Tuesday 22 January 2019

Ranking the top 50 players at the 2018 World Cup in Russia

 

Luka Modric was outstanding for Croatia in the run to the World Cup final. Photo: Getty Images
Luka Modric was outstanding for Croatia in the run to the World Cup final. Photo: Getty Images

JJ Bull

The World Cup is sadly over. Along the way there were surprises, shocks, spectacular pieces of skill, VAR controversies, strange decisions, goals, tackles - everything. But what of the players who actually performed? Using a combination of statistics and having watched (nearly) every single match, JJ Bull has ranked the top 50 players of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in order

1. Luka Modric  (Croatia)

The best all-round player at the World Cup. Controlled the midfield magnificently, created chances, took crucial penalties, led the team by example with the captain’s armband and took little old Croatia to a World Cup final. Deserves to be considered among the absolute elite.

2. Kylian Mbappe (France)

What a player. He’s faster than some cars, quicker of thought than a computer and his first touch and dribbling skills are like Brazilian Ronaldo at his peak. Mbappe will, or at least should, be the best player in the world if he continues to perform anything like this in the coming years. Scored four goals, including one in the final. He is the first teenager since Pele to do that.

3. N’Golo Kante (France)

In the space of about four years, Kante has gone from “who?” to two-time Premier League winner, FA Cup winner, Player of the Year and now World Cup winner. It’s an astonishing rise for one of the best defensive players in the world and there won’t be a human alive who is surprised to learn he made the highest number of interceptions (20 – tied with Roman Zobnin). There’s more to his game than winning tackles and interceptions and, at times, Kante was required to dribble with the ball down the wing at pace, like he used to in his pre-world-conquering youth. Defenders struggled to keep up, let alone get close.

4. Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)

Created 15 chances from open play – the most of any player at the World Cup. What makes this particularly impressive is that he had to do so while playing in a deep midfield role that largely took him out of the game. Like Fabian Delph’s wife, he is an absolute machine. The few times Roberto Martinez altered the system so that De Bruyne could influence games, he was brilliant and ran the show. De Bruyne’s long-range strike against Brazil was one of the goals of the tournament and his bursting run to kick-start Belgium’s winning counter-attack goal against Japan made him an integral part of another.

5. Eden Hazard (Belgium)

The most fouled player. Opposition players did everything they could to get Hazard off the ball and it turns out the best way is to either grab his shirt or just kick him. Some of Hazard’s close control was exceptional during Belgium’s games and he was, without doubt, one of the most exciting forwards to watch; always attacking, constantly ready to burst or trick his way past defenders. Scored three goals and made two assists, creating 13 chances from open play.

6. Paul Pogba (France)

Pogba played the World Cup as though in a Jose Mourinho dream. Incisive, never over-playing, utilising his unique talents to send his team-mates away on the counter-attack with a through-ball or keeping possession with a little bit of skill. In the final, he played a 50-yard volleyed pass off the outside of his boot which had enough backspin to slow into the exact path of Kylian Mbappe’s run down the right wing. In the semi-final, you could often find him defending his own six-yard box to protect France’s lead against Belgium. Sure enough, he has been best as part of a three (and having N’Golo Kante next to you makes good players great – look at Danny Drinkwater) but Mourinho might have been right to expect more of Pogba. Few players in the world can do what he did in this tournament.

7. Raphael Varane  (France)

No particular stand-out stats but Varane was the most complete defender on show throughout the tournament. France were solid at the back and Varane’s composed, measured control of the back four was key to this. He won 27 aerial duels in total, behind only Dejan Lovren (of other centre-backs) and only made one tackle. There’s more to defending than sticking your leg in to challenges and Varane has it nailed. If you don’t believe me, consider that at the age of 25, he has now won four Champions League medals, two La Ligas, three World Club Cups and now the World Cup. Again, he’s 25.

8. Ivan Rakitic (Croatia)

The yin to Luka Modric’s yang, Rakitic was part of a dovetailing midfield masterclass and one of the players of the tournament, entirely crucial to Croatia’s fluid, control system. He could often be found between the centre-backs to lead build-up play, occasionally he turned up in attacking positions. He scored one goal and created 10 chances and at other times he doubled up in wide areas to ensure Croatia dominated possession. Rakitic’s football brain is next-level and he just seems to know where he’s supposed to be at any given moment. No wonder Xavi, his ex-Barcelona team-mate, has claimed the Croat is one of the best signings in Barça’s history.

