July 27, 2017

The Bundesliga at the World Cup: Group Stage Flops and Tops

With the group stage now completed and the remaining field of nations vying for the trophy cut in half, some might argue that this is where the real World Cup begins: the single elimination winner take all sprint to the finish, better known as the knockout rounds.  No doubt the next two weeks will provide us all with the excitement and drama we come to expect from a tournament such as this, but the truth of the matter is that we have all just borne witness to one of the best group phases in memory.  

It is perhaps no surprise to followers of German football that the Bundesliga has played a significant role in making this group stage an incredibly entertaining and memorable one.  In terms of goals scored, thus far the Bundesliga sits at the top of the summit.  Of the 136 total goals scored in the group stage matches, players from Bundesliga sides have scored 26 (nearly 20% of the total!), which is two more than the Premiership’s tally of 24.

Also noteworthy is that the German leagues rank behind only the Premier League and Serie A in number of players sent to the tournament with 77.

For the performances on a whole, I would say the Bundesliga players have met or even exceeded expectations, but there were a few instances in which this could be seriously debated.  So without further ado, here are my Bundesliga Flops and Tops at the World Cup.

Okay, I lied; there will be some further ado. While these lists obviously feature Germany-based players, they will not feature any German players themselves. Much has been written about them and their successes already, so I felt it was a good idea to let some others take the spotlight (for better or for worse).

The Flops

Kevin-Prince Boateng – Midfielder – Ghana and Schalke 04

The 27-year-old Boateng is certainly a lightning rod for controversy, whether it was his “retirement” from international football in 2011 at the age of 24 or his most recent dismissal from the 2014 World Cup squad for an alleged row with manager James Appiah before Ghana’s final match with Portugal. In addition, Boateng’s performances on the pitch in Brazil can be summed up as “incredibly disappointing.”  He came on as a second-half substitute against the United States and played only 52 minutes in his side’s 2-2 draw with Germany; in neither match did he make any kind of lasting impact at all.  A real shame for a player who was likely looked upon to be a leader and help Ghana get out of a very difficult group.

Heung-Min Son – Left Winger – Korea Republic and Bayer Leverkusen

I might be a little hard on Heung-Min Son after his very impressive first season with Bayer Leverkusen, but perhaps it was a hope that his domestic success would transfer over to the World Cup.  After a passable performance in the first match against Russia, Son was arguably the best player on the pitch as his goal somewhat kick-started the Koreans attempt to dig out of a huge first-half hole against Algeria.  In the final match against Belgium, in which his side was a man-up the entire second half, Son was taken off in the 73rd minute as Korea rather lifelessly played out the remainder of the tournament.  Son’s silver lining is that he is only 21-years-old and will definitely be around to fight another day.

Japan

With seven representatives from German football (forward Yuya Osako will be playing in the top flight with Köln next season), Japan tied with Bosnia as the nation with the third-most Bundesliga-based players, behind (surprise) Germany and Switzerland, and much like Bosnia were unable to get out of a group from which they may have expected to progress.  Makoto Hasebe, Atsuto Uchida, and Shinji Okazaki were all fixtures for this Japan side; Yuya Osako was manager Zaccharoni’s first-choice striker until the final match with Colombia; however, the Sakais (Hiroki and Gotoku) and Hiroshi Kiyotake saw the pitch only for the final five minutes of the final match.  Japan’s inability to hang on to the lead against Cote d’Ivoire in the first match coupled with their failure to break down a Greek defense (despite the Greeks having to play shorthanded for nearly 50 minutes) made the final match against Colombia a must win. Instead, they capitulated and were bounced from the tournament 4-1. While they were greeted warmly by fans upon their arrival back in Japan, the team, to a man, must have felt incredibly disappointed with their performances as a whole.

Dishonorable Mentions

In the interest of keeping things positive, we’ll leave this mostly blank.  Bosnia and Herzegovina as a side disappointed, but we’ll cut them some slack as it was their first time at the tournament.

The Tops

Mathew Leckie – Right Winger – Australia and FSV Frankfurt

It may be difficult to justify having a player whose side lost all three of their group-stage matches as one of the tournament’s “tops,” but when you consider Australia’s opposition in those matches, some allowances can be made.  Leckie, who is moving clubs but staying in Germany having agreed to move to 2.Bundesliga side FC Ingolstadt, was arguably Australia’s best player not named Tim Cahill. Going forward, he gave opposing defenders fits with his excellent dribbling and pass accuracy, at least until the final match with Spain as the Socceroos’ World Cup was over before the game kicked off.  While Australia’s chances still lived, he was a pivotal member of a plucky side that gave Chile and the Netherlands each a real contest. A scorer of 10 goals for FSV Frankfurt last season, FC Ingolstadt are hopeful this young man continues on his upward trajectory.

Junior Diaz – Left Back – Costa Rica and FSV Mainz 05

This could not be a “tops” list without including someone from the surprise of the tournament: Costa Rica. Fortunately for me, enter Junior Diaz.  The Mainz man, who became a fixture at left back for Thomas Tuchel in the second half of the season, played a huge role in the defense that conceded just one goal to the powerful trio of Uruguay, Italy, and England. Read that again. Costa Rica conceded but a single goal total to Uruguay, Italy, and England. Diaz has been a stalwart tackler and impressive in the air.  Diaz bounced back after his first-match concession of a penalty to play the match of his life against Italy, in which he provided the cross for Bryan Ruiz’s match-winning goal. Look for him to get forward in the attack as often as possible as Costa Rica attempt to upset the Greeks in the round of 16. And you know what? They might just do it.

Arjen Robben – Forward – Netherlands and FC Bayern München

If you’re looking for the player of the tournament, look no further than Arjen Robben. The Bayern talisman has been nothing short of sensational for Louis van Gaal who has the winger playing an even-more-advanced role than he does for his club.  Through the group stage, Robben has already amassed three goals and an assist. but has contributed so much more beyond the score sheet. He is dribbling past defenders with ease, dragging them towards him, which creates space for his teammates to help in the attack. Daley Blind is the lucky left wing back and has definitely benefited from Robben’s brilliance.  I could go on and on with more superlatives describing this magical Dutchman, but, simply put, Arjen Robben is on a mission, and anyone looking to overcome this determined Netherlands side is going to have to make shutting Robben down their first and foremost priority.

Honorable Mentions

Luiz Gustavo (Brazil and Wolfsburg), Andres Guardado (Mexico and Bayer Leverkusen), Ricardo Rodriguez (Switzerland and Wolfsburg), Josip Drmic (Switzerland and Nürnberg), and Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland and FC Bayern München)

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Born in Toronto, Adrian is a first generation Canadian by way of Bavaria and the Black Forest. After some intense football soul searching he's now a fully fledged member of the Church of Streich. Follow @AdrianSertl

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