5 World Cup Trends to Watch for in the Round of 16
After 15 days, 48 matches, and 122 goals, the group stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup is now in our collective rear view.
It's not a stretch to say that if you're a fan of the beautiful game, you've enjoyed -- and probably even savored -- this opening salvo of action from Russia, as this edition of the tournament has provided a series of instant classic moments and matches that won't be soon forgotten. But the round-robin phase is now done, and with it goes the margin of error for teams hoping to add to their nation's footballing legacy or looking to create a new history all their own.
With the knockout round poised to begin, let’s look back over the last two weeks of action for clues that could help discern what might come next.
Chaos v. Order
Russia 2018 has been dubbed by some as the “World Cup of Chaos” due to the ever-present drama and myriad of upsets on the pitch, and -- thankfully -- not for issues off it, of which there have been next to none. The catalyst for most of the dramatics has been a flurry of late goals that started on the opening weekend of the tournament and hasn’t let up since. In all, 28 tallies of the 122 total have been notched in the 80th minute or beyond, including 20 goals in the 90th or later. (For comparison, 19 goals were scored in the 90th or beyond in the World Cups of 2006, 2010 and 2014 combined.)
And these goals in the dying moments haven’t simply been icing matches. Impressively, 15 of the 48 games played so far -- nearly 1 out of every 3 -- were decided in the final minutes of action. Between those late heroics, the unpredictability -- but general effectiveness -- of Video Assistant Referees and a handful of massive upsets (read: Germany), most would agree that this has been one of the most entertaining World Cups in the modern era.
But now that we’ve reached the end of the group stage, one glance at the list of 16 teams remaining in the tournament and you’ll see that the perceived chaos only extended so far, with a glut of traditional powers having booked their usual place in the knockout round.
Past champions Brazil, Spain, France, Argentina, England and Uruguay are all still around -- and are mainly stationed on one side of the bracket -- while 2016 European champions Portugal and 2014 World Cup quarterfinalists Belgium and Colombia have advanced as well.
Still, that’s only half the remaining field. Semi-outsiders Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Russia and Croatia are all still alive, as are perennial Round-of-16 casualties Mexico and Switzerland, and as they’re spread out through the bracket, there’s a chance we could be in for one of the more surprising semifinal fields in tournament history.
Imagine a world where Mexico, Switzerland, Croatia and Uruguay comprise Russia 2018’s final four. It’s in play -- and might be preferred if you’re in the #RootForChaos camp -- but it’s also highly unlikely, according to our metrics, as each side has fewer than a 10% chance of reaching the semis.
Sorry, chaos, but the establishment usually wins out in world football.
The Return of Europe
Stop me in you’ve heard this before, but through twenty editions of the FIFA World Cup, only two continents -- Europe and South America -- have produced a champion, while no other major landmass has even had a squad make the final, let alone raise the trophy.
Considering the tournament dates back to 1930, you could say it’s been a good run.
In recent World Cups, however, there had been a subtle changing of the guard in the demographics of the knockout rounds.
Yes, UEFA and CONMEBOL have still been the last ones standing in the end, but when you consider that nine or more European sides had made the Round of 16 in every World Cup from 1986 to 2006, only for that number to drop to six in both 2010 and 2014, there was reason to wonder if the rest of the world was finally catching up.
But after this group stage? That hypothesis falls flat.UEFA teams once again occupy ten of the 16 knockout round spots, with CONMEBOL grabbing four, Asia and North American snagging one apiece and all of Africa on the outside looking in for the first time since 1982.
So much for diversity.
With so many European sides still alive and playing well, it’s not a shock that nine of the top ten teams in numberFire's updated Power Rankings are from UEFA…and I bet you can guess where the other one hails from.
It also bears mentioning that outside of 1958 -- when Brazil won the title in Sweden -- every other time the World Cup has been held in Europe, it’s been won by a UEFA nation. The same perfect record on home soil was touted by CONMEBOL sides in South American World Cups until four years ago, when Germany ended that particular streak in Rio de Janeiro.
With all that in mind, could Brazil, Argentina, Colombia or Uruguay return the favor in Russia against the overwhelming numbers from the host continent? Possibly, but the numbers -- and history -- aren’t on their side.
