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Sean Sullivan

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World Cup Watch - Defenders

Thursday, June 14, 2018


World Cup Watch

 


With 736 players headed to the 2018 World Cup, which individuals could make a significant impact in Russia?


Don’t worry; my World Cup Watch series has you covered!


These positional previews will pinpoint stars, underrated assets and lesser-known players poised to make a big splash during the tournament. Since this series will feature a wide range of players, those included will be assigned one of the three following classifications.

 

Star Watch - High-profile players

Underrated Asset - Well-known, undervalued players

Rising Stars - Lesser-known talents you’ve most likely never seen play

 


The third edition of World Cup Watch is a selection of five diverse defenders.


Star Watch

 

 

Kalidou Koulibaly, Senegal - Central Defender

 

Perhaps the most sought-after defender headed to the World Cup, Kalidou Koulibaly has established himself as one of the premier defenders in European football. Standing at 6 ft 5 in, Koulibaly developed into a complete centre-back under the stewardship of former Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri. Last season, he ranked second in the Serie A in passes per game (85.2) and fourth among all defenders in pass success percentage (91.2%). Besides being reliable in possession and dominant in the air, the 26-year-old scored a career-high five goals in 35 appearances for the Partenopei in 2017-18.

 

Returning to the World Cup after a 16-year absence, Senegal faces fierce competition in Group G from Colombia, Poland and Japan. With a chance to further prove himself against Robert Lewandowski and Radamel Falcao, Koulibaly could be the most expensive defender on the market in the summer transfer window.

 


Kyle Walker, England - Right-back

 

Kyle Walker, a high-flying wingback, is coming off a strong season for Premier League champion's Manchester City. He averaged 73.8 passes per game, with a completion rate of 87.8%, recorded six assists and helped keep 14 clean sheets in 32 league appearances. However, that isn't where he will line up for England at the World Cup. Back in March, manager Gareth Southgate decided to convert the 28-year-old to central defence. From the various times, the Three Lions boss has spoken on the positional switch; he has referenced two significant reasons. Walker has the attributes to play in the middle and the relationship with Manchester City teammate, John Stones, to do it well. Southgate's decision has undoubtedly raised eyebrows, but the positional alteration may prove to be a stroke of genius.

 

England looks sure to use a three-man defence in Russia. Stone, a nailed-on starter, will likely be joined by veteran Gary Cahill and Walker. The latter isn't a central defender by trade, but he seems to possess the required tools to be a success at this new position. For starters, he has tons of pace, and playing as one of the two wide centre-backs requires covering tons of ground. Next on the list is his success in Pep Guardiola's possession-oriented defensive scheme. Last but not least, playing Walker inside makes room for England's best crosser, Kieran Trippier, in the starting XI. If the 35-time capped man does operate primarily in this believed role, his performance will be an intriguing case study following the tournament's conclusion.


Underrated Assets

 

 

Ricardo Rodriguez, Switzerland - Left-back

 

Switzerland is a team with lots of underrated assets. This list includes the "Alpine Messi" Xherdan Shaqiri, Arsenal duo Granit Xhaka and recent signing Stephan Lichtsteiner, as well as lesser-known Celtic transfer target Fabian Schär. However, the player that will likely make the most significant impact in Russia is Ricardo Rodriguez.

 

Rodriguez is a two-way fullback. In plain terms, he's an attack-minded defender. The now 26-year-old made a name for himself in the Bundesliga at Wolfsburg, for whom he provided 19 goals and 27 assists across six successful seasons. Rodriguez's offensive prowess and dead-ball capabilities were the driving reasons why A.C. Milan paid €17m for his services last summer. An established Swizz international with 50 caps, he heads to the World Cup having tallied two assists in Brazil in 2014. If you're looking for a fantasy defender in the 5.5 range, Rodriguez could be a usual piece against Serbia and Costa Rica.

 


Trent Sainsbury, Australia - Central Defender

 

Trent Sainsbury is a ball-playing centre-back who operates as a deep-lying playmaker for Grasshopper Club Zurich. However, most notably, he is known for being the Australia international who missed the 2014 World Cup because of a bizarre incident with a sprinkler.

 

Four years ago, Sainsbury was considered Australia's top talent. After emerging in the A-League with Central Coast Mariners, he moved to Dutch club PEC Zwolle and immediately made his debut. However, in his first Eredivisie appearance, he fell on a sprinkler that was mistaking left on the pitch and fractured his kneecap. The injury forced him to miss five months and ultimately his first chance to go to the World Cup. Since his tangle with the sprinkler, Sainsbury has resumed his development. He shined at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, the 2017 Confederations Cup and was ever-present during World Cup qualification last year.

 

Australia’s odds of escaping Group C are rather slim. However, taking four points from games against Denmark and Peru is by no means impossible, especially with a very pragmatic manager like Bert van Marwijk. You can expect his side to absorb pressure defensively, play direct out of the back and hard press in the final third. If the Socceroos execute and somehow manage to advance to the round of 16, it will have a lot to do with their ball-playing central defender.


Rising Star

 


Achraf Hakimi, Morocco - Right-Back

 

Morocco's 23-man squad is loaded with talented youngsters. At the top of the list is Ajax star Hakim Ziyech (25), who is reportedly on the transfer wishlist of both Liverpool and Roma, and Schalke's Bundesliga Rookie of the Season Amine Harit (20). Achraf Hakimi, however, is the starlet with the most to gain at the World Cup.

 

The 19-year-old enjoyed a breakout season in 2017-18. Promoted to Real Madrid's first-team by former manager Zinedine Zidane to serve as the understudy to Dani Carvajal, Hakimi's talent was evident during limited action. He scored twice and averaged 2.4 dribbles per game in nine appearances in La Liga, and racked up nine key passes in 180 minutes across two Champions League starts. Hakimi did make 17 appearances, but chances are he will need to go out on loan for more first-team minutes next season. With Napoli reportedly interested in signing the right-back on loan, the 17-time capped Moroccan will be looking to impress in Russia.

 




Email :Sean Sullivan





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