World Cup 2018: Move over Messi and Ronaldo – Trippier and Fellaini are here

With Messi and Ronaldo dropping out at the Round of 16, we all know who were the real stars of the show…

by Jon Mackenzie

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Picture the scene.

Two people are sat in a pub. The World Cup is on so the conversation turns, inevitably, to football.

“Go on then…” says one to the other.

“Go on then what?”

“Which side of the debate do you fall on?”

“Oh, not this old chestnut.”

“Come on… just say it!”

“I just don’t know how you can compare them! They’ve been playing different roles for their whole careers…”

“Oh, come on! You’re just scared…”

“No, I’m not…”

“Say it…”

“….okay then… I’m a Trippier man. Fellaini just doesn’t perform in the big matches for me and Trippier carries his team always.”

“Yeah, but they’re both the GOATs. We’re lucky to be living in an era in which two of the greatest are playing at the same time, to be honest…”

Out of the ordinary

I don’t know if you noticed it but this World Cup has been somewhat different to previous iterations.

Given the decline and fall of some of the most pedigree-laden nations within world football, the knock-out stages had a certain asymmetry that, however you look at it, was something of an outlier (even taking into account the World Cup in 2002).

With those two notaries of the global game – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – both seeing their countries dumped out in the Round of 16, it was left to the star-studded cast of France to represent the excesses of domestic football on the international stage.

REUTERS/Carl Recine

Yet even they failed to impress: playing a brand of football which prioritised Deschampian conservatism which will have pleased few people but will have given Jose Mourinho an indication that his future might lie in international football.

Which is not to say that the standard of football has not been captivating – in the main, it has. In many respects, it has felt like a return to the rumbunctious intemperance of the early Premier League years, that joyful celebration of sheer pandemonium before the relentless march of professionalism strictured the modern game.

But this saw something of a change of cast. The stars were not the panjandrum artistes but the matinee stand-ins: the Kieran Trippiers, the Marouane Fellainis, the Dejan Lovrens, the Paulinhos.

We’re not in Kansas anymore…

When approaching the international form of the game, it is easy to make the assumption that it does not differ greatly from its domestic counterpart. After all, it is all the same players just appearing on different teams, no?

In fact, the dissimilarities should not be downplayed. In the domestic sphere, coaches are able to build teams in their own image, they have a much longer time frame in which to mould their side and they are brought into a club with an historical ethos or precedent which gives the team something of a direction.

This is entirely unlike the situation for international coaches who are given a few weeks a year to build together a side from the raw ingredients available to them without any ideology to guide them on their way.

REUTERS/Lee Smith

As always in these scenarios, the easiest thing to do is to build a solid defensive unit and look to hit teams on the counter-attack. This has worked well for Iceland in the past but it shouldn’t be surprising to see teams like France adopting this approach even with the embarrassment of riches that they have at their disposal.

The international game, then – at least as far as this World Cup has shown – tends to follow one of two models. Either one team will sit back and absorb pressure, looking to score a goal on the break (cf. the second half of France vs Belgium or Brazil vs Belgium), or both teams will look to trade blows, leaving the midfield areas largely vacated in something more reminiscent of what you might see at a basketball game (cf. Croatia vs Russia).

It is for this reason that Kieran Trippier and Marouane Fellaini have been the unexpected stars of the tournament. With less pressure in the midfield areas and an added emphasis on crossing the ball in from the wide areas, both Trippier and Fellaini have thrived in their own way, the England wing-back producing more key passes than anyone else in the tournament so far and his Belgian counterpart playing his part in the turnover of Japan.

Context is everything

Context, we are told, is everything.

But for a remarkable performance from Romelu Lukaku on Saturday, Harry Kane will be taking the Golden Boot trophy home with him from Russia.

Now it would be unfair to argue that the Spurs front man didn’t deserve the trophy. But everyone knows that four of his six goals have come from the penalty spot this tournament. As the old adage goes, you still have to score a penalty. But anyone else on the England team could have been tasked with the responsibility. (And which of you churls really thinks John Stones shouldn’t have been given the penalty against Panama?)

REUTERS/Matthew Childs

Why mention this? Well, when it comes to player performances at a World Cup, context is also everything. It is well known that, in the past, clubs have bought players on the back of good international performances, often with disastrous consequences.

Take Alex Ferguson, who admitted: “I was always wary of buying players on the back of good tournament performances. I did it at the 1996 European Championship, which prompted me to move for Jordi Cruyff and Karel Poborsky. Both had excellent runs in that tournament but I didn’t receive the kind of value their countries did that summer … sometimes players get themselves motivated and prepared for World Cups and European Championships and after that there can be a levelling off.”

Where does this levelling off come from? Well, from the fact that the international game and the domestic game are increasingly so far removed that it no longer makes sense to make predictions of one based on the other.

Sleeping GOATS don’t lie

So when the Premier League – along with its counterparts around Europe – makes its glorious return in a month’s time, you can rest assured that ‘yer GOATs: yer Messis and yer Ronaldos’ will be sleeping easy in their beds.

Which is not to say that Kieran Trippier and Marouane Fellaini won’t have good seasons (Spoiler: Fellaini doesn’t), but rather to remind you that, when you’re down in the pub later, you can save yourself the inevitable conversation. 

Who do you think the stars of the World Cup have been? Let us know by commenting below.

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Jon Mackenzie

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