The World Cup is over and suddenly life seems a little gloomier. Fans are now stuck in the barren football wilderness known as ‘pre-season,’ where the transfer rumour mill kicks into overdrive and we count the hours until the Premier League returns.
But before that, we need to look back on a World Cup that will live long in the memory. It was a tournament that exceeded expectations, delivering an absorbing combination of VAR controversy, upsets and quality football as events in Russia gripped the planet for a month.
France were the last nation standing, with Les Bleus having beaten Croatia 4-2 in a thrilling final on Sunday evening. The climax had a little bit of everything; a VAR penalty, some cracking goals and a goalkeeping clanger.
It was also the culmination of a fine month’s work for many of the players, some of whom have made Football Whispers’ Team of the Tournament.
Let’s have a look at who else made it.
GK: Jordan Pickford
Harry Kane may have become the first Englishman since Gary Lineker to clinch the Golden Boot but some of his team-mates left Russia with significantly bolstered reputations (Harry Kane was, of course, already considered one of the world’s finest strikers).
Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier certainly announced themselves to a wider audience but Pickford was the name on everyone’s lips after a series of stellar displays in between the sticks for Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions.
Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois picked up the Golden Glove award but Pickford enjoyed an outstanding tournament. The 24-year-old produced a string of top-drawer saves against Colombia and Sweden to ensure England reached their first semi-final since 1990.
Although the campaign ended in heartbreak for England in last-four, Pickford, with his flying saves and commanding voice, firmly cemented his place as his country’s first-choice keeper, an impressive feat given that he only had three caps before the World Cup started.
Right-back: Šime Vrsaljko
Perhaps the unsung hero of Croatia’s run to the final, Vrsaljko was excellent throughout. The 26-year-old Atlético Madrid defender was solid at the back and offered Croatia an outlet on the right, often combining to great effect with Ante Rebić.
Vrsaljko notched a crucial assist, too, setting up Ivan Perišić’s equaliser against England in the semi-final. His xA for the tournament was 1.96, putting the Inter Milan transfer target behind Neymar and Kevin De Bruyne.
Vrsaljko made important defensive contributions, of course, most notably when he cleared John Stones’ header off the line. The right-back’s stamina and pace allowed him to endlessly run up and down the flank and that indefatigability is one of many reasons why he was such an asset to Zlatko Dalić’s side.
Centre-back: Raphaël Varane
Having missed Euro 2016 through injury, Varane tasted sweet redemption in Russia as he guided France to their second World Cup with a succession of brilliant displays at the heart of defence.
At 25, he has now won four Champions Leagues, two La Liga titles and a World Cup. On Sunday, he became only the fourth player to have won the Champions League and World Cup in the same season, after Christian Karembeu, Roberto Carlos and Sami Khedira.
It’s frightening to think that, provided he stays clear of injury, Varane will only get better.
Varane’s dominant displays are underlined in his stats; 3.85 aerial battles won per 90 and 87 per cent passing accuracy. He also opened the scoring in the quarter-final against Uruguay. Yes, if it was FIFA Career Mode, Varane would have completed football by now.
Centre-back: Diego Godín
Uruguay may have been disappointed to exit at the quarter-final stage but Godín was certainly one player who could leave Russia with his head held high.
Uruguay didn’t concede a World Cup goal until the 55th-minute of their last-16 clash with Portugal, when Pepe headed past Fernando Muslera.
Their triple clean sheet in the group stages was thanks in no small part to Godín’s masterful commanding of the back-line. Partnered with Atlético Madrid teammate José Giménez – who himself had a strong chance of making this line-up – Godín kept Uruguay remarkably solid at the back, making 3.6 interceptions and 2.6 tackles per 90 as well as winning 2.06 of his aerial battles.
Martin Keown referred to Godín as the ‘Professor of Defending’ throughout the World Cup. We like that nickname. It suits Godín so hopefully, it sticks.
Left-back: Lucas Hernández
There was some controversy over Hernández’s decision to represent France over Spain. Although born in France, the 22-year-old has spent most of his life in Spain and had indicated that his allegiances lay there.
But Les Bleus must be loving it now. Hernández proved to be one of the revelations this summer, cementing his place as France’s first-choice left-back ahead of Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy.
Hernández landed 16 tackles in the tournament, enough to put him second in that category while he also notched two assists, illustrating his efficiency in both defending and attacking.
