Five takeaways from the 2018 World Cup Group Stage

 Photo credit: AFP

Photo credit: AFP

Thursday capped the end of the group stages of the World Cup. It was a whirlwind of a group stage as most of the games were competitive, or at least appealing to watch. Some of the groups were already decided by the final match days of this week but there were other groups that were left it in the balance all the way up until the dying seconds of stoppage time. Although the group stage isn’t always an indicator of how a tournament will play out, we can find some takeaways from it. Here are the 5 takeaways from the 2018 FIFA World Cup:

It's a wide-open race

Unlike the 2010 or 2014 World Cups, you really can’t come away with a clear answer on who is the favorite to win it all. Spain and Portugal needed some last day drama to get through, France struggled at times, Argentina were on the ropes after the drubbing by Croatia, and Brazil didn’t look all that convincing in their three games.

Belgium and Uruguay were the only countries to finish with nine points in the group stage and there are even questions about those sides. Uruguay didn’t play the most appealing football and grinded out most of their victories, as evident by their 1-0 win over Egypt on Matchday 1. They topped Group A like they were suppose to but weren’t as dominant as expected, struggling to generate a consistent attack as Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani had a rough go against Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

Belgium also finished first in their group, winning handily against Panama, Tunisia, and beating England 1-0 in the game where neither country looked bothered to take the pitch. It was a really easy group for Belgium, and playing England last gave them the advantage to seal qualification before they even met. Belgium’s cause wasn’t helped when England didn’t play a lot of their normal starters. They've looked strong but we need to see how they play in the knockout stages cause the group they were drawn in really didn’t do anything to help us judge them.

If you look at the bracket from top to bottom, you can find some concern in each team. Nobody has looked overpowering yet, which just adds to the mystique of this World Cup. Having no clear favorite isn’t a bad thing. In fact, you can argue it's a good one.

Set piece madness

One common theme throughout all the games was the efficiency of goals scored from set pieces. According to the soccer stats website Who Scored, 30 goals were scored off set pieces in the group stages. It’s a staggering amount of goals to be scored in those type of situations and it was truly a wonder to see. So many teams were able to generate offense from set pieces, especially the likes of England and Uruguay, who each generated four goals in those situations. Russia and Colombia were right behind them with three each. Every dead ball situation has brought chaos and nervy moments for defending teams. Even though it’s not always ideal to see goals not scored in open play, it has been thrilling to see some wonderful goals come off set pieces.

The reason for this sudden spike in set-piece goals? You can point to the fact that international football teams don't have that much cohesion to begin with. It’s not like they are club teams where the players have tons of chemistry and play with each other almost every day. Pre-World Cup preparation is usually a scramble for managers to try and implement their tactics while mulling over their best XI.

With that in mind, set pieces are usually put on the back burners. Specialists are put on the ball and although some plays are created, it’s not always well drilled. This hurts more on the defensive end as guys can easily get confused and lose markers if not everyone is on the same page. We saw this against Serbia when Nemanja Matic completely lost Thiago Silva on a corner and the PSG captain thumped the ball into the back of the net.

Along with the increase in calling penalties due to holding in the penalty area - *COUGH* Javier Mascherano - set pieces have become ever more important in this World Cup. If your team isn’t at least competent or know what they are doing defensively, it can be disastrous.

This isn’t the same old England

Despite being in an easy group, the soccer world were mostly uneasy about England's chances in the World Cup. Given their reputation, it was easy to doubt them. Yeah, they were the second-best team in their group, but expecting them to bottle a game wasn’t out of the cards.

The first half against Tunisia didn’t help those fears as a stupid penalty by Kyle Walker led to a Tunisian equalizer. As the game wore on, it felt like it was the same old England energy and they just couldn’t get things done, despite being the better side. But it all went away in a snap when Harry Kane headed the ball into the left corner off a well run set piece and England escaped. From there, it felt as the roof had been lifted on.

Despite finishing second in the group, England has shown some real promise. Gareth Southgate has this team well drilled in their formation and on set pieces. The latter has proven to be crucial as England have generated A+ chances on a lot of the set piece plays they ran. Southgate knows how crucial set pieces are and has clearly put a lot of the training sessions to practice them.

He also has brilliantly implemented a back three where one of the CB’s is actually a right back in Kyle Walker. The attack is sturdy with Harry Kane and with the combo of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard in the midfield, England has been pressing heavy when they lose possession. Even Southgate’s subs have been good as Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have been exceptional in Russia. This isn’t the same England we saw all those previous years. They are a young team and a likable one. The youth movement has come to England and they have the perfect manager to lead them through it.

They face a tough team in Colombia, but where they are in the bracket, England could be looking at a run to the semi-finals. For the first time in a long time, England has been comfortable in what kind of team they are and a ton of credit must be given to Gareth Southgate.

This isn't the Germany of the past

As the famous saying goes, history does repeat itself. Again we see a defending champion crash out in the group stage - France in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014, and now Germany in 2014. In a group where they should have easily finished first, the Germans flopped and finished last. Now, chaos awaits them back home, especially after the way it ended.

Germany needed a win against South Korea to advance, and instead walked off the pitch in defeat, 2-0. While this might sound like a simple conclusion, it’s an easy explanation for this Germany team. In a game with so fine margins Germany came ever so close, but in the end, they failed to put the ball in the back of the net and it costed them.

What also doomed this Germany side was virtually running back the same squad they had in 2014. We've seen this trend with so many championship teams trying to have one more run with the same guys who lifted the trophy the last time, and every time it's failed miserably. Father time is undefeated and bad tactics will trump star talent, as shown with Germany.

The key cog has always been the German midfield. With their ability to boss the game and take it by the throat, controlling the midfield (and controlling the flow of the game) has always been the key for Germany in their victories. By controlling the pace they are able to generate high-quality chances in the box. Toni Kroos is able to pick apart defenses with short passes and with poachers like Thomas Muller looking to pounce on every opportunity. But that was four years ago. Kroos and Sami Khedira were much younger and faster. Their age showed in Russia.

Germany again went with a two-man midfield, and with Kroos being really offensive minded and Khedira being 31 years old, a double pivot in the middle of the park isn’t going to be enough. Germany needed a destroyer in the midfield. Someone who was going to eat up space and break up attacks like Casemiro or Kante. With the midfield so up in attack a lot of the time, it left a huge gap between them and the defense. Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng had to clean up a lot of the chances. Problem is that they're old as well, forcing them to make quick-fire decisions when Germany lost possession. Forcing your two 30+ centerbacks to make decisions on the run is a risky proposition, one that backfired badly against Mexico.

There were obvious holes in this team. Timo Werner was clearly not ready for this tournament and playing him on the wing didn’t help things either. Joachim Low made some questionable decisions and left some key guys out of the squad - guys like Leroy Sane and Emre Can could have been useful. But once again we saw an aging squad and a manager who tried to do the same tactics that he won with last time. In the end, it was disaster.

Most fun World Cup we’ve had in a while

There were questions surrounding the 2018 World Cup but so far it has answered all of them. In fact, this has been the best World Cup in a long time. High scoring games, numerous chances on net, and high-filled drama at every turn. Giants falling in the group stages, two groups of death per say... Even in the final match days, there was total chaos. You couldn’t ask for much else from this tournament.