FIFA World Cup 2018: Amid the chaos of late goals and dramatic comebacks, elite midfielders control the narrative in Russia
“I am constantly being asked about individuals. The only way to win is as a team. Football is not about one or two or three-star players,” Brazil great Pele had once commented about how the contemporary narrative regarding football is skewed, for its focus on superstardom of certain players, rather than the achievements of the collective. This summer in Russia, however, has dispelled all such notions as the collaborative endeavours of teams prevailed over the solo acts of certain star footballers.
While the chaotic nature of the ongoing World Cup has taken precedence in the discussions, with late goals and dramatic comebacks featuring prominently, the two nations which made it to the finals – France and Croatia – have a rigorous conventional tactical system in place to rely upon, boasting of the absolute cream of world’s midfield merchants.
Germany’s capitulation at the hands of South Korea in the group stage or Russia’s resolute rear-guard action against Spain in the Round of 16 encounter may have added to the montage reel of the World Cup, but most games have been decided on the quality of midfielders participating in that tie.
In the group stage fixture between Spain and Portugal, which found its place among the World Cup classics, it was Spain’s midfield brilliance in the form of Andres Iniesta and Isco which had managed to match up to Cristiano Ronaldo’s sensational display.
Even Peru’s exceptional pressing performance in losing causes was down to the surprisingly sterling Peruvian midfield. From Hakim Ziyech playing for Morocco (the first nation to get eliminated in the group stage) to finalist Croatia’s Marcelo Brozovic, whose presence in the field adds another dimension to Dalic’s team, the narrative has been controlled by midfielders and midfielders alone. And that is a trend which has gained momentum with every progressing round this summer.
Kylian Mbappe walked away with the plaudits in France’s defeat of Argentina and rightly so, but Argentina’s abysmal chance creation in the seven-goal thriller was as much due to their rudderless midfield as it was due to their blunt attack. Their arch-rivals Brazil also bade goodbye to the competition in a game where Casemiro was suspended. While the mercurial Neymar is often credited with Brazil’s blitzkrieg attack, it was Casemiro’s presence at the base of Tite’s midfield which made Brazil tick and his absence allowed Belgium to control the tempo of the game.
Uruguay was the only exception to this hypothesis, relying on their solid centre-half pairing of Diego Godin and Gimenez to finish top of their group and then on Cavani’s magnificent brace to stun Portugal; but as the Latin American side realized against France – no amount of finesse elsewhere can substitute for panache in the midfield.
The finest example is Luka Modric, arguably the greatest central midfielder of his generation. Modric singlehandedly orchestrated Croatia’s gameplay even when the Croats had to grapple with extra-time in three consecutive knockout fixtures. As the rest of the players around him tired, Modric’s class oozed out – the Real Madrid talisman taking charge of the proceedings. England, in particular, found out in the semi-finals how much the gulf in class matters when it comes to maverick midfielders – they simply did not have enough in their tank to match up to Modric and Rakitic’s sublime skills in the centre of the park.
Belgium were in a similar boat as their golden generation was bamboozled by N’Golo Kante’s simplistic outlook towards football – barring Kante’s Chelsea teammate Eden Hazard, none of the Belgian midfielders (central or wide) could put a dent in the French setup or bypass their defensive shield. Even the otherwise eccentric Paul Pogba veered within Deschamps’ pre-determined strategies, his disciplined display earning praises from all quarters. That the genius of Pogba would finally be unlocked at the grandest stage of all, resulting in superlative performances contributing towards France’s victories is an irrefutable testament of midfield supremacy determining the course of the 2018 World Cup.
On Sunday, it will be the ultimate test of midfield virtuosity as the likes of Kante, Pogba, Matuidi and Tolisso will come face to face with Modric, Rakitic, Kovacic and Brozovic – all of them hailing from different schools of football, yet renowned as some of the most gifted midfielders in Europe right now. The game could very well be decided on a fluke Dejan Lovren header or a flamboyant Kylian Mbappe strike, but if the theme of the ongoing World Cup holds true, whoever puts in a commandeering performance at the heart of the pitch will stake claim to the winner’s medal.