9. Antoine Griezmann  (France)

Dived for the free-kick that resulted in France’s opening goal in the final but – whether you like it or not – it’s a part of the game and the most devious players often prosper. Griezmann is an incredibly quick-minded player, spotting opportunities to attack, identifying space to move into and finding team-mates with passes through gaps you didn’t think were even on. Scored four goals, two of which were penalties, making him the joint-second top scorer – it doesn’t even really feel like he was that good throughout. He was though.

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Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe celebrate winning the 2018 World Cup (Matthias Schrader/AP)

10. Philippe Coutinho  (Brazil)

The best player outside the top three countries. Coutinho’s 25-yard strike against Switzerland was stunning – the kind of thing we’ve seen him do on many an occasion in the Premier League – but his all-round game during this tournament was a pleasure to watch. Scored two goals, made two assists and created 13 chances from open play – second only to the aforementioned De Bruyne.

11. Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

Fast, skilful, powerful, determined –Perisic is an incredible winger, capable of either going past a defender on the wing and sending a curling, whipped cross into a striker or of turning up in space at precisely the right moment to score a goal of his own. The Inter Milan star (will that be the case by transfer window closing time?) scored three goals, including the equaliser against England in the semi-final, and assisted one other.

12. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)

Belgium’s all-time top scorer ended up with four goals in the tournament and, were it not for a couple of poor touches in high-pressure matches and a few scuffed efforts (happens to the best), could well have beaten Harry Kane to the Golden Boot. Has massively improved his positional awareness and movement off the ball, as shown in one particular passage of play where a run across the defence from wide right to left created all the space required for Belgium to score their superb counter-attack winner against Japan in the last-16. He’s only 25 too, which means Lukaku should be at his peak for the next World Cup.

13. Diego Godin (Uruguay)

Along with partner in crime Jose Gimenez (and some of their defensive methods make this an almost literal description), Uruguay had perhaps the best centre-back pairing in the competition. It’s too bad the rest of the team wasn’t up to that high standard. Godin led from the back and put out fires whenever necessary, making 10 tackles and 13 interceptions (no defender made more) in his five matches.

14. Benjamin Pavard  (France)

Two years ago this young right-back was watching France lose in the Euro 2016 final to Portugal from the fan zone. Now he’s got a World Cup winner’s medal and is reportedly about to sign for Bayern Munich after successfully defending (and attacking) on France’s right side with only Kylian Mbappe for cover further ahead of him. Plays with the maturity and positional sense of someone far older than 22.

15. Samuel Umtiti  (France)

A few too many time-wasting shenanigans – with a couple of “I need to lie down because I’m injured” moments almost coming back to bite him – aside, Umtiti was a solid rock at the back for France. Scored the goal against Belgium which put France into the final.

16. Kieran Trippier (England)

The English Sime Vrsaljko, as he likes to be known, created more chances to score than any player in the World Cup, mostly because he was on constant free-kick duty. A hugely impressive feat and one only possible because his delivery is so consistently good.

17. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

A monster. The free-kick goal he scored to grab a hat-trick against Spain is one of the coolest things ever seen in a World Cup. You knew from the moment he won the foul that he was going to score. He knew it. Everyone knew it. Only managed one other goal in the tournament to bring his tally to four (second highest in the tournament from only four games...) but was a constant menace. This is still one of the elite strikers in world football.

18. Neymar (Brazil)

Quite frankly, for a lot of the time Neymar was on the pitch, he was a disgrace. Diving, rolling around, cheating and doing so much damage to his reputation that he’s basically a meme now. But, when he actually plays, he’s incredible. No other player took as many shots as Neymar (26). No other player got as many on target either (13). Only one player created more chances (Neymar 23, Kieran Trippier 24).

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Neymar failed to light up the World Cup (Owen Humphreys/PA)

19. Isco (Spain)

Made more successful passes in the opposition half than any other player at the World Cup. Isco’s 320 puts him 34 ahead of Modric, having only played in four games. Isco had 135 touches per game, more than anyone else to have played in the tournament. A phenomenal player and Spain’s best by far.

20. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)

Made some astonishing saves on his way to winning the Golden Gloves, an entirely unpractical prize which, if anything, will hinder his future goalkeeping career. Wear normal gloves, Thibaut. Metal is heavy.

21. Jan Vertonghen (Belgium)

Switched effortlessly between left-back and centre-back, made crucial interceptions (eight in total) and was hugely influential in keeping Belgium’s build-up play clean and tidy. The Tottenham Hotspur man even managed to score.

