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Sean Sullivan

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World Cup Watch - Midfielders

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


World Cup Watch


With 736 players headed to the 2018 World Cup, which individuals could make a significant impact in Russia?


Don’t worry; my World Cup Watch series has you covered!  


These positional previews will pinpoint stars, underrated assets and lesser-known players poised to make a big splash during the tournament.  Since this series will feature a wide range of players, those included will be assigned one of the three following classifications.


Star Watch  - High-profile players

Underrated Asset -  Well-known, undervalued players

Rising Stars  - Lesser-known talents you’ve most likely never seen play


The second edition of World Cup Watch is a selection of must-watch midfielders.   




Star Watch



Toni Kroos, Germany - Midfield Maestro


Any discussion of superstar midfielders must begin with Toni Kroos. For all intensive purposes, Kroos is the archetype of the prototypical midfield maestro.  The 28-year-old is known for his passing efficiency, overall technique, and vision, as well as his deadly deliveries from set-pieces. Since leaving Bayern Munich for Real Madrid in 2014, his distribution rates have been second to none.  Kroos has completed 92.9% of his passes in La Liga play and 94.3% across UEFA Champions League action. This past season, of those to have attempted 150 or more long balls in Europe’s top five leagues, he also had the best long ball accuracy (87.9%).  


Kroos was at the heart of Germany's World Cup-winning side in 2014.  In Brazil four years ago only Philipp Lahm (562) completed more passes than Kroos, who started all seven matches in Brazil and led the competition with four assists.  If the World Cup holders successfully defend the title, Kroos will likely be in the conversation for the Golden Ball.



Christian Eriksen, Denmark - Advanced Playmaker


Christian Eriksen is one of the most influential players in world football.  Rather than taking a conventional approach to this argument, here are some underlying statistics to consider. Across the top five European leagues last season, Eriksen ranked 9th with 69 short key passes and 10th in long ones (37).  He also averaged as many shots per game as Edinson Cavani (3.3) and attempted as many shots from outside the box as Harry Kane (25). Plus, over the last two seasons, he assisted (25) more times in Premier League play than Lionel Messi (21) did in La Liga.  


In addition to being an elite advanced playmaker, the 26-year-old arrives at the World Cup in the best international form of his career.  Eriksen scored 11 goals during qualification, including an emphatic hat-trick against Ireland in the second leg playoff to secure Denmark’s place in Russia.   Field vision, chance creation, and ball-striking technique, Tottenham Hotspurs’ ace is a modern-day traditional number 10.



Underrated Assets



Piotr Zielinski, Poland - Midfield Engine


Capable of playing through the middle or in wider positions, Piotr Zielinski is a midfield engine.  The 24-year-old has the pace to cover tons of ground as well as the vision and technical skill to make magic happen in the final third.  Although starts were hard to come by at Napoli this past season, he was still one of the club’s most influential players in limited minutes.  Of all Serie A players who played less than 1800 minutes in 2017-18, Zielinski ranked fourth in key passes (36).


Despite being an impact substitute at club level, the 24-year-old heads to the World Cup as an established starter for Poland. Only Lewandowski (900) played more minutes during qualification than Zielinski, who led his nation with six assists in 10 starts. Manager Adam Nawalka has the option of deploying the Napoli man at a few different positions in Russia, with central attacking midfield being the role where he will be most effective.  Poland is a team that relies on midfield runners to support Lewandowski, and that means Zielinski’s contributions will be vital as they navigate a tricky Group H.



Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Iceland - Wide Playmaker   


Johann Berg Gudmundsson was one of the biggest surprises in the Premier League this past season.  JBG became Burnley’s offensive architect when Robbie Brady went down with a season-ending injury and played a massive role in the club’s rise to Europa League qualification with a seventh-placed finish.  The 27-year-old pinged 67 key passes, eighth most in the Premier League, and recorded eight assists in 34 league appearances.


Heimir Hallgrimsson’s Iceland squad have developed an impressive following since their improbable run to the quarter-finals in Euro 2016.  Most expect Iceland’s success to hinge on the form of Gylfi Sigurdsson. While that may be true, Gudmundsson will be every bit as important, due in part to his excellent ball-striking technique from set-pieces and in open play.  Since JBG plays in a similar system for Burnley, he is well-placed to replicate his club form on the international stage.


Rising Stars



Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Serbia - Box-to-Box Midfielder


An imposing midfielder with an estimated market value over £90m, Lazio maestro Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is set to shine at the World Cup.  Those familiar with the Serie A are already aware of the immensely talented 23-year-old, who has returned 24 goals and 20 assists in 122 total appearances since arriving from KRC Gent in 2015.  Standing at 6 ft 3 in, Milinkovic-Savic’s mixture of strength, technical ability and knack for scoring has seen him compared to Paul Pogba.


Manager Mladen Krstajic has shaken things up since taking over last year.  Most notably, the former Serbia international has shown faith in Milinkovic-Savic, who was not in the picture under previous head coach Slavoljub Muslin.  Krstajic has the luxury of being able to deploy his top talent further up the pitch because Serbia possesses two defensive midfield enforcers in Nemanja Matic and Crystal Palace’s Luka Milivojevic.  With a strong showing in Russia, Milinkovic-Savic could be the most expensive midfielder to move during the summer transfer window.



Aleksandr Golovin, Russia - Central Midfielder


Russia’s most promising young player, Aleksandr Golovin is a crafty dribbler with great ball-striking technique.  The 22-year-old showcased these skills in the Europa League group stage last season when he completed 86.7% of his dribbles and scored a pair of brilliant goals across 450 minutes of action for CSKA Moscow.  Golovin, however, did more than just star for CSKA during their European campaign in 2017-18. He scored five goals in 26 Russian Premier League starts and ranked second in the league in successful dribbles per game (1.8).  


Reportedly linked with Italian giants Juventus, Golovin heads to the World Cup as an integral part of Russia’s midfield.  Capped 15 times since his debut at the age of 19, the youngster will likely start alongside Alan Dzagoev in a midfield two or three when they begin their campaign against Saudi Arabia.  If you’re looking for a specific prediction, Golovin will score from a set-piece during the group stage.






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