Coming In Hot
Of the 32 teams in Russia, only three -- Uruguay, Croatia and Belgium -- finished the group stage with perfect 3-0-0 records, and each have more-or-less looked the part during the last two weeks. It’s easy to argue that Uruguay’s Group A opposition -- the “soft” trio of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia -- didn’t offer too much resistance, but Oscar Tabarez’s side still got the job done without too much fuss, becoming the first team since 2010 to keep three consecutive clean sheets in the group stage.
Belgium also didn’t have to sweat much in their group, as they put Panama and Tunisia to the sword before beating England’s reserves with their second-choice team in a game no one was too bothered to win. With nine goals scored, the Red Devils have found the back of the net more than any other team in this tournament, and our metrics like their chances, handing them the third-highest odds to capture the title.
Then there’s Croatia, who stormed through a difficult Group D with three wins and a plus-six goal difference in what many consider the most complete set of performances thus far. For those who are still on the fence, re-watch their 3-0 thrashing of Argentina for a reminder of what Zlatko Djalic’s charges are capable of.
While gaining maximum points in the group round doesn’t guarantee a deep run in the tournament, it typically means a quarterfinal place at best. Only once in the last three World Cups (Spain in 2006) has a team gone 3-0-0 in the group stage and fallen at the first hurdle in the knockout round, and that defeat came at the hands of the eventual runners-up.
Still, time will tell if one of these three can join 1998 France and 2002 Brazil as the only two teams in the last 20 years to lift the trophy with an unblemished record.
Even though our metrics favor Belgium to go through over a spirited-but-limited Japan -- who became the first team in World Cup history to advance on the FIFA Fair Play tiebreaker -- they’ll face a potential quarterfinal test against a Brazil side that’s our overwhelming favorite to capture the title.
Uruguay has a difficult matchup against a Portugal team that, admittedly, hasn’t look all that convincing thus far, but with one Cristiano Ronaldo in form, they’ve got the ability to beat anyone. Croatia’s task feels more straightforward against a Denmark side that needed a missed penalty to beat Peru, looked second-best in a draw with Australia and didn’t do much of anything in a classic (wink-wink) nil-nil against France. But despite scoring the fewest goals of any advancing side, our metrics don’t think the Danes -- and star man Christian Eriksen -- should be underestimated.
An Unbalanced Bracket?
With the knockout bracket now finalized, much has been made about the superiority of one half of the draw and the obvious weakness of the opposite side, so much so that fans of England and Belgium were clamoring for their teams to sabotage their final group stage game just to avoid the more difficult section.
One half is certainly more prestigious, boasting 10 World Cup titles and 16 finals appearances and featuring 5 teams ranked in FIFA’s top 10. Meanwhile, the other section has just two champions, a total of three trips to the finals and only two top-10 teams in the latest world rankings.
Throw in the fact that the strong side of the draw has Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, Pogba and de Bruyne/Hazard/Lukaku, and it’s not really a conversation about which section is the more glamorous. However, stars don’t always guarantee success, and tournaments are won in the present, not the past.
Don’t forget that both sides of the draw feature four group winners apiece, meaning there are form teams in every section, even if some of the sides have fewer household names in their starting XI.
The lesser half of the bracket features four of the top five scoring teams at this tournament (England, Russia, Croatia and Spain), the top two for passing accuracy (Spain and England) and three of the top defensive sides (Croatia, Denmark and Sweden), so don’t assume all the power is in one place.
With all that said, our metrics feel the champion will come from the side with the prestige -- three of the four remaining teams with the best odds are from that section -- and the numbers also predict Spain will walk to the final as the clear favorites on the opposite side. Whether that holds true in a World Cup of uncertainty remains to be seen.
Finally, if you’re filling out your bracket and are torn on who to advance to the quarters, recent history would suggest going with group winners as the safest play. In the last three editions of the World Cup, only three teams who topped their group didn’t make it out of the Round of 16, with group winners going a perfect 8-for-8 in the opening knockout round in Brazil in 2014.
Things do occasionally go a bit off-script at this stage -- in 2002, half the quarterfinal field was comprised of group runners-up -- but more often than not, the teams that have proven their worth over the first three matches of the tournament earn a fifth game in the world’s greatest sporting event.