If nearly a full month of World Cup football has taught us anything, it’s that no one is safe. Never was it more clear that every country is vulnerable than when Germany — the defending champions from 2014 — failed to advance out of Group F after a shocking 2-0 defeat to South Korea.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal were bounced from the Round of 16, and so were Lionel Messi’s Argentina. Spain lost in penalties to the unlikely successful hosts in Russia in the first round of knockouts, too, possibly spelling the end of a golden era for La Roja.
What’s left is France, England, Belgium and Croatia, four countries who are clearly talented but not necessarily looked at as countries in the top tier in the world. All four semifinal teams had less than a ten per cent chance to win the World Cup before the tournament started, per FiveThirtyEight. Seven of the top ten teams rated by Elo at the start of the event have been eliminated at this point.
There is no limit to the number of reasons the heavyweights have fallen by the wayside — from Messi’s inability to bear a heavy load to Spain’s aging roster to Germany’s overaggressive style — and one of the overarching determinations of such a tournament is often ignored or overlooked: single elimination football is relentlessly volatile.
The randomness that comes along with the World Cup is nothing new. Costa Rica made it to the quarterfinals in 2014, and Ghana made it to the same stage four years before that. But rarely is the World Cup defined by haphazard results, as this one seemingly has been.
This isn’t to take away from the four teams remaining, as each have found their stride through team cohesion and stability. Gareth Southgate has instilled a confidence in a young England team that feels balanced, and Belgium’s attack led by Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard is terrifying. France are playing up to their lofty potential.
But the quarterfinals went on to show how talent and strong play can only take a team so far. Sometimes, it all comes down to a single moment that defines an entire match, like when De Bruyne fired an impossible shot that sent Brazil home despite outshooting Belgium 26-8, having twice as many corners and boasting a stronger passing percentage. A single transition attack from the Lukaku and De Bruyne ultimately mattered more than the grip Brazil seemed to have on the whole game.
Each QF winner scored twice,
None had more than 3 shots on target.
France 2-0, from 2
Belgium 2-1, from 3 (+OG)
England 2-0, from 2
Croatia 2-2, from 3
8 goals from 10 shots on target for the QF winners
3 goals from 21 for their opponents.
— James Yorke (@jair1970) July 7, 2018
Nonetheless, this is the World Cup of those who can take advantage of a rare breakdown in defense or a chaotic cross inside the box.
The final four have made their living thriving in that state of disarray, and with the odds of any given country winning coming down to a near coin flip and with the stakes as high as they are, that will only continue.
— Tony Chow (@Tonyhkchow) July 7, 2018
With each passing round of the World Cup, the chants of “It’s Coming Home!” have only grown louder and more uninhibited as England have raced to the semifinals following a relatively seamless 2-0 victory over Sweden.
Where England teams of past international tournaments have featured talented-but-wavering squads that cracked under massive pressure, the 2018 iteration have proved to be the opposite.
The big moment always seemed to terrify both English players and fans alike, so it’s confounding to consider that’s where the Three Lions have thrived in this World Cup. Given how much these games depend upon a few defining moments per every 90 minutes, it should be encouraging to fans that these young players have remained stoic under pressure.
The thing Southgate might be most credited with is how much serenity and composure he’s shown in his first major tournament and how he’s transmitted that to his players. During England’s penalties with Colombia in the second round, he was a damn rock. But some of that talk has overshadowed the tactics Southgate has unleashed that have brought the Three Lions to this juncture.
One of the criticisms England have faced this World Cup is that they have trouble scoring from open play. Just from examining how they’ve scored their goals, you can argue it’s true: of the 11 times the Three Lions have scored, only three have come from open play. Though Dele Alli’s goal against Sweden — which was beautifully assisted on by Jesse Lingard — was a clinical example of how to score from open play, England have made their living on goals from set pieces and penalties.
The Three Lions have scored five goals from set pieces. They’ve scored three on penalties, but that doesn’t count the four they plugged in the shootout to defeat Colombia. Such a reliance on scoring outside of open play would seem problematic, if not for the events of the past few weeks.
With outstanding goalkeeping from Jordan Pickford and rock-solid defending from the likes of Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire and John Stones, England have placed themselves in a position to rely on this style of scoring. Southgate has found a way to create fluid movement from his attackers that have both allowed them to find timely headers and draw penalties inside the box.
As turbulent as this World Cup has been, capitalizing on one or two key moments could make the difference between the trophy coming home or England going home in disappointment. Thankfully for the Three Lions, they’ve been tested by these moments time and time again.