their domestic seasons, there are some players we all expected to produce in this World Cup. But expectations are tough to live up to — so it’s still impressive when a star lives up to that kind of billing on the biggest stage. And then there are players who are tearing things up after giving little indication they were capable of it on the club side of things. Without further ado, let’s get into a couple of players who embody each archetype.
Stars everyone expected to succeed
Lionel Messi, Argentina:
What else can be written about Messi that hasn’t been written before? At 35 years old, Messi is still among the world’s elite players.1 He’s probably lost a step, and he no longer plays in one of the world’s two best leagues, but he’s still shredding Champions League defenses (with eight goal involvements in five games). There’s not a single soccer fan on God’s green earth who didn’t expect him to turn up as an impact player in Qatar.
So far, so good in that regard. Messi ranks in the top two for goals scored, the top 10 in shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, the top five for expected assists, and he paces the field for total progressive passes and passes made into the penalty area. Not bad for a guy whose legs have played 558 professional games at the club level and 169 at the international level — the majority of those being starts.
With Messi, the facts are the facts: This is his last chance at a World Cup. He doesn’t need to win in Qatar to solidify himself as the GOAT. But a World Cup win — and a Golden Ball — would make his claim airtight.
Kylian Mbappé, France:
It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that Mbappé currently leads the Golden Boot race, and is the favorite to win the Golden Ball, too. A typically exceptional start to his Ligue 1 season — just 12 goals in the first 14 games, no big deal — has carried over to the World Cup. The 23-year-old is the best player on the planet, and he’s playing like it in Qatar. So far, Mbappé has taken the most shots, has the most non-penalty expected goals, has created the most shot-creating actions and goal-creating actions, and has the most goal contributions (seven) too. Simply put, he’s been far and away the most dangerous player at the 2022 World Cup.
In a sense, it always felt like this was going to be Mbappé’s World Cup. When France won in 2018 in Russia, he emerged as the tournament’s best young player (and was probably its second-best player, period, behind Croatia’s Luka Modrić). Now, as players like Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo age out of their dominant best, it’s Mbappé who has taken the throne as the world’s best player.
So far, Mbappé hasn’t disappointed in Qatar. And if he keeps it up, France just might become the first team to repeat at the World Cup since Brazil did so in 1962. At which point, who knows — maybe we might have to start rehashing the GOAT conversation before Messi is even done?
Club underperformers who saved their best for Qatar
Believe it or not, Richarlison has not scored a single Premier League goal in the 2022-23 season, despite making 10 appearances for Tottenham Hotspur — five of those starts. To be sure, it’s been a disappointing first season in North London for him. His non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes (npxG/90) rate of 0.34 — the best of his career to date — suggests the ball will start going into the back of the net sooner or later, but for now he’s got nothing to show for his decent underlying numbers at the club level.
So when Brazilian manager Tite named Richarlison in his final 26-man squad ahead of the likes of Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino — who’s experiencing a bit of a renaissance this season on Merseyside — pundits and fans alike were left scratching their heads.2 And yet, in spite of his lackluster domestic form, Richarlison has been one of the best players at the World Cup — and one of many bright spots for a Brazilian team that looks poised to claim its sixth title. He ranks fifth in npxG/90, and scored what might be remembered as the best goal of the tournament in Brazil’s opening match win against Serbia. And let’s not forget the ridiculous goal he scored against South Korea, which included a series of audacious juggles (including a few with his head).
As we said earlier, Brazil is the favorite to win it all — something that was true both before the tournament and now still in the lead-up to the quarterfinals. If Richarlison continues playing as brilliantly as he has to this point, the Seleção will be a tough nut to crack.
Marcus Rashford, England:
The Manchester United forward has had a strange old time of it in the past couple of Premier League seasons. After three consecutive EPL campaigns with 16 or more goal involvements and double-digit scores, Rashford hit a bit of a bump in the road in 2021-22, finding the net just four times and providing just two assists. His underlying numbers were down significantly from 2019-20 — from 0.44 npxG/90 to 0.23 — when he scored 17 goals and was among the top forwards in England, if not all of Europe. He fell out of favor with United’s interim manager, Ralf Rangnick — and struggled with injuries — making just 13 starts over the course of the season. It was a season to forget for one of the brightest young stars at Old Trafford since the vaunted Class of ‘92.
Things are going a bit better for Rashford in the EPL this season. He’s already tallied as many goals and assists as he did a season ago, and he’s started all but one game for the Red Devils. Still, he isn’t exactly lighting the league on fire, either — his npxG/90 of 0.33 is good for just 18th in the Premier League. But domestic form — good, bad, mediocre or otherwise — doesn’t always predict international form, and that’s certainly been the case with Rashford at this World Cup. The United star sits atop the npxG/90 rankings, and trails only Mbappé in the race for the Golden Boot.3
England probably had enough firepower already in Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Callum Wilson to register as serious contenders. Now that Rashford appears to be back to his old self as well, you really have to start wondering if football might finally be coming home this year.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.