Soccer

2022 World Cup team of the tournament: Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Jude Bellingham make our best XI

It’s almost over. A month of football has delivered thrills and drama aplenty with some of the world’s greatest stars delivering on the biggest stage. But who makes our team of the 2022 FIFA World Cup?

Before we dive into the weeds, two notes before we go any further. To be considered eligible for selection, a player must have played for 180 minutes and we will be setting up this side in something between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 in honor of France and Argentina, the two finalists. The XI will also need a coach, but that doesn’t exactly take much puzzling out does it? Of course it’s Walid Regragui of Morocco.

Goalkeeper

A rather competitive field from the outset at a tournament where 13 goalkeepers kept more than one clean sheet and a triumvirate — Jordan Pickford, Yassine Bounou and Emiliano Martinez — have three. There may have been thrills and spills aplenty in the knockout stage, but this was a tournament that began with an avalanche of 0-0 draws. Even now, the competition will reach its conclusion in a matchup two of the more cautious, possession-averse big beasts of international football. Martinez’s case is a convincing one in so far as he delivered for Argentina in their hour of need, saving the first two in the shootout to dump out the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.

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African goalkeepers have undoubtedly made their mark on this tournament with Bounou ranked third in goals conceded per 90 minutes and Tunisia’s Aymen Dahmen top of the table. The former in particular, however, was not particularly worked over by some of the best attacks in world football, the fact that he averaged 0.96 saves per 90 is credit then to the excellent Moroccan defense, more on which later.


Dominik Livakovic

CRO • GK • #1

A goalkeeper of the tournament probably needs to have been busy and delivered in clutch moments. Wojciech Szczesny deserves a brief mention in both regards, but really the decision is obvious. No one has made as many saves as Dominik Livakovic, no one has prevented more goals according to Opta’s expected goals (xG) model and no one else can say they were the hero of two penalty shootouts. 

Shots faced by Dominic Livakovic at the World Cup. Those in white are the ones he conceded. Note how many smart saves he made down low to his right, in the bottom left corner of the net.
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Swap out the Dinamo Zagreb man for almost anyone else in this tournament and it is hard to believe Croatia would have got close to the semifinals.

Defenders

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A. Hakimi

MAR • D • #2

There is no better place to start than Morocco, who held firm against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kevin De Bruyne and Pedri on their way to the semifinal and never asked too much of Bounou. They were more than happy to sacrifice possession to their European opposition because Regragui trusted his defenders to hold firm. No one did so quite as impressively as Achraf Hakimi, the PSG right back, who before this tournament was known as more of an attacking force. And yet, he led the World Cup in total tackles and possession won in the defensive third whilst also sitting in the top five for interceptions. He was dribbled past more than once, but often in doing so forwards found themselves shepherded down a dead end when the full back recovered. Adjust by minutes played and Hakimi still ranks extraordinarily high for a role that most would not have expected him to excel in.

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Raphael Varane

FRA • D • #4

Hakimi might well have added an assist to his collection in the semifinal had it not been for the excellence of the French back four. Their defense as a team has been suspect, but in allowing so much pressure on their final third they have at least allowed their center backs to earn their garlands. One of Raphael Varane and Ibrahima Konate merits a place in the XI. The latter was perhaps the more aggressive and proactive, leading the tournament in tackles per 90 while Varane was more elegantly inactive, using his years of experience at the highest level to deliver the sort of quiet excellence that rarely shows up on the statistics. Either player would have merited a spot, but in the end the elegance of Varane just shades it.

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Josko Gvardiol

CRO • D • #20

There are several players with convincing cases elsewhere. Harry Maguire did what he does at major international tournaments, shaking off difficulties at club level to excel for England. Nathan Ake and Marquinhos impressed before their nations exited at the quarterfinal stage. Another game and they might have had a chance, but ultimately the excellence of Josko Gvardiol is hard to argue against, even after that moment of humiliation at Lionel Messi’s hands. He really shines through on counting stats rather than per 90, but when you top all those categories there is probably more at play than mere presence. He excelled in covering the space behind his left back and delivered some of his best performances in the biggest games — the goalless draws with Belgium and Brazil in particular.

Josko Gvardiol’s defensive actions at the World Cup
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If there is an embarrassment of riches at center back, the same cannot be said at left back. Theo Hernandez started the tournament well but it is hard to name any player to the World Cup’s best XI (even a goalscorer in the semifinal) when they have been so thoroughly roasted by Bukayo Saka and Hakimi in consecutive matches. Luke Shaw was among England’s best ball progressors before their elimination while Nicolas Tagliafico has had some solid moments.

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Aziz Behich

AUS • D • #16

But with no obvious candidate emerging, why not throw a wildcard into the mix in the shape of Aziz Behic, who went from Dundee United to marking the likes of Messi in Australia’s surprise run to the knockout stages. He won headlines for the goal that nearly was after a thrilling, mazy run but not for the diligent defending that helped the Socceroos reach the round of 16 and then give Argentina an almighty headache.

