Woah Nellie! Saying that the group stage sure has been a lot of fun is quite the understatement. So many upsets, loads of games and lifelines coming down to late drama... Who could ask for more? Honestly, I don’t ever think I’ve come as close to the feeling as you get from watching the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. March Madness? Nope, June Lunacy!
GROUP STAGE OBSERVATIONS & TAKEAWAYS GOING FORWARD
GOALS, GOALS, GOALS!
If Mötley Crüe were soccer fans, they never would have bothered with “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Instead, “Goals, Goals, Goals” would be the theme song of the 2018 World Cup. First and foremost, as everybody well knows, the 2018 World Cup quickly set a record for the most penalty kicks ever (24 and counting) DURING THE GROUP STAGE (!!!). Some of that can be attributed to the new VAR system, but even without it, the mark would have been smashed anyway with plenty of time to spare. Another record — again, amazingly set already — which has added to the deluge of scoring is own goals (eight). Defenders clearly just can’t catch a break.
Aside from VAR and bad luck, keen observers (such as NMA’s Stall Express) have pointed to the disappearance of good, old-fashioned, disciplined defense. Teams with excellent pedigree in the back line, such as Argentina, England, Germany, Spain and Portugal, combined for a measly total of two clean sheets in their 15 group stage fixtures, wreaking havoc on plenty of our fantasy teams in the process. And even so, all of those squads bar Germany still made it through to the knockout stage! Who needs defense?
Along a similar theme, in Brazil 2014 there were five 0-0 results in the group stage. In 2018, that count has plummeted to one. One stinking nil-nil affair!
WHAT IS THE OPTIMAL FORMATION TO USE?
In my Dream Team introductory Player Picks article, I pointed to the top 10 scorer breakdown from 2014 (four midfielders, four defenders, one forward, one keeper) in recommending not focusing too heavily on forwards, but instead spreading things around and being sure not to neglect the other positions. As such, I recommended the 4-4-2.
D’oh! In the group stage so far this time around, the fantasy scoring has been extremely striker heavy. Forwards account for five of the top 10 scores (with two midfielders, two defenders and one goalkeeper accounting for the remainder). So if you’re at a 4-4-2, go ahead and switch to a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3. And if you curse me, please do so under your breath.
Given that forwards have been worth their weight in gold, don’t be afraid to pay up for your favorites at the position while looking for comparative bargains elsewhere to fill in your squad as necessary.
ARE YOU SURE? IS THE GOAL-FEST DESTINED TO CONTINUE?
We’ve seen a lot of high-scoring games in the group stage, such as Russia beating Saudi Arabia 5-0, Portugal drawing Spain 3-3, England smashing Panama 6-1 (Van Halen would be proud), and Belgium romping over Tunisia 5-2. In the knockout stage, as the level of competition gets more difficult, teams tend to play more conservatively, so scores are generally lower. Given group stage trend for higher scoring this year than in recent World Cups, we can expect higher scores in the knockout stage than in previous tournaments, but you shouldn’t hitch your wagon to actual or fantasy scores being quite as robust as they were in these past three games.
One thing that could contribute to the scoring going down is that penalty kicks tend to be conceded by the poorer teams that have already been eliminated. However, you will want to note that the remaining teams were far from immaculate, conceding 11 of the 24 PKs. (Simple math, that’s almost half!) And now that they face tougher competition, we should still see plenty of action from the spot.
So go ahead and prioritize penalty kick takers! For instance, at forward, the tie breaker goes to main men such as Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo ahead of lookie-loos like Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku and Spain’s Diego Costa. But don’t forget about the other positions! In midfield, Belgium’s Eden Hazard, Croatia’s Luka Madrid, Denmark’s Christian Eriksen, Japan’s Shinji Kagawa also take their team’s penalties, and likewise for defenders Andreas Granqvist of Sweden and Ricardo Rodriguez of Switzerland.
WHICH TEAMS SHOULD YOU TARGET?
As many have noted, from the results and seeding in the bracket, the draw looks to be absolutely nasty on the left side, and much smoother on the right. Quite simply, if you pick players from teams expected to advance on the right side of the draw, you have a better chance of not having to burn too many transfers going forward. By that virtue, Spain and England are probably going to get a lot of love.
That said, if you have a hunch about one of the teams on the left side, and if you don’t feel so great about the so-called favorites on the right side, go with your gut. Maybe you’re absolutely certain that Brazil or Belgium can navigate the choppier waters. Or that Sweden or Croatia will be the team to steam through the supposedly more pacific cerulean. There has been no shortage of unpredictability so far; why stop now?
WHOM SHOULD YOU GET RID OF?
How many German players do you still have in your squad? Those are obviously the first players you’ll want to move out. Depending on how many transfers you have left, you may have to stop there, or at least not go too far further. You will want to keep plenty in your pocket for when your XI gets blown up by more teams crashing out.
Thankfully, Germany was the only one of the huge favorites that didn’t make it through to the Round of 16, but now plenty of those top squads (and likely no shortage of your players) face a series of perilous land mines.
Otherwise, if you have an injured star such as Brazil’s Marcelo or Colombia’s James Rodriguez, you’re in a pickle. Ideally, you would wait until you hear more concrete news regarding their fitness for their Round of 16 games to see if you need to drop them.
As noted in a recent article, there is an interesting wrinkle to the Dream Team game regarding its add/drop rules between days of a round. A savvy strategy would be that when one of your players gets knocked out during the first three days of the Round of 16 (or if injury or other decisions lead to them not starting), drop him for a player you expect to advance and play later in the same round. That way, you could pick up the points for both players in any given spot. However, if you are wrong and that secondary player gets knocked out too, then you’ll be burning another transfer, so YMMV.
