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Four takeaways from the 2018 World Cup in Russia

France may have won it, but the month belonged to the underdogs

The dust has long settled in Russia and the World Cup trophy left with France. Les Bleus were one of the pre-tournament favorites and led by Didier Deschamps, they showed just enough tactical acumen and quality on the pitch to live up to that billing.

They might not have played the “best” football but they played effective football. They played it safe when they needed to and they had the requisite skill to take advantage of opportunities. Defence wins championships is the classic adage, and that was indeed true, though there was still space for Kylian Mbappé to announce himself to the world and N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba to prove their own individual qualities.

As France celebrate and as we begin to settle in for Chelsea pre-season, let’s take a brief look back at a few key takeaways from the tournament.

1. A tournament of the underdogs:

Fans Watch As Croatia Take On France In The Football World Cup Final Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Although it was a previous champion and the most successful team of the last 20 years in terms of finals appearances with three that lifted the trophy in the end, the 2018 World Cup, still belonged to the underdogs. Teams such as Croatia, Sweden, or the host nation Russia excelled against opposition who were expected to reach the latter stages of the tournament. It made for compelling, exciting, fun viewing.

The underdogs’ success also showed that international matches aren’t always about tactics or even individual quality. Passion, determination, and belief can go a long way. Russia won the nation’s hearts and even England managed to turn years of cynicism into genuine joy and hope despite falling at the penultimate hurdle.

2. Germany will be back:

Germany v Sweden: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

One of the biggest surprises of the tournament was seeing the defending champions go out in the group stages and in last position, even. In short, Joachim Low’s team just did not get going in the tournament. Questions over squad selection came back to haunt the manager as they struggled for goals; questions over tactics and lineups came to the fore as they struggled against Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea.

Germany still had a chance to advance heading into the final group match against South Korea, so perhaps the most shocking development of all was that Germany weren’t able to rise to the occasion as they almost always do. They paid for their complacency with a fatal loss instead. It was a rude wake-up call for both the manager and a team, which will bid farewell to core players like Sami Khedira, Mats Hummels and Toni Kroos ahead of the next World Cup, but thanks to their brilliant supply of youth talent, will surely be back and with renewed enthusiasm in 2022.

3. It is not over for Belgium’s “Golden Generation” yet:

Belgium v England: 3rd Place Playoff - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

The other major disappointment was Belgium squandering their chance to truly make their mark. Third place is not bad and it is their best finish ever at a World Cup, but their current crop of players, their Golden Generation are so talented that they really should have gone further. This year’s Belgium were not the immature young bunch of 2014. They even made Roberto Martinez’s off-the-wall decisions work (De Bruyne in deep midfield; Chadli as wing-back; etc)!

However, this is not the end of the line for them. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and others will still be in or close to the prime of their careers by the time of the next tournament rolls around, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for them to be considered one of the favourites to lift the cup in Qatar in 2022.

4. For England, it can still come home in four years:

Belgium v England: 3rd Place Playoff - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Last but certainly not least, there are the Three Lions. Even more so than Belgium, more so than Germany, more so than perhaps any other nation at this year’s World Cup, this England team has a bright future. In a way, 2018 was meant to be just the dress rehearsal for 2022.

Gareth Southgate and his young England team may have lost two in a row to finish the tournament in fourth place, but they changed the conversation around the national team, and that is a tremendous feat in and of itself already. And it wasn’t just because England finished the highest they have since 1966, or because they won a penalty shoot-out for the first time ever at a World Cup, or because Gareth Southgate brought the waistcoat back. It was because as one of the youngest teams at the tournament (and with the younger generations winning everything at youth international level), they played effective, at times even exciting football, with plenty of promise for the future. They played as a team rather than a collection of individual stars.

Football did not “come home” this year. It just might in four years.

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