Wednesday is the first rest day of the World Cup and with that, a good opportunity to reflect on the individual brilliance we’ve seen so far this winter in Qatar. The final eight teams are set to battle Friday and Saturday, but with the Round of 16 meaning we’re past the midway point of the competition, we’re looking at the standout players before we preview the quarterfinals.
– World Cup 2022: News and features | Schedule
Which players have stood out to our writers? Are there any consensus choices? A selection of ESPN reporters in Qatar pick out their XIs and managers that have been the talk of the town thanks to their brilliant play.
Santos made a huge call, the sort that many of us didn’t believe he had in him: He dropped Cristiano Ronaldo, and he was vindicated with a 6-1 win over Switzerland that sends Portugal into the quarterfinals. But even before that, Portugal qualified early from the group stage with a team that is very talented, but perhaps not as balanced as they might be.
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Livakovic was the hero of the penalty shoot-out against Japan, but he also conceded just once in the group stage. That’s why he gets the nod over guys like Brazil’s Alisson and Morocco’s Yassine Bounou. (Of course, the latter also was the hero of a penalty shootout and also conceded just once in the group stage, but he also missed a game, so I’ll give it to Livakovic.)
I don’t think anybody will argue with Hakimi at right-back, while down the left, Hernandez has been very efficient and gives France an extra attacker when in possession. (I would have loved to have included Danilo, but he’s a victim of his versatility, having played on both flanks).
In midfield, Amrabat is the beating heart of this Morocco team, with his performance against Spain in the Round of 16 truly one for the ages. Bellingham has contributed goals, energy and quality and makes England less stodgy. My third slot goes to Enzo Fernandez just ahead of Casemiro (don’t want to have too many defensive midfielders), Adrien Rabiot (wonderfully two-way in this France midfield) and Frenkie de Jong (the glue in the Dutch set-up).
I would assume Mbappe is a unanimous choice, so no need to argue there. Messi turned in what Lionel Scaloni called his best performance in a World Cup for Argentina against Australia — that has to mean something. Rounding it out, I’ll go with Vinicius (hard as it is to pick out somebody in that Brazil attack) simply because of the progress he’s made over the past 18 months and the way he’s growing as a leader.
This World Cup has been a World Cup of shocks and individual brilliance more than of collective strength. It has been about the superstars to some extent, but also the guys we expected maybe less of at this level and who have surprised us. My team reflects all of that.
In goal, Allison still hasn’t conceded a single goal in the three games he has played so far, and he has looked cool and composed since he arrived in Qatar. Plus, his look is awesome!
I am playing with a back four and two very attacking full-backs in Dumfries on the right and Theo on the left. Dumfries is a player built for big tournaments: we saw it at the last European Championships, and we’re seeing it again in Qatar. His performance against the US in the Round of 16 was particularly stunning. Theo is the best attacking left back/wing back in the world right now. He has been decisive for France already, and defensively, he’s been very solid, too.
– Bounou is the calm presence behind Morocco’s World Cup success
In the centre, I’ve chosen a pair of left-footed centre-backs, which is not a problem because they have been that good so far. Aguerd has been a rock with Morocco while Gvardiol is for me the best defender at this tournament so far, and he’s still only 20 years of age.
My midfield two are unexpected stars of this World Cup. We knew how talented Bellingham was, but to see him at 19 being one of the best here is incredible. Next to him, Rabiot has had to wait for his chance at the international level, but with the injuries to Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, he stepped up massively and has been outstanding both with and without the ball. Also, I like my central midfielders to complement each other, especially one right-footer and one left-footer.
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My front four has literally everything: pace, skill, vision, experience, youth, efficiency, charisma, dance moves and celebrations. Mbappe is in there, of course, as the best player in the world right now. Messi has been magnificent too, with both stars carrying their teams so far. Richarlison up front has scored one of the goals of the tournament (although his first touch on it was perhaps not-great, ha) and has played with so much intensity. On the right, Ziyech has been superb with Morocco. Considering the little game time he had with Chelsea this season and that he was out of the national team for a while, it is a credit to his talent.
Cody Gakpo and Hakimi were unlucky not to make it, but they would be my first subs off the bench against any opponent.
Finally, the head coach of this super team is Walid Regragui. In a short space of time since taking over Vahid Halilhodzic and after having no experience at this level — he only managed in Rabat, Casablanca and Al-Duhail — the Paris-born and bred tactician has done an amazing job with his Morocco side.
My Best XI so far is a blend of the best players in Qatar, but also those who have performed beyond all expectations and shone on the biggest stage of all.
The selection of Australia’s Behich at left-back is a case in point. The 31-year-old has had an unremarkable career and plays for Dundee United, the last-place team in the Scottish Premiership, but he has had the tournament of his life in Qatar and would have scored a wonder goal against Argentina, were it not for a last-ditch challenge by Lisandro Martinez.
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In goal, Szczesny has been a star and was as crucial to Poland making the Round of 16 as striker Robert Lewandowski, while at full-back, Morocco’s Hakimi has been outstanding. There have been many top centre-halves, including France’s Raphael Varane and Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly, but Stones and Thiago Silva have stood out with their consistency.
In midfield, Bellingham has been one of the stars of the tournament, while Casemiro has been the rock on which Brazil’s form has been built. Further forward, Bruno Fernandes has had an excellent World Cup with Portugal.