It was Hernández’s cross that led to Benjamin Pavard’s stunning sliced volley against Argentina while he also teed up Kylian Mbappé for France’s fourth in the final.
Hernández, like his Atlético Madrid teammate Giménez, has a very bright future ahead of him.
Centre midfield: N’Golo Kanté
It’s remarkable to think that, in 2013, Kanté was playing in the third tier of French football. A lot can change in five years and it certainly has for world football’s foremost ball-winning midfielder, who can add a World Cup to his Premier League titles with Leicester City and Chelsea.
Kanté, as many had predicted, proved pivotal to the French cause in Russia. The 27-year-old won 2.3 tackles and made 3.0 interceptions, while his passing was typically on-point with 88 per cent accuracy.
N'Golo Kante's incredible rise…
2013: Playing in #FRA third tier
2014: Playing in #FRA second tier
2015: Joins Leicester
2016: #FRA debut, Premier League winner, joins Chelsea
2017: Premier League winner, PFA Player of the Year
2018: FA Cup winner, #WorldCup winner
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) July 15, 2018
As always, Kanté was as understated as he was effective, shielding the defence and covering as much grass as any of his teammates en route to a buoyant night in Moscow.
There are much showier players in this France team. Pogba, Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann are ubiquitous on social media but Kanté prefers the engine room to emoticons. But make no mistake; he is as vital to France as the most illustrious members of the squad.
Centre midfield: Paul Pogba
Perhaps the opposite to Kanté in terms of personality, Pogba stepped up in a big way at this World Cup. Forging a formidable partnership with the Chelsea midfielder, Pogba silenced many of the critics who claimed he was incapable of playing with discipline, tact and subtlety.
Pogba may raise eyebrows with his flamboyant haircuts and erratic club form but his performances in Russia have given him a platform from which he can kick on and maintain the consistency needed for him to truly be considered as one of the game’s elite midfielders.
Centre midfield: Luka Modrić
Modrić cemented his status as one of the finest midfielders of his generation by captaining Croatia to the World Cup final, an achievement to match, or even eclipse, the midfielder’s four Champions League titles with Real Madrid.
He will turn 33 in September and played every minute in Russia like it was his last. Modrić covered more ground than any other player at the tournament, finished third in total accurate passes with 422 and made a total of 12 open play key passes.
Croatia’s captain, talisman, creative genius, Modrić may have only got a silver medal for his efforts in the World Cup final, but he was thoroughly deserving of the Golden Ball he received for his efforts in the tournament as a whole.
Right-wing: Kylian Mbappé
It felt fitting that as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi bowed out, Mbappé announced himself to the world on the biggest stage.
The 19-year-old has enjoyed a meteoric rise on the club scene and has already left a significant mark on the international game.
On Sunday, he became just the second teenager – behind Pelé – to score in a World Cup final. That was his fourth of the tournament, with his exhilarating, jet-heeled performances enough to earn him the Best Young Player award.
There were many memorable moments at this World Cup but one of the most enduring images will surely be Mbappé taking the ball from his own half and single-handedly tearing the Argentine team to pieces in that enthralling round of 16 match.
Mbappé is a rare and fearless talent. Footballers like him do not come about often.
Left-wing: Eden Hazard
Belgium did not make it to the World Cup final but it was not through want of trying on Hazard’s part. The Chelsea forward was immense throughout his country’s run to third-place, lighting up the knockout rounds with his irrepressible dribbling.
Unsurprisingly, Hazard was the most effective dribbler at the tournament, completing a simply astonishing 6.94 successful take-ons per game. He scored three goals and notched two assists while only one player could better his 46 touches in the opposition’s penalty area (Neymar, with 62).
It’s no surprise that he is being linked with a mega, £200million move to Real Madrid.
Striker: Romelu Lukaku
Lukaku got his goalscoring done early in Russia, scoring four in Belgium’s first two games to fire them into the last-16.
However, while the imposing Manchester United frontman may not have added to his tally in the knockout rounds, he was excellent for Roberto Martínez’s side.
The 25-year-old’s hold-up play was exemplary while he made one of the most important contributions to Belgium’s campaign; allowing the ball to roll under his foot to set up Nacer Chadli for the breakaway winner against Japan.
United fans will certainly be hoping that, like Pogba, Lukaku can continue his rich vein of form into the new club season.