Kirana Wanandi / Gavel Media

World Cup Recap: Round of 16 and Quarter-Finals

By now, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” has been played on the radio at least 50 times and the holiday season is creeping closer and closer. Everyone has lists: Christmas lists, to-do lists, travel itineraries, and countdowns. ‘Tis the season to make a list and check it twice. 

With the World Cup entering the semifinals, let’s take a look at what the last 16 teams had on their Christmas list—and what the final four are still hoping Santa (or the soccer gods) bring.

Real quick, though, the skinny list: the death of the trailing far post run, best and worst PK’s of the tournament, record numbers of yellow cards, and superstars being superstars.

 

PLAYING IN THE SEMI-FINALS

Argentina: 80-minute soccer games

Minus Argentina’s insistence on making things harder than they need to be, the team looks confident—and feisty. Racking up eight yellow cards and provoking at least one bench-clearing scuffle, Argentina managed to cool off for penalty kicks, icing four of their five. Although the team takes a lax approach to defending in the final minutes of the game, individual players step up in the necessary moments to demonstrate the depth of the side. Silencing the critics, Messi has had a brilliant tournament, complete with a goal and a magical assist against the Dutch. Able to make tactical adjustments to frustrate different opponents, Argentina demonstrates the ability to grow from each performance, relying on the whole team to creatively solve opposing teams.

Croatia: A nap

After two consecutive penalty kick shoot-outs, Croatia needs a nap before their semi-final matchup. Otherwise, the team plays like a well-oiled machine that can go the distance repeatedly without signs of physical or mental fatigue. Croatia controls the midfield, has magic in the form of Luka Modrić—a brick wall of a goalkeeper—and mental toughness in spades. The longer the game goes on, the more Croatia grows into it by finding space, defending as perhaps the only fully cohesive unit, and creating counter-attacks through immediate pressure. To score on them, you have to beat their forwards, midfielders, defenders, and then their goalie—a tough task that gets tougher the longer the tournament exhausts physical and mental strength. A complete team that genuinely never says die, Croatia believes in themselves and doesn’t fear a single opponent.

France: A fence

The defending champs found a way to beat the English and proved that they can withstand pressure while showcasing their depth. Forced to defend more than normal, France has proven vulnerable in the back, giving up two penalties in the same game. Otherwise, the attack operates like a well-oiled machine, knowing that teams will be focused on Kylian Mbappé and the double teaming will leave another player open somewhere else on the pitch. Possession usually favors the French, and unlike other teams, the French do well to hold the ball because sustained pressure has now been proven to crack their defense. The French could use a fence going forward, to help keep the ball in the opposing team’s half, as well as prevent any team from spending too long in their own final third. Carving the field up will also help with ball movement and allow the French to change the point of attack.

Morocco: A Hallmark ending

Tactically, there isn’t a better team left in the World Cup than Morocco. The team plays an extremely cohesive, defense-first game that waits for the opportunities to come to them, rather than pursuing a counter-attack. Each player on the team knows their role and the level of trust and belief between the team allows for the comprehensive dismantling of powerhouses like Spain and Portugal. Morocco understands the game, has the talent to produce goals in big moments, and has held four opponents scoreless, conceding their only goal against Canada. Comfortable without possession, Morocco has the art of controlling games without being in complete control of the ball, and the clinical finish in the final third that sees them past their opponents. Combine that talent with the general likability of the team, and all Morocco needs for Christmas is that Hallmark ending where they win the World Cup.

 

ELIMINATED IN THE QUARTERFINALS

Brazil: Sage

One of the favorites of the tournament, Brazil looked to be moving on at the end of the first half of extra time. However, despite having a plethora of strikers, speed on the wings, and a solid defense, Brazil took Croatia to penalty kicks and paid the price. Lacking urgency for most of their quarter-final, Brazil struggled with the amount of defending required by Croatia’s midfield and failed to dictate the pace of the game. Falling in the quarters to a European team has become something of a Brazilian specialty and the team needs to burn some sage and move on. Even in the loss, Brazil demonstrated their immense quality and talent across the field, but couldn’t come together as a unit to take the game to Croatia and find a way to win. The game saw a disconnect between the reality on the field and the game Brazil was playing. Brazil failed to adjust, anticipating a victory before time ran out.

England: A shovel

No one digs their own grave like the English. In control for most of the game, Harry Kane failed to find the back of the net on his second penalty shot of the night. Finding holes in the French defense, the English just weren’t able to score in the run of play. The team proved that the defending champs are vulnerable but simply couldn’t build an attack that proved lethal. Late subbing decisions brought on more attackers but didn’t give players the time to adjust to the game flow before the end of regulation. Tactically, the English outmaneuvered the French, managing to keep Kylian Mbappé off the scoreboard and controlling the midfield. The stronger team in the second, fatigue, poor finishes, and bad luck prevented the English from equalizing, especially after Kane missed the penalty. Once again, the “it’s coming home” chants were left unfulfilled as the English dug their own grave.

Portugal: An iron

So long, Cristiano Ronaldo. So long, Portugal. After dismantling Switzerland, Portugal couldn’t put together the same type of dominating performance against Morocco. Relying on explosive scoring up top, Portugal struggled when teams played with a well-structured defense. The offense was streaky—either scoring three or more goals or being unable to find the back of the net. Not being consistent was Portugal’s cross to bear throughout the tournament. There was always emotion swirling around the team. Even when things were running smoothly there was a sense of an impending explosion, like the team was held together loosely with tape that could break down at any moment. Portugal isn’t broken but needs to iron out the wrinkles, maybe a restringing of pieces, something that creates the cohesion the team is looking for. Deadly on the ball but not consistent, Portugal suffered from being out-maneuvered by a more unified team.

