After Saturday’s games, we now know the teams that will contest the semi-finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup: France, Belgium, Croatia and England. Two of those four teams have never won the World Cup while the other two have only won the tournament once while usual giants Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain have crashed out.
The composition of the semi-finalists is certainly surprising, but none of these teams are devoid of talent. Players still in the tournament include Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, Harry Kane, Kevin De Bruyne, Luka Modric, Romelu Lukaku, Antoine Griezmann and Eden Hazard. Naturally, it is those players that have attracted most of the discussion in the run-up to the World Cup. However, each of these semi-finals has a few underappreciated players who have been vital in their run in the tournament.
France - N’Golo Kante
It feels strange to label a former Premier League Player of the Year as ‘underrated’ but it is fitting considering the nature of French team. Much of the discussion surrounding Les Blues have pertained to Kylian Mbappe’s emergence as one of the best players in the world or even Paul Pogba’s industry. However, one player who has matched Mbappe and Pogba is Kante whose performances remain underappreciated.
Defensively, Kante has been among the best defensive midfielders in the tournament. He has done what he does best- make crucial interceptions with 3.4 per game which ranks 3rd in the tournament (and first among players remaining). He has averaged 2.4 tackles per game, 5th among players in the semi-finals. Moreover, unlike most defensive midfielders, Kante doesn’t dive in unnecessarily- winning 75% of his tackles. It is that defensive excellence that has allowed France to sport one of the best defences in the World Cup- only conceding four in the tournament.
What has made Kante so underrated is how his attacking contributions have been ignored. The defensive midfielder has been an excellent passer as he has made an average of 60.6 passes per game, tied for 5th in the tournament among players remaining. Yet, his passing continues to be efficient- with an 89.4% pass success percentage. Such passing excellence (along with his usual defensive brilliance) will be key for France if they are to win their second World Cup.
England - Kieran Trippier
England have reached their first semi-finals since 1990 and most of the credit has gone to Harry Kane, Jordan Pickford, John Stones and Harry Maguire. Yet Kieran Trippier has arguably been more vital to England’s run than all of those players.
The Tottenham wing-back has been excellent offensively, being England’s primary creative outlet throughout the tournament. Trippier has averaged 3.3 key passes (passes that create chances) per game, which is 2nd among players remaining in the tournament (only Kevin De Bruyne has more). Yes, Trippier has created more chances than Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, Eden Hazard, Kane, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling.
Many of these created chances have been set-pieces- Trippier’s excellent deliveries have been a big reason why the Three Lions have been so dangerous on set-pieces. Yet, Trippier’s offensive contributions have been so much more than that. He has averaged 1.3 successful dribbles per game- 4th in the tournament right now (86.7% success rate). The wing-back has also averaged 2.8 successful cross per game, 2nd in the tournament among players remaining.
Trippier has also been excellent defensively especially against Sweden when he shut down the Scandinavians’ best player Emil Forsberg. He has averaged the most tackles (3 per game) among players in the semi-finalists. Perhaps most remarkably, the 5’8 Tripper has won 73.7% of his aerial battles.
So Trippier has created the 2nd most chances, 4th most successful dribbles, 2nd among successful crosses per game while averaging the most tackles among players still in the tournament. Not bad.
Belgium - Axel Witsel
I was almost tempted to put Kevin De Bruyne in this slot considering that he still hasn’t received the recognition that his excellence deserves. However, it’s difficult to label one of the Premier League’s best players as underrated. Instead, one player whose quality has gone unnoticed is Axel Witsel. The Tianjin Quanjian midfielder (now that’s something you don’t expect to hear in the World Cup semi-finals) has been brilliant as a pivot for the Belgian side.
While Witsel did not have much to do in the group-stages against the likes of Tunisia and Panama, he has been brilliant in the knockout stages. Against Japan, Witsel was great in the first half as he contained Japanese counter-attacks. Thus in the second period, Japan chose to counter through the wings which was far more effective.
Yet, Witsel’s best game of the tournament was against Brazil where he helped the Red Devils resist the Selecao’s irresistible attack. While the likes of Phillipe Coutinho and Paulinho were still influential, Witsel (along with Marouane Fellaini) managed to lessen their impact. He will need to repeat those performances against Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante if France are to reach the semi-finals.
Croatia - Domagoj Vida
Domagoj Vida has Mario Fernandes to thank for his place in these rankings. If Fernandes hadn’t scored the equalizer in the late stages of extra-time, then Vida would have been heralded. Defenders who score vital goals tend to be noticed for their all-around performances (just look at Harry Maguire). However after Fernandes’ equalizer and the subsequent thrill of a penalty shootout, Vida’s heroics were forgotten.
Apart from scoring a crucial goal, Vida has been Croatia’s rock defensively. While Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren has received much of the credit for Croatia’s defensive quality, Vida arguably has been better. He was particularly brilliant against Argentina when lesser defenders would have buckled under the attacking talent of the Albiceleste.
The Besiktas defender has been particularly excellent in the air, winning 74% of his aerial duels (2.8 per game). He has also helped repel several attacks, making 5.8 clearances per game. Yet his best attribute has been his discipline, as he has only made 0.3 fouls per game.
Vida has also helped with Croatia’s pass-heavy attack as his distribution has been excellent. The defender has averaged 55 passes per game, among the most in the Croatian side while also making 2.3 successful long balls per game. Vida will need to repeat those performances against Harry Kane if Croatia are to become the 9th team to win the World Cup.