On the 15th of June Group B of the 2018 World Cup begins with Morocco v Iran and Portugal v Spain. As with Group A, we will be previewing the group by highlighting a key element of a team, a star player and a Scottish connection.
Our preview kicks off with a look at Spain’s creative options before we pick out Cristiano Ronaldo as our star to watch and finally revisit Scotland’s last match at a World Cup – 1998’s loss to Morocco. Mark Thompson’s excellent guide to football stats may be of use throughout the comparison of La Furia Roja’s attacking midfielders and the dig into the numbers underlying CR7’s extraordinary performance levels.
Team Feature: Spanish Creatives
In qualification for this tournament Spain were unbeaten and only conceded three goals in ten matches. The back six responsible for such a strong defensive performance are vastly experienced and each assured of their place in the starting line up barring injury or a dramatic loss of form.
David de Gea is having a remarkable domestic season for Manchester United – helping to limit their opponents to just 13 goals from open play whereas xG models indicate he should have conceded 28 – and will start behind Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Sérgio Ramos and Dani Carvajal. Those four, half Barcelona and half Real Mardrid, have a total of three hundred and twenty two international caps between them. Shielding them is the smart, press resistant, physical presence of Sergi Busquets. There is depth too, with an experienced goalkeeper in Pepe Reina and a young exciting one in Kepa as well as the versatility provided by Nacho and Cesar Azpilicueta and the raw pace of Alvaro Odriozola. Up front there are options; Iago Aspas and Rodrigo are having fantastic seasons, Diego Costa offers a unique blend of goals and shithousery, Lucas Vasquez provides tactical options and Alvaro Morata, although out of favour and form at club level, scored five goals in qualification. However, the most interesting choice for the Head Coach, Julen Lopetegui, is from the exceptional group of creative, attacking midfielders at his disposal. For Spain to improve upon their disastrous 2014 World Cup group stage exit and their disappointing 2016 European Championships round of 16 exit Lopetegui will need to pick the right players in this key area. Here, we compare the possible starters based on their performance statistics from their domestic club matches this season.
There are differences in positional and tactical role played and club performance which impact these numbers – for example David Silva plays as a roaming central playmaker for runaway champions elect Manchester City (average 66% possession per game) whereas Koke generally plays in a more functional wide role for compact, counter attacking Atlético Madrid (average 48% possession per game) – but they can certainly be used as part of the selection process.
Two names stand out from the data chart; the aforementioned Silva and Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta. Silva, who has 119 Spanish caps and is the nation’s fourth highest scorer of all time with 35 international goals, is having a wonderful season under the management of compatriot Pep Guardiola. He has scored 9 goals (which is supported by underlying xG – the number of goals a model using historical performances of shots taken from those locations and situations would expect – of 9.18), has a combined xG and xA (expected Assists based on the quality of chance he sets up) per every 90 minutes played of 0.69 and has an xG Chain (the total expected goals of every possession the player is involved in) per 90 of 1.15. In contrast, Iniesta has scored once (with an underlying xG of 0.65), has a combined xG and xA per 90 of just 0.11 and has an xG Chain per 90 of 0.58.
Iniesta is a legendary player, an all time great, with the ability to find a pocket of space in the tightest of presses and a wand of a foot capable of threading the ball between centre backs and full backs with unerring precision. He was man of the match in the 2010 World Cup Final and the 2012 European Championship Final and, on the pitch, appears to be able to freeze opponents and create opportunities by slowing down time. Now 33 years old, and reportedly set to depart Barcelona for a club in China this summer, time is finally catching up on him and his relatively meagre output – even if we take into account his fine xGBuild Up (the total xG of possessions he is involved in with shots and key passes removed) per 90 of 0.52 – means he should not start for Spain this summer. His experience and masterful touch mean he will be a great option off the bench, particularly if Spain need to retain possession. In my view David Silva should start as the key playmaker and he should be joined behind the striker, in a 4-1-4-1, by Isco, Marco Asensio and Thiago Alacantara.
There are other good options for the spots alongside Silva; Koke has a good relationship with Diego Costa – setting up 9 of the forward’s 20 scoring chances in La Liga this season so far and Saul Nguez, another Atletico Madrid player, is considered to be someone who performs particularly well in big games while Rodri is probably a more appropriate back up for Busquets. However, the performances of Isco, Asensio and Thiago mean they deserve to be in the starting eleven. Isco makes 2.46 key passes every 90 minutes in La Liga, has a combined xG and xA per every 90 minutes of 0.65 (almost at Silva’s level) and in the UEFA Champions League has a pass completion rate of 92% which is incredible for a player in an attacking role. Asensio sets up even more chances in a match; making 2.62 key passes every 90 minutes, and has a combined xG and xA per every 90 minutes of 0.56. In addition, they combine well with Isco setting up 15% of Asensio’s chances to score in La Liga and Asensio setting up 18% of Isco’s chances. Thiago has tended to play a deeper midfield role for Bayern Munich this season and this is reflected in his excellent xGBuild Up per 90 of 0.79 and xGChain per 90 of 1.01 as well as his tackle win percentage of 82%.
Spain have an enviable combination of an experienced, high performing defence, centre forward depth and an incredibly creative midfield. If those midfielders, especially Silva and Isco, can carry their club form into the World Cup they should reach the latter stages of the tournament.
Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
It is difficult to believe, given the supremely athletic overhead kick from the first leg and the coolly dispatched injury time penalty winner from the second leg against Juventus in this month’s UEFA Champions League Quarter Final, but Cristiano Ronaldo was being written off in some quarters earlier this season. He only scored four La Liga goals before Christmas, almost inconceivable for an individual who had scored at least twenty five in each of the eight previous full seasons. Despite the fact that he is the most highly conditioned, machine like of modern footballers it seemed that age was one foe the seemingly invincible Ronaldo might not be able to defeat.
However, Ronaldo was still doing the fundamentals that lead to scoring – taking a high amount of shots from dangerous locations – and therefore football analysts have not been surprised that the goals have now started flowing for him. Ronaldo has scored in each of his last twelve matches and, without including penalties, now has 21 La Liga goals this season which is supported by an underlying xG of 22.20. He also has 15 goals in 10 Champions League matches; scoring in every single game up to the semi-final stage. An interesting development which can be traced over the last few years, and which may be helping Ronaldo to sustain his goalscoring even at the age of 33, is a change in the location of where he is shooting from. Over the last four years he has taken approximately the same amount of shots every 90 minutes; 6.53 in 2014/15, 6.41 in 2015/16, 5.73 in 2016/17 and 6.80 in 2017/18. However, he is now taking far fewer of those shots from outside the penalty area; 2.64 per 90 in 2014/15, 2.37 per 90 in 2015/16, 1.73 per 90 in 2016/17 and 1.45 per 90 in 2017/18. Ronaldo’s shots from inside the box have a significantly higher chance of resulting in a goal; ranging from an xG of 0.19 to 0.42 whereas his shots from outside the box have an average xG of 0.04.
Having won everything possible at a club and individual level, and then also the European Championships in 2016 with Portugal, Ronaldo must have at least one of his ambitious, driven eyes on the World Cup. He was injured for Portugal’s loss in their first qualification match for the 2018 tournament away to Switzerland but scored 15 goals in the remaining 9 matches to help his nation top the group. The central defence is ageing and Renato Sanches, a breakout star at Euro 2016, has suffered a dramatic loss of form but with the creativity of attacking midfielders Goncaldo Guedes and Bernardo Silva and the goalscoring of Andre Silva Portugal should progress through this group. The key to a deep run to the semi-finals or better will of course be the extraordinary Cristiano Ronaldo.
Scottish Connection: Moroccan Memories
On the 23rd of June 1998 Scotland and Morocco faced each other in the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, known locally as Le Chaudron (The Cauldron), in Saint Etienne, France. This was the final match of World Cup Group A and would be the last game either would play at a World Cup for twenty years. Both nations had taken a single point from their opening ties, losing to Brazil and drawing with Norway, and therefore faced the same prospects from the clash. If either won they would progress to the second round as long as Norway didn’t beat World Cup holders Brazil in the concurrent match.
Scotland, managed by their longest serving coach ever in Craig Brown, lined up in a 5-3-2 formation with then 39 year old Jim Leighton in goal, 32 year old captain Colin Hendry in the centre of defence and 32 year old Gordon Durie up front. The team had an average age of 29.6 and even with the veteran Leighton removed the average age was 28.7. Remarkably, this was actually less than the 31.4 average Scotland had started with against Brazil and Norway. The 31.4 average was the third oldest at the tournament and, ironically, the oldest was the German team managed by Berti Vogts who would go on to manage Scotland four years later. Scotland’s team was experienced but, outwith midfielders Paul Lambert and John Collins, could be considered to be lacking in top level quality. Morocco, on the other hand, had several technically accomplished players and the most notable, Mustapha Hadji, had scored an outstanding goal in their tournament opener against Norway. Hadji, an agile, skilled attacking midfielder who excelled when running at defences with the ball at his feet was actually signed for Coventry City by future Scotland manager Gordon Strachan just the following year. At the time of the 1998 World Cup he played his club football in Spain for Deportivo La Coruña as did Morocco’s captain and defensive lynchpin; their most capped player of all time Noureddine Naybet.
In the match between Scotland and Morocco another Deportivo La Coruna player, Salaheddine Bassir, opened the scoring in the 23rd minute. A long, straight ball from the halfway line went over Hendry’s head and Leighton couldn’t cope with the pace of Bassir’s shot at his near post. Hendry redeemed himself somewhat with a characteristic, last ditch, sliding tackle in the box to prevent a near certain goal later in the first half. However, that was in vain as just moments into the second half Scotland were again exposed by a long straight ball over the defence and Leighton made a poor, futile effort to block the resulting shot from Abdeljalil Hadda – palming it upwards and over his own head into the goal. The task at hand was made even more difficult when, less than ten minutes later, Craig Burley was sent off for a frustrated, clumsy foul tackle as Morocco launched a counter attack. In the 85th minute Scotland were again unable to cope with a long pass behind the defence and Bassir flicked the ball over Tom Boyd’s head, leaving him sat helpless on the turf, before taking a shot which deflected off the too slow to close down Hendry and beat the hapless Leighton. Morocco were 3-0 winners but failed to progress to the second round as Norway beat Brazil, including Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Dunga, Rivaldo, Denilson, Bebeto and Ronaldo, with an 89th minute penalty.
Morocco qualified for the 2018 World Cup with a brilliant performance in the final Confederation of African Football round; topping a group containing favourites Ivory Coast and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon while not conceding a single goal. Hadji, African Footballer of the Year in 1998, is now the assistant manager and the manager is two times African Cup of Nations winner Herve Renard. Morocco will be keen to build on their strong showing in qualification and progress to the second round for the first time since 1986 in order to highlight their bid to host the 2026 World Cup. That tournament may be one for Scotland to target for participation as there are set to be 48 teams at the finals!