Midfield

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Sofyan Amrabat

MAR • M • #4

It is perhaps overstating things to describe Sofyan Amrabat as an unknown quantity when he has been on the radar of Premier League clubs for the last year, all while excelling in Fiorentina colors, but few could have imagined he would have been the best midfielder in the tournament — a title bestowed on him from figures as luminous as French president Emmanuel Macron and this column. He regained possession for his team on 51 occasions, a lead of more than 10 percent on anyone else. As the tournament wore and the focus grew on the Moroccan midfielder, he only grew in stature; no moment typified his dominance off-ball than when he sent Kylian Mbappe clattering to the turf without getting close to committing a foul. This was defending with authority.

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Jude Bellingham

ENG • M • #22

He is a lock for this team. The other deeper spot in the 4-2-3-1 is an almighty head-scratcher. Luka Modric ground Brazil down with his controlled possession game, Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot made you forget that N’Golo Kante was missing from the French team sheet while Enzo Fernandez seems destined to be the next big thing to depart Benfica for the Premier League. If anyone else on the Belgian team had played as well as Kevin De Bruyne, they would not have exited in such humiliating fashion.

All offer something that would make this team the best of the best. Jude Bellingham might just have the most well-rounded package, however. He has more tackles to his name than Amrabat and Tchouameni, more assists than Modric, more successful take ons than De Bruyne.

Jude Bellingham’s per 90 output in key metrics at the World Cup
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Phil Foden tried not to “big him up” too much and still said of Bellingham “I think he will be the best midfielder in the world.” He is winning comparisons with Zinedine Zidane and Paul Scholes, but it is just as possible that he develops into the next Patrick Vieira. He could perhaps even have a go at the Claude Makelele role too.

That is if Antoine Griezmann doesn’t take it first. 

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Antoine Griezmann

FRA • F • #7

Arguably the player of the tournament going into the final, he took pole position for that accolade with an exceptional defensive display as Morocco upped the pressure. The off-ball work he has put in for Les Bleus must surely have Diego Simeone beaming with pride. Really though, he has emerged as a superstar once more for his creative output. In particular, his expected assist (xA) output is of the guffaw-inducing, there must be something up with the numbers here level that Trent Alexander-Arnold reached in the Premier League last season. In 466 minutes, he has 3.45 xA. His nearest challenger, Messi, has played 104 more minutes and has 1.99. Per 90, he is averaging 0.25 xA more than anyone else with 0.67 to his name.

Forwards

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Lionel Messi

ARG • F • #10

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Kylian Mbappé

FRA • F • #10

Shall we get the obvious two out of the way? Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe have been by far and away the two best forwards at this tournament, the frontrunners for the Golden Boot on a shooting spree like Neo in a government lobby (a more up-to-date pop culture reference has been redacted on grounds of spoilers). They seem to be moving at a different speed to the world around them, hitting their targets with devastating precision. Messi has taken 27 shots (a fair of them penalties it must be noted) to Mbappe’s 25. No one else has more than 16.

Messi and Mbappe lead the way

Lionel Messi

570

27

5

1.86

1.99

1.57

7.83

Kylian Mbappe

477

25

5

3.75

1.08

3.61

4.83

Neymar

281

12

2

2.09

0.61

1.98

3.48

Olivier Giroud

382

16

4

2.62

0.23

2.19

2.85

Julian Alvarez

364

10

4

1.97

0.13

1.94

2.1

Richarlison

326

8

3

1.36

1.3

1.24

2.65

Picking the third member of the attack is rather more challenging. It seems perverse to have no Brazilian representation on this team when they were the best side at the tournament right up until Bruno Petkovic hit them in the gut late on in the quarterfinal. In limited minutes, Neymar was putting up Messi and Mbappe-ish numbers. Had he been available for longer, the case for his presence might be irrefutable. The challenge with Brazil is that almost every player on their roster played well without anyone particularly excelling. Richarlison had his moments and would be a tempting compromise candidate, one who brought his teammates into play quite excellently. But is putting him on the team over-indexing a brilliant brace against Serbia?

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Julián Álvarez

ARG • F • #9

Ultimately, this probably comes down to a straight fight between Olivier Giroud and Julian Alvarez, both of whom have been superb foils to their superstar band masters. They have the same number of goals, though Giroud is offering a little more in terms of shot volume and overall direct contribution to his team taking shots. But then, so much of what Alvarez has excelled at is the sort of work that does not show up on the box score, runs that craft space for Messi and pressure that makes it so much harder for Argentina’s opponents to get out. “Nobody imagined Julian would have the participation and importance he has shown,” is how Messi put it. “The help he has given us has been absolutely spectacular.”

That ultimately might be why the Manchester City man shades that starting spot. Everything that Giroud has delivered has been what you might have reasonably expected from a 36-year-old who knows exactly what his game is and what it is not. Alvarez has brought a punch of youthful vigor that has shocked even his teammates, let alone outside observers. 


Team of the tournament: Dominik Livakovic (Croatia); Achraf Hakimi (Morocco), Raphael Varane (France), Josko Gvardiol (Croatia), Aziz Behic (Australia); Sofyan Amrabat (Morocco), Jude Bellingham (England), Antoine Griezmann (France); Kylian Mbappe (France), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Julian Alvarez (Argentina).



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