Sunday 15 July 2018 1:08 pm

World Cup 2018: Tournament review – Heavyweight drop-outs, VAR, penalties, set pieces, wonder goals, concussion and politics

After 64 matches – including a pointless third-place play-off – over 30 days the World Cup has come to its conclusion.

France beat Croatia 4-2 in the final in a match that neatly summed by the whole competition. There were goals from set pieces, a VAR-assisted penalty and lots of quality to boot.

But you remember all that, it was today. Here City A.M. picks out seven themes from the tournament to remind you of the rest of it.

Heavyweights dropping out

With 32 sides competing there are always likely to be some unexpected results at a World Cup, but 2018 delivered more than most.

The last two winners, Germany and Spain, both suffered unfamiliar pain, while Argentina flopped and Brazil underperformed.

It feels an age ago, but its worth re-living the German disaster in Group F. An opening 1-0 defeat to a Mexico side who were lightning on the counter-attack could perhaps be excused, but it took a Toni Kroos piece of magic to keep them in it against Sweden before the crushing disappointment of South Korea.

Treat yourself. Go back and enjoy Manuel Neuer in the wrong half. Cherish Son Heung-min running clear and tapping into an empty net. You deserve it.

Spain’s disappointment was less stark, but no less surprising as they sleep-walked to defeat on penalties by Russia in the last-16. After their managerial madness on the eve of the event it was then death by countless sideways passes.


Remember the opening few rounds of the World Cup? Remember the endless pontificating about the video assistant referee? That was tiresome, wasn’t it?

Luckily pub chat began to veer away from moaning about the technology towards focusing again on the football.

People gradually came around to the merits of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) (Source: Getty)

That’s because barring some crazy incident-packed games – think Iran 1-1 Portugal – VAR was getting things right.

Yes, there was some diving, play-acting, surrounding of referees, incidents missed and plenty of rectangles drawn in the air by pleading players, but overall VAR was a success.

Like reviews in tennis, or Hawk-Eye in cricket, it will change the game. But in a few years time VAR will become second nature.


One of the most immediate and impactful effects of VAR was the glut of penalties. In total there were 29 spot-kicks awarded, with 22 successful and seven missed.

Out of those, 11 came about from VAR reviews, from Antoine Griezmann’s against Australia, through to Antoine Griezmann’s against Croatia.

Half of the 32 sides benefited from the increase in penalties by scoring at least one, with England and, specifically Golden Boot winner Harry Kane, enjoying themselves from 12 yards with three goals.

However, as the World Cup progressed and teams got better and more evenly-matched the spot-kicks dropped off, with just one awarded from the quarter-finals onwards.

Set pieces

England’s run to the semi-finals was powered not only by penalties, but also by goals from set pieces. Gareth Southgate’s “love train”, as ITV co-commentator Glenn Hoddle memorably put it, caused chaos in the area.

England had a great deal of success from the "love train" formation at set pieces (Source: Getty)

By the time Kieran Trippier curled in a free-kick against Croatia in the semi-final, the Three Lions had netted a record nine goals from dead ball situations – the most by a single team at the World Cup since 1966.

It wasn’t just England who were at it though: 70 of the 169 goals were scored from dead ball situations, including penalties, while the figure drops to 48 when you take out shots from 12 yards.

Wonder goals

Although penalties and set pieces provided the majority of goals, there was still space for plenty of screamers too.

Like dead ball expertise? How about Aleksandr Golovin’s free-kick against Saudi Arabia, or Cristiano Ronaldo’s hammer blow against Spain, or Trippier’s stunner in the semi-final?

Long-rangers more your thing? Try Philippe Coutinho’s curler against Switzerland, Luka Modric’s missile in Croatia’s thrashing of Argentina, Jesse Lingard’s against Panama or Angel di Maria’s in a brilliant 4-3 loss to France.

More specialist? Edinson Cavani’s header at the end of a unique one-two with Luis Suarez to down Portugal will do the trick.

My personal favourites, though, are right-backs scoring uncharacteristic swerving side-volleys. And you know what? This World Cup provided two: Nacho’s for Spain against Portugal and Benjamin Pavard’s for France in the aforementioned bonkers game with Argentina.


It wasn’t all good though. The tournament highlighted once again the poor relationship with concussion.

Morocco’s Nordin Amrabat was the most obvious case in point. Knocked out cold against Iran, the wide player was back five days later playing against Portugal.

The fact he was slapped around the face, had water sprayed on him, initially wore a scrum cap and played the following match because, in his manager Herve Renard’s words, is a “warrior” tells you all you need to know.

Nordin Amrabat was knocked unconscious, but played another match five days later (Source: Getty)

The issue didn’t stop there either, with France midfielder Blaise Matuidi suffering concussion in the semi-final with Belgium only to retake the pitch and go down again and Samuel Umtiti playing on in the final after a clash of heads with Mario Mandzukic.

The protocol is being ignored on the biggest stage of all. Football has a serious problem it needs to deal with.


Another theme that tends to crop up around just about any sporting event is politics – and predictably Russia was no different.

However, what with the events of Salisbury, surprisingly there was little anti-Russian rhetoric. But with 32 nations on show and the host country looking to make a good impression incidents came from elsewhere.

Vladimir Putin popped up here and there, but it was shots of Fifa president Gianni Infantino alongside various recognisable faces which provided the most frequent stories.

There was the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seen shaking hands with Putin at the first game, while just about every other head of state has made an appearance since.

Elsewhere, Egypt, and specifically star Mohamed Salah, put their foot in it by appearing to back controversial Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Iran manager Carlos Queiroz was angered by Nike, who couldn’t provide his players with boots due to American foreign policy.

It’s never just about the football.