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Eight players who could blow the World Cup quarterfinals apart

As the World Cup quarter-finals get underway this weekend the draw is split perfectly. In one half, played on Friday, the four remaining favourites face each other in the knowledge that only one will make it to the final, while on Saturday four underdogs play with a glint in their eye. England, Sweden, Croatia, or Russia will play in the World Cup final on July 15.

There are plenty of interesting tactical battles across the four fixtures, but arguably only one match – Belgium versus Brazil – will avoid an 'attack against defence' dynamic. Uruguay are likely to utilise a more conservative approach as they aim to deny Kylian Mbappe counter-attacking space, while Russia and Sweden will no doubt adopt a backs-to-the-wall strategy against Croatia and England respectively.

Here are eight players, one from each nation, who could define the World Cup quarter-finals:

1) Rodrigo Bentancur

Uruguay's narrow 4-4-2 diamond contains four central midfielders in order to provide plenty of triangular passing angles. Oscar Tabarez's side are considerably more possession-centric than in tournaments past, and with Rodrigo Bentancur at the tip of midfield they will be confident of finding holes in the France midfield.

Blaise Matuidi's suspension means either Thomas Lemar or Ousmane Dembele on the right for France, and so Didier Deschamps will only have two players in midfield; Matuidi had been floating inside to cover the spaces vacated by the meandering Paul Pogba. Bentancur, with Luis Saurez dropping off, will no doubt look to exploit the gaps left by Pogba to the centre-left of the France midfield.

2)Antoine Griezmann

Uruguay's diamond shape suffocates space in central areas and, having witnessed Kylian Mbappe tear through Argentina's soft centre in the second round, the South American side will be cautious in their approach. The space for Mbappe, then, will be wide right, meaning he will need Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann to wrestle control in the number ten space and spray the ball out to him.

Griezmann hasn't had a particularly good tournament so far but is gradually improving now Olivier Giroud is starting up front. Griezmann's weaving dribbles under pressure can shift momentum in France's favour and gradually suck that diamond midfield narrower – in turn creating space for a sudden switch out right to Mbappe.

3) Philippe Coutinho

Coutinho has been Brazil's best player at the 2018 World Cup, occupying the same false-eight role that he performed during his final 12 months at Liverpool. He floats to the left in unassuming positions before making late bursts into the number ten space, ghosting into channels left free by opponents too distracted by Neymar.

Belgium are light in the middle, and it would come as no surprise should Alex Witsel – often alone – lose possession with a sloppy pass. This is when Coutinho will pounce, and should Roberto Firmino start then it seems highly unlikely Belgium can stop the Brazilian's from running riot – unless Roberto Martinez changes formation. Marouane Fellaini should be played as part of a three-man midfield.

4) Eden Hazard

Brazil are vulnerable in the full-back positions. Marcelo, set to return from a back injury, can be guilty of roaming too far forward (and is never helped defensively by left-winger Neymar) while right-back Fagner has looked out of his depth at times. Eden Hazard, as the left inside forward, is clever enough to isolate the 29-year-old Corinthians player.

Hazard already has two goals and two assists in four World Cup games and is among the tournament's top five players for key passes made and dribbles completed. The Chelsea playmaker will surely provide entertainment on that flank… unless his club team-mate Willian puts in an extra-special defensive shift.

5) Andreas Granqvist

Sweden's defensive 4-4-2 formation has proved incredibly stubborn so far this summer, and makes them alarmingly similar to the Iceland side that knocked England out of Euro 2016. Their most important player has been Andreas Granqvist, a 33-year-old whose headers and clearances have helped his nation keep three clean sheets in four matches.

England have scored seven set-piece goals already this tournament, making Granqvist's battle with Harry Kane surely the most significant on Saturday. Sweden will fancy their chances of outmuscling their opponents in the air, but if Kane can get away from Granqvist then England should advance.

6) Kieran Trippier

The only time Sweden's defence has been troubled was during the second half of their 2-1 defeat to Germany, when Joachim Low instructed his player to play long diagonal balls into the wingers. They held possession on one half of the pitch before quickly switching, then running straight for the byline and cutting the ball into the box.

This strategy helped open up the narrow Sweden back line; there is little doubt that Gareth Southgate will be expecting his team to do something similar. Kieran Trippier, statistically the third most creative player at the World Cup behind Mesut Ozil and Kevin de Bruyne, could be the man to get behind the Sweden defence and whip crosses into the area.

7) Roman Zobnin

Russia's brick-wall 5-4-1 formation is going to severely limit space for Luka Modric, who looks for eye-of-the-needle passes into the penalty area. Croatia are becoming increasingly reliant on the Real Madrid star (he made 40% of their total key passes against Denmark) and so Russia will most likely man-mark him out of the game.

Roman Zobnin has been exceptional from central midfield, averaging three tackles and 2.5 interceptions per match. The 24-year-old could be tasked with tracking Modric, closing off the passing lines and consequently nullifying a Croatia team that looked bereft of ideas across 120 minutes against the Danes.

8) Ivan Perisic

Assuming Modric is stumped, Croatia will perhaps turn to left-winger Ivan Perisic for inspiration. His crossing ability from the left offers them a headed route to goal via Mario Mandzukic, and given Russia's narrowness it is possible that Perisic will be given an unusual amount of time to pick out the Juventus striker.

Perisic has attempted a meagre 3.5 crosses per match so far in Russia. Only twice has he found a team-mate. With the stakes so high and the Russian defence so good at frustrating their opponents, now is the time for senior players like Perisic to stand up and be counted.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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