2018 World Cup Semifinals

Every day at the Center Circle, we’re constantly talking about soccer. After all, it’s literally what we do. In order to preview the World Cup Semi-finals, we wanted to let you see inside one of those conversations between two of our resident soccer experts. This is a transcribed conversation between Tise Okuo and James Wilkinson, who managed to avoid bickering about who is the best team in North London just long enough to take an in depth dive into the final four teams left at the World Cup, and what to expect from these juicy matchups. Enjoy!

James: Let’s start here: Tise, can Croatia stop the world cup from coming home? *God Save the Queen begins playing in the background*

Tise: Sure, Croatia can beat England and are slight faves in my estimation. It’s a fitness issue for me. They struggled toward the end of the quarterfinal v. Russia. If they can regain some fitness quickly, they should be golden. If they lose Vrsaljko and/or Mandzukic, that really changes a lot of what they can do.

James: I think the fitness issue is a huge factor at this point. 240 minutes in the first two knockout rounds. That and I really don’t know how good they actually are. Its taken penalties twice for them to get to the semifinals so they’ve been a bit lucky. Then you look at who they beat in penalties and I still don’t know what to make of it. They beat Denmark – who was not good – and Russia – who was plucky and the home team but also not good. People say the bracket has opened up for England, but I think you can make a real strong case that it’s Croatia who have benefited most from facing weaker teams to make the last four.

Tise: This is certainly the weaker semi, you could say the same for both teams as far as not really knowing how strong they are. England have typically struggled versus teams like Croatia – teams who are great at possessing the ball and denying England the set piece advantages they like. In the series write-up on Croatia, we spoke of their strengths being: Possession, World Class Talent. Their weaknesses: Defense, Pressure, and then the players to watch being Kramaric, Modric, Rakitic, Perisic, and Mandzukic. Think they’ve met those predictions?

James: Yes and no. They’ve certainly been possession oriented, but the way they’ve used their possession is confusing to me. When you have a midfield of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, you’d expect them to take teams apart from the center, but that isn’t at all what they’ve done. They push out wide to Rebic and Perisic and those guys just launch in crosses – the most inefficient way to score. Tise, against Russia they attempted 38 crosses. 38!!! Against England, you should be able to dominate the matchup in the midfield,
but Croatia just haven’t played that way at all this tournament.

Tise: Especially odd strategy when they lack a dominant CF. Add in the fact that they play Rakitic and Modric as the double pivots in CM, and it’s really a different way of attacking teams and possessing the ball from what we’ve come to expect from a typical Croatian team.

James: Russia was a dominant team in the air and has been all tournament, but even when both Mandzukic and Kramaric were in together, they still just sent in cross after cross after cross. England’s back line hasn’t been tested too much, but one thing I think you can say about them, or at least 2/3 of them, is they’re adept in the air. That doesn’t feel like the way to beat the Three Lions. You have Croatia as the slight favorites, what is it they’re going to do that will win this match? I’m skeptical the approach they’ve used thus far will be effective.

Tise: They’re going to have to revert to the old Croatia from the days before Dalic, the style of Bilic and Kovac. The style where they were able to win battles of possession vs. a prime Spain. That’s what the English cannot cope with. That’s where Belgium were able to ease past England – albeit with B teams – and that’s how Tunisia gave the English trouble.

James: That’s a tough switch to flip mid tournament though. This seems like a good time to transition to England. A team who has used a series of Harry Maguire memes and a catchy, somewhat joke of a theme song to worm its way into fans hearts. Fans who aren’t you, that is. I’ll pat myself on the back here and remind you I said pre world cup in the World Cup Predictions that England would make the semis using a game plan that didn’t require ball possession and creative play. I did not expect them to make to the semis based on a barrage of set piece goals and penalty kicks. How concerned should I be about England’s inability to score from open play in this semi?

Tise: I think Croatia has a tendency to struggle against excellently executed set plays. Lovren is good for mistakes. Domagoj Vida and Lovren have been decent in this tournament but they’ve largely avoided teams who excel from set pieces like the English do. And in the game v. Russia, when they had to face up to it, they creaked several times and crumbled eventually. Both sides are playing with house money but when it comes to set plays, I think Kane and Young >>> Lovren and Vida.

