The 2022 World Cup is down to its final eight teams. The Round of 16 showcased teams whittling down their rotations and formalizing a more strategic mindset as the minute decisions impact achieving glory or going home.
In the quarterfinals, we’re going to see an even more fine-tuned system from the remaining teams. With at least three days of rest for every team, the time for managers and their staff to get a grip on how they want to attack and defend their opponents. So, what are the most vital tactical matchups in the upcoming quarterfinals?
Gareth Southgate vs. Kylian Mbappe
It’s become a meme at this point to trash Gareth Southgate and his tactical acumen. I’ll leave the commentary on who he brought to Qatar to the Twitter warriors, but I will say this: How Southgate sets his team up to defend Mbappe could determine this quarterfinal.
It’s not as simple as wondering which fullback he’ll pick to try to slow Mbappe. That decision will probably come down to Southgate’s preference for Kyle Walker versus being risky and going with a more offensive mindset. Southgate isn’t able to pick Reece James, who would probably be the best choice.
Assuming Walker is the choice, he’s as capable as few other fullbacks in the world to keep up with Mbappe and challenge him physically. The problem lies with the gaps and lapses in focus. When Walker chooses to get involved offensively for even a moment, the counter is where Mbappe will look to pounce. That’s where how Southgate sets up and instructs John Stones not to get caught peeking in a high line and Declan Rice to be the defensive shot-caller in the midfield will make or break a French counter.
There’s no such thing as containing Mbappe entirely. He’s going to go on a run or get some semblance of service that puts England in exposed situations. The key is Southgate making sure his team can make Mbappe’s chances as uncomfortable as possible.
João Félix vs. Achraf Hakimi
Perhaps the most impressive performance of the Round of 16 was Portugal absolutely dominating the Swiss 6-1. I’ll refrain from a cutting-through Swiss cheese joke, but the Portugal attack, helmed by Félix, Bruno, and Goncalo Ramos were flying with purpose in every attack.
On the other side of this match, Hakimi and Morroco have allowed a single goal this World Cup, and that one goal was an own-goal. Part of the way Morroco set itself up was by allowing Hakimi to do what he does best without exposing the defense.
There hasn’t been a winger the likes of Félix on Hakimi’s side of the pitch yet in Qatar. How he manages to keep João in check while continuing to do what he does best, going forward, will determine how much pressure Morroco can put on Portgual responsibly.
Virgil Van Dijk vs. Julián Álvarez and Lionel Messi
We’re going to assume for the sake of this exercise that Louis Van Gaal isn’t going to pull the rug out from underneath us all and switch up the back three all of a sudden. If there’s a match to do it, it’s here. Slotting in a Matthijs de Ligt into a more solid defensive structure at the backline wouldn’t be the craziest thing in the world.
For now, it seems like it’s going to be up to Van Dijk on his own in the middle. If you’re going to pick a single center back in the world for that task against Argentina, you’d pick Van Dijk.
In their match against Australia, Argentina finally looked like a team that might have the cohesiveness to be a threat for the semifinals at the World Cup. Álvarez and Messi both looked great, with Messi turning back the clock to 2013 with some of the runs he was making. Argentina should have had at least two more goals in their win over Australia, missed chances from Lautaro left some on the table.
Van Dijk’s placement on Messi and Álvarez interchange play will be vital to the Dutch’s final third defending. He’s going to need to be quick on his feet and have the most flexible hip movement he’s had this World Cup to keep up with the attacking short passes and clinical one-twos.
Neymar vs. Marcelo Brozović
In Croatia’s Round of 16 win over Japan, Brozović ran about 16.70 km or a little over 10 miles. He broke his previous World Cup record from the 2018 semi-final against England. This time around, Brozo gets the privilege of pairing with his Croatian midfield buddies to try and stifle the Brazilian machine.
Much of Brazil’s success ends with flashiness on the wings that pair with amazing final third entries. That battle relies on the full-backs being able to close down Vini and Raphina. But the lead-up play that Brazil generate, mainly through Casemiro and Neymar, is what leads to the creativity we see in the end product.
How much effective ground Brozo is able to cover in keeping tabs on Neymar is going to be essential to Croatia keeping Brazil at bay, The interchange play between Neymar and Richarlison has been lethal. Brozo being able to keep pressure on Neymar before he can make the one-two plays with Richarlison will go a long way to keeping Croatia in the match.