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Two of the front three — Mbappe and Messi — pick themselves after their heroics so far, but the third pick is Richarlison, who has shouldered the goalscoring burden for Brazil during Neymar’s injury lay-off. As for the coach, it can only be Louis van Gaal. Now 71 and only recently recovered from prostate cancer, Van Gaal has used all of his experience and tactical knowledge to take a limited Netherlands squad to the quarterfinals. With him in charge, the Dutch will surely have a tactical masterplan that could take them all the way.
GK: Wojciech Szczesny (Poland
DF: Achraf Hakimi (Morocco), Josko Gvardiol (Croatia), Virgil van Dijk (Netherlands), Theo Hernandez (France)
MF: Jude Bellingham (England), Casemiro (Brazil); Cody Gakpo (Netherlands), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Kylian Mbappe (France)
FW: Richarlison (Brazil)
Manager: Louis van Gaal (Netherlands)
For the most part, the cream has risen to the top in Qatar. While Germany and Belgium suffered surprise early exits prior to Morocco knocking out Spain in the Round of 16, seven heavyweights have made it through to the quarterfinals and my team to this point is largely a reflection of that.
There are a couple of exceptions, however. Szczesny’s personal redemption story deserves special mention, having been sent off for Poland at Euro 2012 before becoming the first goalkeeper to score an own goal at last summer’s delayed Euros. He was superb before Poland’s last-16 exit to Argentina, while Hakimi has been a driving force in Morocco’s stunning run to the quarterfinals: his impudent Panenka penalty epitomised the character he has shown throughout.
From here, the more traditional tournament powerhouses take over. Croatia, semifinalists four years ago, are in the quarters in no small part to Gvardiol’s dominant presence. Van Dijk has been equally resolute for the Netherlands, while Theo Hernandez has two assists from three games for France after replacing his older brother Lucas, who sustained a tournament-ending knee ligament injury in match one.
Casemiro has given Brazil a level of in-game control that almost no other team has at these finals so far, while Jude Bellingham is threatening to become this World Cup’s breakout star at just 19 years old. Gakpo’s scoring prowess — and he can play as a right-winger, thankfully for my formation — has fired Netherlands this far, while Messi has carried the hopes of a nation with undeniable resilience.
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Mbappe has five goals from four games and is staking his claim to define this tournament in his own image, but the manner in which Richarlison has stepped up for Brazil, particularly in Neymar’s absence and Gabriel Jesus’ knee injury, makes Tite’s side serious contenders once more. A regret here is not finding a place for Bruno Fernandes, seemingly now back to his best for Portugal.
Van Gaal’s heart-warming story is difficult to overlook, but more than that, he appears to have devised a gameplan that makes a non-vintage Netherlands side look menacing.
GK: Wojciech Szczesny (Poland
DF: Achraf Hakimi (Morocco), Lisandro Martinez (Argentina), Josko Gvardiol (Croatia), Aziz Behich (Australia)
MF: Jude Bellingham (England), Casemiro (Brazil), Bruno Fernandes (Portugal)
FW: Lionel Messi (Argentina), Richarlison (Brazil), Kylian Mbappe (France)
Manager: Walid Regragui (Morocco)
With Regragui as manager, this team has the ability to switch seamlessly between formations, and play on the counter as well as the front foot. Szczesny has been the standout keeper at this World Cup, while the back four has the brilliance of both fullbacks anchored by the workrate and tenacity of the two centre-backs. Martinez and Gvardiol are watertight, with Hakimi and Behich both superb on the flanks. Thiago Silva is unlucky to miss out, as is Theo Hernandez.
Casemiro anchors the midfield, allowing Bruno Fernandes and Bellingham to push forward. All three have been majestic in Qatar, and though Antoine Griezmann and Amrabat are unlucky to miss out, I’d have them on the bench.
The forwards were tough to pick. Leaving out Gakpo is brutal, but imagine Messi pulling the strings with Mbappe and Richarlison — the latter has scored the two best goals of the tournament — running off him. No team can stop that.
Finally, Morocco’s Regragui is the manager of the tournament so far… just ahead of Van Gaal.
Players like Mbappe and Bellingham pick themselves because they were outstanding in the group stages. Mbappe has probably been the player of the tournament so far. Martinez has quietly been very impressive for Argentina, and even though the focus has obviously been on Lionel Messi, the Aston Villa goalkeeper has made some important saves at key times to keep them in the competition.
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Gvardiol, only 20, is part of a fresh wave of talent coming through with Croatia, and his performances at centre-back deserve a mention.
Two players going home early are Adams and Kudus, but they can both be proud of what they achieved in Qatar. Adams’ energy and workrate in midfield for the United States was incredible, and he was one of the reasons they were the better team in their draw with England. Kudus, meanwhile, did as much as anyone to try to get Ghana over the line and into the knockout rounds. He terrorised Portugal for a spell in their first game and then scored twice in the 3-2 win over South Korea.
Declan Rice has been in Bellingham’s shadow in England’s midfield, but he’s been so assured in front of Gareth Southgate’s back four that he’s barely been noticed.
Up front, there have been some good performances from more traditional No.9s despite it being a role that’s almost entirely out of fashion. Spain’s Alvaro Morata scored three goals in three games in the group stage, but he’s just edged out by Giroud, who has shown in Qatar that there is still a place for a strong, aerial centre forward.