James: Lovren is still having nightmares of Kane from last fall’s torching in Wembley. I actually think Sterling is the key to England’s chances in this matchup. I’ve really hammered on England not having a creative presence in their squad, but that duty essentially falls to Sterling in a round-about way. His finishing hasn’t been great, to say the least, but he’s so dangerous with the ball at his feet that he frees up teammates and unlocks defenses. He created a bunch of good opportunities against Sweden, but the back line of the Swedes was disciplined enough to deal with it. I’m not sure Croatia will be as effective. If he can create one of those chances and find Kane, that might be enough to swing the momentum to England.

Tise: Raheem Sterling has been England’s best attacking player at this tournament. Kane has the goals but Sterling’s work pulling apart defenses with his movement has been some senior level stuff. England can thank Guardiola for that. If you watch Raheem’s movement for an extended period in games, it’s fantastic. I think it’s good to note that while England have been very good from set pieces, they can also be troubled by it. If Tunisia finished better, they’d have got something from that game. Colombia also punished the English. Mandzukic can be a sneaky customer for anyone prone to concentration lapses off set pieces.

James: Do you think that’s any sort of trickle down from playing Walker out of position? For the most part he’s been good but he’s not exactly an aerial threat.

Tise: Walker is no CB. Arsene Wenger called him England’s weak point in defense and he’s right. They’ve made it work so far, and no one can deny that a semifinal showing is excellent but he struggles with the basics of positioning for the CB role.

James: How dare you bring Wenger into this! Next you’re going to be telling me England won’t win it all simply because they’re too Spursy. Look, I think we’ve fully covered this matchup, give me a player as an X-factor who could swing the game in favor of one team or another.

Tise: Luka Modric is the obvious one. I really wish coach Dalic would play him right behind the forward(s) instead of as the deep lying co-playmaker. It’s just another level of creativity for Vatreni when he’s in that hole. I feel like that’s been a plan B for them so far and it’s worked after all they’re in the semis but I think if he starts further forward, England won’t stand a chance.

James: I think Modric is the pick for Croatia. I don’t think you can make an argument that there will be any player more influential on the outcome – not even Harry Kane. Anyone for England?

Tise: For the English, I don’t really see any X factor, they’ve got this far as a solid unit that’s German-esque (i.e. the German teams BEFORE Klinsmann’s revolution) in their efficiency and reliability, Sterling is playing lights out but not finishing, and Dele Alli, for me, has not been good.

James: Dele Alli is actually my pick for the English. You’re right. He hasn’t been good, and he’s played a weird role almost as a deep lying midfielder which isn’t where he’s most effective. But when he gets forward, he’s a SUPER glue guy. Dele is a weird player, because if you asked me to tell you what it is he’s best at, I’d have a hard time answering. He just fills gaps in your attack so well and is always in the right spot. His ability there could help unlock Croatia for the English. OK, gimme your prediction! Who ya got?

Tise: If the Croats are fit, and reports are they’ve been doing well in recovery, I think they edge it 2-1. If fitness is an issue, I can see the English getting to……*pukes* Gawd no! pleeeeease no!
Actually I really like Gareth Southgate as a man and a coach. He has built a team devoid of star troubles and understands what his personnel is and isn’t which is something past coaches struggled with. Plus his delving into the NBA for tips on how to play minus the ball and use set pieces is neat. Lastly the guy is a good guy, humble, and friendly. Plus he was a decent CB and played in the last England team I liked…the 1996 lot.

James: Ha! Soon he’ll have you wearing a waist coat! I’m going with England, by the same score line: 2-1. Mostly on the power of their set pieces and fitness. This a likeable group who has happily become meme fodder. It’s been a fun squad and not the normal dour English teams of recent memory. Put on a pot of tea! Place your photo of the queen above the mantle! Call up the lads, get a pint! Because Tise, It’s coming home!
*Editor’s note – Tise refuses to honor James’ newfound fandom for the despised Englishmen on account of James having never actually set foot on the British Isles, among other things.*

James: That’s one Semi down, ready now to reflect on your lifelong love and admiration for Didier Deschamps?

Tise: Let’s go for it. It’s him or Roberto Martinez, no dodging from it this time, gotta pick one of these two gems. I’ve put away all sharp objects.

James: I know this may cause you deep physical and emotional pain, but looking at the managers, it feels like we have two extremes. Deschamps is irresponsibly defensive minded to the point that it infuriates us. Martinez is irresponsibly offensive minded and leaves his backline insanely vulnerable. It feels like Deschamps has the advantage here because in spite of his best efforts, Kylian Mbappe can go wild at any time. Am I wrong to think the 19 year old might bail out his manager’s tactics once again?