Netherlands: One more set piece

It’s not like the Dutch did anything wrong—they clawed their way back from a 2-0 deficit with the best set piece of the tournament.  Always ready for a brawl, the Dutch capitalized on Argentina’s mistakes proving once again that being clinical makes the difference in high-pressure games. Swarming Argentina while still managing to stay organized, the Dutch played the long game, waiting for their opportunities late in the game. The physicality and flaring tempers in the match favored the Dutch, whose (slightly) cooler heads led to increased possession in the waning minutes of the game. Clutch play and audacity helped the Dutch tie the game, but there was no gas left in the tank to find another goal before penalty kicks. And, contrary to the popular saying, this time the defense lost a chance at the championship—Virgil Van Dijk had his PK saved.

 

ELIMINATED IN THE ROUND OF 16

Australia: A Rockstar energy drink

The Socceroos advanced to the round of 16 with no clear stars but a patient kind of soccer that allowed the team to score enough goals to move past opponents. Unfortunately, that patience expired in their knockout game, where Australia managed one shot on goal. Losing the possession battle, Australia struggled to influence the game through pressure or by driving the action forward and couldn’t wait out the onslaught. Australia knew what was expected of them in order to beat Argentina, but couldn’t transition fast enough or put enough pressure on them to accomplish their goals—they needed an energy drink to wake them up and a “Rockstar” to give them firepower.

Japan: Penalty kick cheat code

One of the grittiest, most complete teams in the final 16, Japan nearly pulled off the upset against Croatia—stopped only by some of the worst penalty kicks in the tournament. From a tactical perspective, there’s not much Japan needs: they play cohesively, with heart, and have an innate belief that translates into clinical finishes from around the field. Ego means everything in this tournament and Japan is a confident team on and off the ball, comfortable ceding possession and asking teams to beat the entire team. Clinical, gritty, cohesive, likable—better-taken penalty kicks send Japan through.

Poland: Whatever Wojciech Szczęsny wants

Poland put together enough of a performance to make it to the knockout round and then went quietly home in their first game. Their success was largely due to Robert Lewandowski and Szczęsny, with Poland suffering from a lack of depth, especially in the striker department. Solid on defense, they survived, for the most part, thanks to their goalkeeper—which is why the team should get him whatever he wants for Christmas. Lewandowski proved unable to both generate chances and finish them and no one else on Poland could help to free up the striker. Lackluster penalty kicks, purely defensive midfielders, and fatigue helped to eliminate Poland, even before France’s quality was added to the equation.  

Senegal: Goldfish brain

No one will want to remember much of the knockout round performance and Senegal should absolutely ask for some forgetful short-term memory. Should the loss be treated as an anomaly? No. The defensive shakiness, tentativeness that allowed England to work their way into the game, and struggle to generate are all areas that Senegal needs to work on. However, in most scenarios, not all of those things break down at once. Senegal has promise, talent, and passion but needs a more clinical finish in both their passing and shooting. Sadio Mané brings some of that, and learning from the lessons of this game brings more of that. Don’t remember this game, but do remember the areas of weakness 

Spain: A keychain for their sense of purpose

Spain, the entire world is begging you to STOP PASSING THE BALL! Or at least implement a new rule: five passes in the final third and the next guy has to shoot. Possession is lovely but it’s passive, nothing can come from it unless a team pushes forward with a killer instinct and forces the defense to make a mistake. Spain played their entire match expecting that the next pass would be the one that unlocked the Moroccan defense—except no matter how many passes the team completed, the key never materialized, even in penalty kicks. Spain needs a keychain so they don’t lose the purpose that carried them to a 7-0 win over the group stage. Unfortunately, the team forgot that perfection doesn’t exist and you can’t pass your way to a goal, especially during a penalty shootout.

South Korea: Respect

A lesser team would have looked at the 4-0 score heading into half and simply not come back to play the second, but instead, South Korea held Brazil scoreless and pulled a goal back. That kind of tenacity has defined the team, punctuated with individual performance like Paik Seung-Ho’s goal. Unlucky to have to face Brazil with a returned Neymar, South Korea took the four goals with poise and continued to play with heart—not easy to do. Cohesive, tenacious, and not the biggest blowout of the round of 16, South Korea deserves more respect for playing the kind of scrappy soccer that defined their tournament.

Switzerland: Gorilla Glue

The Swiss team’s bread and butter is a solid defense that refuses to concede. After proving difficult to break down in the group stage, Portugal shredded the Swiss, finding every gap in the defense and making Switzerland pay for it. The round of 16 performance is more indicative of how good Portugal is than how Switzerland plays. This tournament has shown that as good as one’s defense can be—and the Swiss have a tough defense to crack—lack of firepower up top can hurt you. The Swiss played their game but needed glue to hold themselves together after a shaky start and some mental lapses.

USA: An alarm clock

One of the most encouraging things about the USA is that they don’t need a full roster upgrade moving forward. They need a striker (or several) with creativity and flair to complement Christian Pulisic. Better set pieces are absolutely needed. But the midfield is young, incredibly talented, and hardworking while being quarterbacked by Tyler Adams who puts out fires before they start. Unfortunately, the game against the Netherlands demonstrated that occasionally team USA falls asleep on defense and doesn’t have the creativity or clinical finishes to come back from that. They needed an alarm clock to wake them up in the match and they’ll need one for 2026—because fans have decided that’s their moment.

Making mountains out of molehills and facts out of printers since the turn of the century

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