22. Oghenekaro Etebo (Nigeria)

Etebo – even though he only played in three games – was the under-the-radar find of the tournament. Had he not signed a contract with Stoke before the World Cup began, he should absolutely be spending his time choosing which upper mid-level European club he wants to play for next season. Fantastic on the ball, composed passing, aware of his surroundings and by far Nigeria’s best player.

23. Takashi Inui  (Japan)

Absolutely no idea where this guy came from but wow he was good. Inui scored two goals and assisted one other but did so much off and on the ball that you can’t really measure with stats it’s hard to know where to start. Plays off the left as an inside-forward; can dribble, sees a pass and is tidy with the ball at his feet, a little bit like a less patient Isco (yet at the same time not at all...). A highly technically gifted player who happened to have an excellent World Cup but you suspect might struggle to replicate the same form every week in La Liga (which is where he plays for Real Betis).

24. Thomas Meunier  (Belgium)

Was obviously hugely missed in Belgium’s defeat to France in the semi-final. A suspension kept him out of that one and prompted a reshuffle of Roberto Martinez’s pack, upsetting the defensive balance. Meunier did brilliantly to act as the player who made Belgium either a three- or four-man defence, choosing his times to venture forward well without leaving the rest of the team exposed.

25. Sime Vrsaljko (Croatia)

The Croatian Kieran Trippier, as he likes to be known, had a fantastic tournament, providing attacking width, defensive bite and about 20 million crosses – including the vital one which allowed Ivan Perisic to put Croatia ahead of England and throw the Three Lions to ... the lions.

26. Casemiro (Brazil)

Made more tackles than any other player. One of the best defensive midfielders in the world and was sorely missed through suspension in Brazil’s quarter-final defeat to Belgium.

27. Mario Mandzukic (Croatia)

Led the line for Croatia, caused panic in opposition defences with his aerial presence and scored three goals in total – including the match winner in the semi against England.

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But after an Ivan Perisic equaliser, Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time strike secured Croatia a 2-1 win (Aaron Chown/PA)

28. Lionel Messi  (Argentina)

The greatest player of all time (is he though?) had a tournament to forget. Surrounded by mediocrity, Messi was given far too much to do and, apart from a wonder goal for the ages against Nigeria in the third group stage game to keep his country in the tournament, couldn’t do it. Had dragged Argentina to the World Cup on his own and must have felt like he was standing in the eye of the storm as the walls, ceiling and floor of Argentina’s football barn fell apart.

29. Hugo Lloris (France)

Made a howler against Croatia in the final but pulled off some other-worldly saves in France’s other games and is a World Cup-winning captain. One stop in particular against Belgium, where Lloris reacted as though reading the mind of De Bruyne, was incredible.

30. Domagoj Vida (Croatia)

On the pitch, Vida was brilliant. 10 interceptions, 14 aerial duels won, an assist while playing as a right-back and a goal while playing as a centre-back. Powerful, quick and with excellent positioning, his partnership with Dejan Lovren worked extremely well.

31. Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

Magnificent in Denmark’s match against Croatia and unlucky to lose the penalty shoot-out despite making some top saves. Schmeichel is a great goalkeeper and could play for any top European club side.

32. Yerry Mina (Colombia)

Plays for Barcelona but doesn’t really play as though he plays for Barcelona. A very old-fashioned centre-back; very strong, great in the air and a huge threat from set-pieces. Mina scored three goals.

33. Andreas Iniesta (Spain)

One of the best footballers to have played the game. Took things into his own hands when the game was going against Spain, forced opportunities, dribbled around and passed through players like in a video game and then Fernando Hierro put him on the bench for the defeat by Russia. “At that moment, I felt like I didn’t understand anything about football,” said Ivan Rakitic of that decision. “I thought I was part of another sport. Seeing the best player, perhaps in the history of his position, on the bench. It hurt a lot.”

34. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)

Kept having to drop deep to facilitate Luis Suarez’s lack of defending, was taken out the game by doing so and then tried way too hard to score at every opportunity he had, often spoiling attacking moves for Uruguay. Managed to score three goals from 16 shots.

35. Denis Cheryshev  (Russia)

Started on the bench, ended up scoring four goals – two of which were up there among the best in the tournament. Is he actually any good? Sort of. Sometimes definitely yes. Other times ... inconclusive. Seemed to always be first to get substituted.

36. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)

A magnificent tournament for Sweden’s captain. Scored two goals, made seven interceptions and lead his country to an unlikely quarter-final.

37. Lucas Hernandez (France)

The best left-back of the tournament. Made 16 tackles – second highest of any player – helping France win turnovers in possession and starting those devastating counter-attacks that made them world champions.

38. Dejan Lovren (Croatia)

Self-proclaimed best defender in the world Dejan Lovren has now lost the Champions League final and World Cup final in the same season, which absolutely sucks for him. When alongside a centre-back who complements his skill set and can cover for errors, Lovren really is a very good defender. Croatia’s central defenders had a great World Cup.

39. Juan Quintero (Colombia)

James Rodriguez’s absence was obvious in the England game but Colombia’s team works around their creative genius Quintero. Created six chances, made two assists and scored one.

40. Axel Witsel (Belgium)

The unsung hero. Kept Belgium’s shape together, provided a defensive shield and made all the neat and tidy passes required of him. Was one of the key reasons Belgium were able to play so well, acting as a link between the rest of the star players.

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19 October 2016; Axel Witsel of Zenit St Petersburg during squad training at Tallaght Stadium in Tallaght, Co Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

41. Keylor Navas  (Costa Rica)

Keylor Navas kept Costa Rica in games single (and double) handedly at times, giving a poor group of players an actual chance of winning games they should never have been near. They even managed to win a point against Switzerland.

42. Jordan Pickford (England)

Kept England in the Colombia game with some brilliant saves, commanded his area well and stayed committed to building from the back until the semi-final, at which point hoofing crept back in. The thing is, Pickford’s hoofing is up there with the best – his long-range kicking often started attacking moves for England.

43. Harry Kane (England)

Didn’t seem to turn up for the third-placed play-off, was poor in the semi-final, couldn’t get in the game in the quarter-final … but ended up with the Golden Boot anyway. Teams – especially Panama – were terrified of him at set-pieces, his penalty taking was cool and some of his off-the-ball movement created space and chances for others. His goals were three penalties, a fortunate deflection, a tap-in and a header at the back post (in the dying moments of the match) and came against the worst team in the competition (Panama), an average Tunisia and an admittedly high-pressure situation against Colombia. But he still scored them.

44. Artem Dzyuba (Russia)

This probably isn’t particularly surprising, but Dzyuba was pretty good in the air. In fact, he won 41 aerial battles, putting him joint first in the table for that particular stat. The striker became a national hero after scoring as a substitute in Russia’s opening game, operating as a kind of really angry Peter Crouch. Undoubtedly fuelled by home crowds, Dzyuba isn’t one of the world’s best forwards nor anywhere close to it, but he was a constant menace during this tournament, scoring three goals and assisting two others.

45. Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria)

One of the most underrated players in the Premier League can now boast about being the same in the World Cup. Nigeria have a really exciting group of youngsters coming through and Ndidi is one of the best. He made 15 tackles – the joint third highest – and 12 interceptions – the seventh best – despite only playing three games in Russia.

46. Jordan Henderson (England)

Henderson was brilliant right up until the semi-final when he lost all composure and forgot how to pass a ball. Was an integral part of England’s play before that, linking defence with attack, maintaining the team’s shape and hitting some outstanding long passes over the top for forwards to chase.

47.  John Stones (England)

Composed under pressure and one of England’s main forward distributors, Stones made the third most passes of any player in the World Cup (478). Scored two goals with his head thanks to England’s success at set-pieces but was caught out by Mario Mandzukic for Croatia’s winning goal in extra-time. Needs to cut out those mistakes.

48. Danijel Subasic (Croatia)

Made one of the great saves in World Cup history with his instinctive stop to deny Harry Kane from about two yards out and saved some vital penalties along the way. Ended up conceding rather more than he might have liked … but that is the life of a goalkeeper.

49. Harry Maguire (England)

Proved he is entirely capable at this level with some great performances, regularly carrying the ball into the opposition half to help with attacks (and he managed one assist too) and dominant in the air when defending his own box. Maguire won the joint highest number of aerial duels.

50. Ever Banega (Argentina)

Should have been involved from the start. Jorge Sampaoli’s weird experiment didn’t work at all and Argentina were deservedly hurled out of the competition at the last 16. In the two starts and one substitute appearance Banega made, he managed two assists. Made a massive difference, allowing the team to pass and pick holes in the opposition defence. 

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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