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Uruguay Got The World Cup’s Ultimate Prize: Russia’s Group

Over the next few days, FiveThirtyEight will be examining each of the eight groups in the 2018 World Cup, which begins June 14 in Russia.

Picking the winner of Group A feels a bit pointless. Possibly the weakest group in the history of the World Cup will advance two teams to the round of 16. When they get there, FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index projects a roughly 50 percent chance that both teams will lose — and that will be the end of Group A. But before they can become the underdogs of the knockouts, the best teams in Group A must try to hold on to their place at the top.

Paper tiger or legit contender?

Uruguay projects to the highest chance of reaching the round of 16 at 76 percent. The talent level of Uruguay clearly tops the group, with international stars Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front and two center backs, Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, who ply their trade for one of the world’s best defensive teams in Atletico Madrid. However, Uruguay has struggled to develop quality midfielders. Because of this weakness, Uruguay’s attack is unusually direct. With few passers to progress the ball to Cavani and Suarez, the South American side relies on quick-hitting long ball attacks.

Among the World Cup teams with an SPI rating over 75, Uruguay has the most direct attack. In 38 matches tracked by analytics firm Opta Sports since the 2014 World Cup, La Celeste played a string of 10 or more complete passes to reach the opposition penalty area only 43 times. Rather, to get into the penalty area, Uruguay depended on 166 direct attacks, defined as attacks in which at least 50 percent of the movement is toward the opposition goal. Uruguay prefers to use these quick-hitting moves by a nearly 4-1 margin. The only other team of similar quality with a ratio above even 2-1 is Colombia, at 2.3-1. Against the talented teams of South America that prefer to keep possession, this strategy is effective. But against three weaker sides that will all be happy to let Uruguay have the ball, it’s hard to see how La Celeste can play its preferred style. This leaves open the door to the underdogs.

Russia is listed among the top teams in the group primarily because it’s the host. The home-field advantage in international soccer dwarfs that of club soccer. It allows a Russian team that did not impress at the 2016 Euros and has few, if any, recognized international stars to project to a 73 percent chance of reaching the knockouts. A little home cooking can go a long way, but, as with Uruguay, it’s hard not to label Russia a paper tiger.

Underdog or also-ran?

If the opening is here for an underdog, surely that team will be Egypt. The African side has not reached the World Cup since 1990, but it now features an attacker legitimately among the best in the world in Liverpool star Mohamed Salah. He is projected to return after separating his shoulder in the Champions League final. Whether Salah will be fit to start the tournament remains up in the air, and Egypt would likely struggle without its superstar. But if he can come back, he’s as sure a thing as there is in world soccer. Salah is no one-season wonder: At Roma a season ago, he scored about 0.9 expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes, good for third among players with more than 2,000 minutes between Serie A and the Champions League. He has an established track record of production over two seasons, in different leagues and systems. Egypt, with a 35 percent chance of progressing, looks like a respectable underdog.

Saudi Arabia, by contrast, has the worst SPI rating of any side at the World Cup. No team is truly out of it in Group A, but with only a 17 percent chance of moving on, there is little to recommend this team that barely progressed through Asian qualifying.

Player to watch

While Suarez gets the headlines, both good and bad, it’s his strike partner, Cavani, whose contributions really make Uruguay run.

Both play as central strikers for their respective club teams, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. And both put up huge numbers in league matches, with Suarez creating 170 expected goals and assists since 2014-15, third most in the big five leagues, and Cavani seventh at 124:

Uruguay’s dynamic duo

The leaders in expected goals and assists among the big five European leagues since 2014-15

Player Country Goals Assists Goals + Assists
1 Lionel Messi Argentina 125.1 78.7 203.8
2 Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal 140.0 42.2 182.2
3 Luis Suarez Uruguay 111.8 58.2 170.1
4 Neymar Brazil 89.1 66.0 155.1
5 Robert Lewandowski Poland 120.2 21.3 141.5
6 Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Gabon 108.2 26.8 135.0
7 Edinson Cavani Uruguay 105.9 18.2 124.1
8 Mohamed Salah Egypt 68.4 38.5 106.9
9 Sergio Aguero Argentina 83.0 23.5 106.6
10 Harry Kane England 84.4 21.3 105.7

The big five European league are the Premier League (England), Serie A (Italy), La Liga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany) and Ligue 1 (France). Stats are through the leagues’ 2017-18 seasons and also include performances in the Champions League and the Europa League.

Numbers may not add up because of rounding.

Source: Opta Sports

But in international play, their roles diverge. While Suarez typically stays high and looks for chances to run in behind, Cavani sits deeper and looks to connect the defense to the attack. In Uruguay’s matches since the last World Cup, about 63 percent of Cavani’s open play touches have come outside the attacking third of the field, compared with just 45 percent of Suarez’s. Whether Uruguay plans to sit back and counter or hold possession and move the ball forward, it will be Cavani with the key responsibility of dropping back and helping with buildup play to free Suarez to run at the defense.

CORRECTION (June 13, 2018, 4 p.m.): A table in a previous version of this article misspelled Sergio Aguero’s last name as Agero.

Check out our latest World Cup predictions.

Michael Caley is a writer whose work has been featured at The Economist, ESPN, the Washington Post and elsewhere. He is the co-host of the “Double Pivot Podcast.”