PLAYER PICKS FOR THE ROUND OF 16
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal v. Uruguay, £7.5)
Sure, Ronaldo missed a penalty in the draw with Iran, but that’s an occurrence about as rare as steak tartare. After the Euro 2016 title, Ronaldo is desperate to secure absolute GOAT immortality with a World Cup crown... along with the Golden Boot, of course.
Yes, Uruguay kept all three clean sheets in the group stage, but those came against a Salah-less Egypt, an anemic Saudi Arabia, and a Russia side that earned a red card in the first half. In World Cup qualifying, Uruguay also allowed the fourth most goals in CONMEBOL, whereas it scored the second most. You already know how great Ronaldo is, and Uruguay is not as impenetrable as you think!
Neymar (Brazil v. Mexico, £7.5)
We’re all patiently waiting for this to become Neymar’s World Cup. It hasn’t quite happened yet, but if (and when?) it does, you won’t want to miss out! Mexico is in defensive disarray after allowing three goals to Sweden, and Brazil is the last team they will want to see.
Harry Kane (England v. Colombia, £6.0)
Two games. Five goals. Enough said.
Luis Suarez (Uruguay v. Portugal, £6.0)
“El Matador” Edinson Cavani is less expensive than his strike partner, but “Mr. Chompers” Luis Suarez takes the PKs, so if you’re choosing between them, go ahead and pay that little extra. Portugal will not play as openly as they did against Spain, but the game should still have plenty of back and forth.
Carlos Vela (Mexico v. Brazil, £2.0)
As mentioned earlier, you probably shouldn’t skimp at the forward position, but if you do, Vela is a pretty good option. He’s Mexico’s penalty taker, and he has demonstrated a solid shot during the run of play as well.
Eden Hazard (Belgium v. Japan, £6.0)
The game-two brace was likely a harbinger of more to come from the Chelsea stud.
Philippe Coutinho (Brazil v. Mexico, £5.0)
The Selecao star is owned by 52% of fantasy managers. What the heck are the other 48% thinking?
Luka Modric (Croatia v. Denmark, £4.0)
The Danes allowed two penalties in the group stage, so Modric will be licking his chops.
Isco (Spain v. Russia, £3.5)
The Real Madrid youngster has already announced himself on the stage with a fine goal and third-most fantasy points at the position, but the knockout rounds should really bring out his voice.
Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland v. Sweden, £3.0)
The Swiss maestro thankfully avoided a ban, and now he tries to add to his growing legend.
Jordi Alba (Spain v. Russia, £4.0)
Alba has been an absolute dud. But I’m keeping the faith.
Thiago Silva (Brazil v. Mexico, £3.5)
Marcelo who? It’s Thiago Silva with two clean sheets and one imperious header goal.
Thomas Meunier (Belgium v. Japan, £3.0)
Much like Marcelo and Alba, two-way threat Meunier has been a disappointment, with one clean sheet and one assist only translating into 8 fantasy points. But if he’s going to break out, the time is now against the longest shot left, Japan. Just beware that he’s carrying a yellow card.
Dejan Lovren (Croatia v. Switzerland, £2.5)
Croatia has come out looking like one of the top teams in the tourney so far, while Denmark has to feel somewhat fortunate to have come this far. Christian Eriksen has been decent but has fallen short of expected explosiveness. Lovren and company will not mind that continuing.
Andreas Granqvist (Sweden v. Switzerland, £2.0)
Two PK goals, two clean sheets. Sometimes you just have to keep rolling with the hot hand... or foot. Especially in this World Cup of Penalty Kicks.
Alisson (Brazil v. Mexico, £4.5)
Alisson didn’t need to make many saves in the group stage, but he got two clean sheets that easily could have been three if the referee in the Switzerland game had used proper judgment. (No, I’m not bitter at all about it, why do you ask?) Alisson should be more active in the knockout stage, and he’s got the world class talent to keep shots out when called upon.
Thibaut Courtois (Belgium v. Japan, £3.5)
Alisson and Courtois were the two keepers from the top teams who I loved the most going into the tournament, and while I’ve certainly had my misses at several spots, that goal-tending duo has rewarded my faith with two clean sheets each in the group stage. I don’t see a need to change course in the knockout rounds.
Robin Olsen (Sweden v. Switzerland, £2.0)
If you’re looking for a cheaper option, you have plenty of choices. There’s Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel, who leads the way in scoring at the position, having secured a vital penalty save. Uruguay’s Fernando Muslera is the only keeper with three clean sheets. Argentina’s Franco Armani is in the bargain bin at £1.5, and NMA’s Santiago will tell you he’s a massive upgrade from Willy Caballero as often as you want to hear it... or more. And the choices don’t stop there, I could go on and on (and then on even further). But you know what? I’m going to stop at three keeper picks. And in the budget department, I’ve really warmed to Sweden’s Robin Olsen.
Sweden finished ahead of Netherlands in their qualifying group, then beat Italy head-to-head in the playoff. Plenty of doubters thought it was a fluke, but now Sweden has absolutely proven that they are for real in the World Cup by topping a very tough group. Even if they get past a tough Switzerland side, almost everybody’s probably picking England to end things in the quarters. I don’t know, though. (Sorry, Stall.) Sweden feels like a team of destiny, and if destiny does come calling, it’s probably going to beckon from a team effort rooted in the defensive end.
What changes are you making to your Dream Team side? Is there anybody else not mentioned above who you are adding in? How many transfers are you using, and how many does that leave you? Let us know in the comments!