Tise: Honestly, in the knockout phase, both managers have impressed me with their willingness to adapt. Deschamps even said he knows France may not necessarily be operating at its best but the job is getting done and he will continue to try tweaking things to get more out of the team going forward. And Martinez was smart enough to start Chadli – who tucked into midfield a lot – and Fellaini vs Brazil. If those guys had not started, I was pretty sure Belgium would be in trouble.

James: If you had told me before the tournament, that in a squad loaded with world class talent, the keys to Belgium making the Semis would be Marouane Fellaini and a guy once nicknamed Nacer Passerbadli, I would have laughed at you. Yet this is the brave new world we’re living in.

Tise: In the write-up for the Quarterfinals, I wrote about how Belgium’s first mistake would be trying to own the possession v. Brazil instead of counterattacking, and how they needed the Big Fella but likely wouldn’t start him but Martinez proved he sees the obvious things too.
So, all that to say, I don’t know how this semi will go especially as Belgium is going to miss Thomas Meunier who I think is highly underrated. I don’t think Mbappe will get the room to run wild. I’ve not been as impressed with him as I should be or as the media have been at this WC. I think the key man in that attack has been Giroud. He has given the two fast attackers, Griezmann and Mbappe, the one thing they cannot do – playing as the focal point. For me, him and Lukaku have been outstanding at this tournament. They’ve shown how to play the #9 position. Only goals have been missing for Giroud but I think he’s more important than Mbappe. I think apart from that Argentina game, teams have been smart enough to deny Mbappe
the space to run into. I think his youth has shown a lot at this cup. He’s still certainly an explosive talent but unless Belgium’s CBs make stupid errors (which is a possibility as we’ve seen them do on occasion in this cup and over the years), we’ll see Mbappe’s impact minimized.

James: In regards to the French attack, it looks tailor-made to disembowel Belgium. Like you said, Giroud has been outstanding all tournament, and he’s going to occupy the star studded CB combo for Belgium. That’s going to open up space behind the wingbacks for Mbappe and Griezmann. I keep thinking back to the Japan match, when significantly less talented attackers found space, and were able to pick on Jan Vertonghen when he was left on an island. Chadli has helped but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s not a wingback. Belgium was able to hold on and survive against Brazil, but it was dangerously close. Courtois bailed them out big time, but he’s been a little inconsistent in this tournament. I’m not sure you want to
count on him playing that well again.

Tise: The thing Japan was able to do better than any other side at this cup was find space behind wingbacks. Those cross-field passes into the pocket of space left behind by overlapping wingbacks was something they clicked at finding. I don’t think France can offer the same threat into those pockets.

James: Maybe I hold too much respect for Paul Pogba, but that seems the exact type of pass he’s capable of making. And it would worry me if I’m a Belgian. Especially since Meunier is out and we’re still not sure who will fill that wing back role.

Tise: Pogba has had a good tournament. I think he’ll find it hard to bully Belgium though if they match France’s midfield strength and hard work. He’s looked like a man among boys in a lot of games so far but Belgium can actually match France there.

James: Yeah I would not bet on Pogba bullying a midfield featuring Fellaini. I want to say I’m excited to watch Lukaku play again, because he’s had a truly outstanding tournament like you said. Then I look at what France is going to put in front of him and I’m not sure he’s going to have the opportunity to be as effective. Varane and Umtiti have played well together all tournament, though of course it helps to be screened by N’Golo Kante. You wonder if Martinez might get creative and send him out wide to the right like he did repeatedly against Brazil, but France has Blaise Matuidi patrolling out there. 6 of France’s 10 outfield players are defense first guys. It’s not the best situation for him to be running into.

Tise: I think if I’m France, everything you just said about attacking Belgium behind the wingbacks is exactly what I’d worry would happen to me. Simply because Lukaku can pull apart defenders with his movement and Eden Hazard is more capable of doing damage from the wings than Griezmann or Mbappe, who’re more potent attacking centrally and running onto knockdowns behind the defense. If I’m the Belgians, I want to force France wide and trust that my CBs will handle anything they throw into the box for Giroud.

James: If there is a comparative weakness for France it might be the fullbacks. I just don’t think they’re quite on par with the rest of the squad, Pavard’s worldy of a goal notwithstanding.

