The most improved teams in the 2018 World Cup

England were one of the surprise packages at the 2018 World Cup in Russia

England star Harry Kane Photo: Harry Kane/Instagram

Every single World Cup ends up producing its fair share of surprises, with some heavily fancied sides failing to produce the goods when it matters while teams that few rated go on to reach the later stages of the tournament.

This summer’s event was certainly no exception to that rule, as we witnessed one of the pre-tournament favourites – Germany – exit at the group stages while the likes of England and Russia both enjoyed far better tournaments than expected. This article will take a look at a few of the teams that surpassed expectations and why they did.

England excel

When it came to England’s chances in the World Cup, it would be fair to say that most fans had never been more pessimistic than they were this year; after enduring years of truly dismal performances at major tournaments – culminating in the 2014 event where they failed to win any of their three group games and finished in bottom spot. Those results led to the resignation of manager Roy Hodgson, who was replaced by Sam Allardyce, only for the latter to be forced to quit after one game due to scandal. His successor Gareth Southgate took England into the 2018 World Cup on the back of all this and with a squad stripped of stars like Rooney, Gerrard and Hart. Before the tournament started England were rated 16/1, below the likes of Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, Belgium and Argentina and most observers would have regarded those odds as generous. Southgate opted to bring in young players who had impressed for their clubs during the previous few seasons – including Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, Spurs striker Harry Kane and Leicester centre-back Harry Maguire – and this seems to have changed the attitude. Instead of the big name individuals there was a squad working for each other and coping with difficult situations – for example the penalty shoot-out win over Columbia to reach the quarter finals – that was completely at odds with previous tournaments. A big factor in their success was Harry Kane’s goals, as a player rated the 16/1 sixth favourite to finish top scorer ended up becoming just the second England player to win the Golden Boot.

Happy host nation

Another side that really improved on their pre-tournament expectations were the host nation, Russia. Prior to the World Cup starting, the Russian fans hoped to make it out of their group, so a quarter final finish was definitely an upgrade on this! Before the tournament, Russia’s odds were 40/1 to lift the trophy and – to be fair – they never really looked like going all the way. Nonetheless they did improve, with the victory over Spain in the last 16 being the biggest highlight for their fans. They were not the most exciting side in the tournament, with the success being built on the defensive tactical plan of their coach Stanislav Cherchesov, but it proved to be an effective approach for a limited squad ranked 70th in the world pre-tournament – the lowest of any side competing in it.

Croatian class

The team that eliminated Russia – Croatia – also improved enormously during the tournament. Before it began, their odds were 33/1 but they played with real flair and star players like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic showed their quality on the world stage. Having displayed their potential by winning all three of their group stage games, Croatia went on to face difficult tests, like the semi-final against England where they went a goal behind early on but gradually took control of the match and secured the win. A final loss to France was a disappointing end to the dream, but Croatia did their country proud and it is certainly not an outcome we could have predicted based purely on the stats from previous tournaments.

All three of these teams captured the imaginations of both their own fans and neutrals during the World Cup and all three will now be excited by the thought of the next big tournament.

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