All eight group winners advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time in World Cup history. After a group stage marked by shocking upsets, the favorites have re-established themselves in Brazil. Of the big pre-tournament picks, only Spain has been eliminated. Germany, Argentina and hosts Brazil remain. The World Cup quarterfinal round has a wonderful combination of top sides squaring off but still the possibility of real upsets. Colombia is a fantastic side, but the team of James Rodriguez is far from favored against Brazil. Likewise with Belgium facing Argentina. And while Costa Rica appears overmatched on talent against the Netherlands, the Ticos were underdogs when they beat Italy and England, too.
The one match that looks like a contest of full equals in Germany against France. Les Bleus were not as touted going into the tournament, but my model picked them out as early favorites, and I have already written on France’s (quite good) chances of winning it all. If I am to pick an underdog, it cannot really be France.
If there is a team in this final eight being underrated, I think it may be Belgium. While no Belgium match has been a start-to-finish dismantling of an opponent, the Red Devils have shown an ability to win in a variety of different ways. Against the United States, they did not dominate possession but battered the American goal and won in a crazy match featuring a shot every two minutes. In the group stages, Belgium showed the ability to win close matches against Algeria and Russia, playing possession soccer and wearing out defensive opposition.
Between two matches, Belgium’s defense stood strong and allowed only about half an expected goal per match based on chance quality. Other than a foolish mistake by Jan Vertonghen to concede a penalty early against Algeria, the Belgian defense was nearly impregnable. Whether with ball-control and defense or a high-powered attack, Belgium can win matches.
The other key for Belgium has been manager Marc Wilmots’s use of substitutions. It is stathead orthodoxy that attacking substitutions significantly increase your chances of scoring goals, and that subs around the 60th minute tend to have the most impact. Wilmots has consistently used this 60-minute mark to call upon his best bench players, and he has been rewarded with consistently great production from his substitutes. Of six Belgian goals, four have been scored by subs. None of the four Belgium assists was provided by a substitute. It was Romelu Lukaku’s run and pass that set up Kevin de Bruyne’s goal in extra time against the USA, but because that pass was intercepted before de Bruyne picked it up, no assist was given to Lukaku.
Belgian substitutes have played 370 minutes, and scored four goals. To compare to Belgium’s starters, I am looking just at the goal contributions of the five most advanced players in Belgium’s 4-2-3-1, which typically leaves Axel Witsel as a lone holding midfielder in attack. The starters in these positions have played 1,639 minutes to collect four assists.
Wilmots probably cannot expect his substitutes to provide five times the scoring contributions of his regulars in any future matches. But if he continues to use his bench wisely, calling on fresh legs when the game is in the balance, it could easily be the difference-maker against Argentina.
Belgium has won in slow-paced and fast-paced matches, with possession and without, by preventing opposition chances and by creating more in a shootout. Its manager has maximized his talent by making us of the substitute effect and been rewarded with a string of late goals. Belgium is by no means without flaws, but Argentina has struggled to get to the quarter-finals as well. If Belgium wins, it will be much less of an upset than the country’s histories might suggest.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.
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