Tise: On the contrary, I think Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard have been competent especially defensively. I mean, Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy at full fitness offer something going forward that these two don’t but that defensive solidity is also something they struggle with. Deschamps must be overjoyed with what he’s got. As a unit though, I think they might believe they can bomb forward (especially Hernandez) and Kante’s 15 lungs might not be enough to cover that up if Belgium get behind them.

James: Oh no, both Pavard and Hernandez have been excellent, but if I’m Belgium, and looking for a point to attack, that’s where I think they’ll start. What I mean is, Hazard is going to have a huge opportunity here. He rightfully wants to be regarded as among the world’s best players but seems often forgotten. Now is his chance. Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar are out of the tournament. If he takes advantage of France’s wide defenders perhaps pushing too far forward and keys a Belgian victory, his star might rise to the level we’ve been expecting it to for years.

Tise: Hazard hit a switch once the knockout phase started and dude has been unplayable. He had like ten successful dribbles v. Brazil, more than any other player in this cup. Real Madrid want a new toy when CR7 leaves and I think with everything going on at Chelsea now, I’d bet Hazard is joining that team once the cup is done.

James: Totally agree.

Tise: In the France preview, I wrote about their tactical awareness and the team mentality being Les Bleus weaknesses, but I think they have been flexible in this cup and Deschamps has learned to cover his errors. Same thing he did at Euro ’16, though they never looked good because those teams didn’t allow them ever get in gear. They’ve moved from that 4-3-3 base to a 4-3-2-1. He also learned that Dembele wasn’t ready for this level, and ditched the fastest three frontline and instead included Giroud as a must-play. Sadly for me, Dembele who I picked as the young player of the cup has been rubbish.

James: Maybe Deschamps has finally become a good manager! Perhaps he’ll stave off Zidane’s quest for his job! Okay, within these squads, who are your X factors? I want to start with my Belgian. It’s gotta be Fellaini. He is so good at what he’s good at, and I know he’s a punchline at times because of what he can’t do, but he’s been absolutely tremendous in the knockout rounds. Nowhere else in the world do you have such an effective combination of midfield destroyer and in the box offensive set piece weapon. He’s going to make life a nightmare for his club teammate Pogba and that could be enough to win this for Belgium.

Tise: Ah, for Belgium, I’ll go with Lukaku. I think France will try to double up Hazard with Kante shadowing him so even though he is unplayable, they’ll probably force him into zones where his impact isn’t as damaging i.e. try to deny the ball reaching him in attack so he has to drop deep into midfield to collect the ball. But Lukaku? He’s on a one man mission to punish these CBs both physically and mentally. For the French, I think it’s Pogba. Kante has helped him not worry about defensive duties as much so I think we’ll see him try to break Belgium’s defensive structure by carrying the ball deep into that defense repeatedly. Whether they break or not is another story.

James: Pogba is an excellent choice, but I’m going with the other guy you mentioned, N’Golo Kante. Legend has it playing Kante in your side is like having 12 men on the pitch because he covers so much ground. He’s going to need to with KDB, Hazard, and Lukaku running around. If he can stymie the Belgian attack, I don’t think they’ll have too much trouble winning this match. Time for the big question. It’s popular right now to say this is the real World Cup final. So who wins it?

Tise: Belgium. I think they’re more coordinated than France offensively, but it’s certainly closer with Meunier out. I’ll go 1-1, Belgium wins on penalties.

James: Wow we’re gonna differ on both picks! I’ve been on France for a while, and while they’ve never made me feel confident, they’ve also never made me worried. They’ve done just enough to consistently make it through. They’ll do so once again. France comes out on top, 3-2.

Tise: Yeah I think Belgium have the attack to give France issues like Argentina did but Belgium also has the defensive ability not to make the silly errors Messi’s guys made. It’s a really tough game to call but I think all around Belgium have played tougher sides and convinced more versus them.

James: I don’t want to get too far ahead, but does the world cup winner come from this match?

Tise: Not necessarily. I think if England is the opponent then yes, if it’s Croatia then that’s a different thing altogether.

James: I’ll finish with this. If France wins, then the world cup winner comes out of this match. If Belgium wins, it does not. Regardless of matchup. Well that’s all we got Tise, we’ll start to find out tomorrow who was wrong. Later!

Tise: Cheers!


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