France will play an almost meaningless match Wednesday afternoon against Ecuador. While technically it is possible for the French not to win their group, their current plus-6 goal difference means it would take two nutty results for Switzerland to top the group instead. My projections rate the odds of France not winning the group at less than 0.1 of a percent.
While it is true that France were drawn into the easiest group in the World Cup, the side’s performances have been dominant. France ran over Honduras with little trouble, even as CONCACAF sides outplayed expectations everywhere else in Brazil. And against Switzerland, a capable international side, Les Bleus were rampant. They scored three times before the Swiss could even start one dangerous attack.
By expected goals, no team in the tournament has been better than France so far. While it is always possible for a team to over- or underplay their talent in three matches (Ola, Ticos), these two performances have been perfectly in line with both the talent on the French roster and their pre-tournament projections.
Before the tournament began, my numbers rated France as the fourth best team going to Brazil. In its qualifying campaign, France played extremely well in a qualifying group featuring Spain and no obvious minnow like San Marino. With a 0.630 expected goals ratio, France had one of the best minnows-excluded xGR ratings in qualifying.
France rate as one of the best defensive sides in the tournament, even though its back four is probably the weakest aspect of the roster. But they are buoyed by keeper Hugo Lloris, who has led English Premier League keepers in “sweeper” claims behind the defense both of the last two seasons. When France’s defense is caught out, they count on the incredibly athletic Lloris to play as a fifth defender. Further, France has probably the best central midfield in the tournament. With playmaker Yohan Cabaye, defensive midfielder Blaise Matuidi, and the all-around brilliant Paul Pogba, just getting the ball through midfield to attack the French back line is a massive undertaking.
Pogba in particular is one of the world’s best midfielders. This year, despite a heavy defensive responsibility helping to protect his teammate Andrea Pirlo at Juventus, Pogba still rated among the most dangerous attacking central midfielders in Italy.
He also completed notably more tackles than the more freely attacking midfielders on the list like Guarin, Valero and Pjanic. I highlighted Chile’s Arturo Vidal here as well, as he and Pogba are likely the two best center midfielders still playing in the World Cup.
All of this adds up to an excellent projection for France.
Home-field advantage still nets Brazil by a good margin the top place in the rankings. But with Argentina, Colombia and Belgium all putting up less than stellar underlying statistics in their group matches, France rate as solid second favorites to lift the Cup.
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.