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Álvarez, Griezmann and more: Five players to watch in the World Cup final

We are approaching the last weekend of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, so our focus is on the big one.

There will be a third-place play-off tomorrow, but few people apart from the contestants and their supporters will pay serious attention to that game, so our coverage will continue to focus on the final.

We put out a tactical preview of the match yesterday, focusing on some decisions Argentina will have to make to combat France.

Of course, we mentioned a few key players in the process, but today, we will highlight five players in greater detail.

Everyone knows about Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, so we need not focus on them. Here are a few others you should keep an eye on:

Julián Álvarez

There was a lot of hype around Julián Álvarez when he joined Manchester City from River Plate, but unfortunately for him, a certain Erling Braut Haaland also moved to the club this summer.

The 22-year-old forward has had to play second fiddle to the Norwegian international for most of the season, starting just three league matches.

Perhaps partly due to his limited game time, Álvarez was not a starter for Argentina’s first couple of group matches but was given a chance in the crunch fixture against Poland after Lautaro Martínez’s disappointing showings.

The youngster took his chance with both hands as he scored in that match and netted in his knockout stage debut in the round of 16 before going on to bag a brace against Croatia.

Even aside from his goals, Álvarez offers so much to Argentina. His clever movement and runs in behind help stretch the opposition defence and open up space for Messi to operate in, while his tireless work rate helps them defend from the front and makes up for Messi’s lack of defensive contribution to an extent.

Here is a statistic to show just how important Álvarez has been for Argentina at this World Cup: when he has been on the pitch, they have scored 11 goals and conceded none, but without him, they have scored one and let in five. Unsurprisingly, his +/- record of +11 is the best at the tournament.

Antoine Griezmann

One of the most discussed players at the World Cup has been Antoine Griezmann. Many have spoken about his reinvention as a third midfielder, particularly highlighting his importance to France’s defending as he drops into central midfield to allow Mbappé to stay high out of possession.

What has really surprised many is how Griezmann is almost functioning as a third midfielder in possession given how deep he often drops.

Most people recall the Barcelona version of the French forward, but those who have been following him at Atlético Madrid this season will know he has been playing a similar role for Diego Simeone’s side.

Here are two heatmaps of Griezmann’s pass receptions this season. The one on the left is from the World Cup, while the one on the right is from La Liga.

Of course, Griezmann has more positional freedom for Atlético where he is the creator in chief, whereas France have several stars in their front line. Still, we can see that the areas of the pitch he has been operating in are quite similar, and the number of passes he has received per 90 is almost equal.

This is not to take anything away from Griezmann’s superb World Cup campaign, but simply to highlight the fact that he has been playing a similar role for his club side too.

That experience will undoubtedly have helped him in this tournament where he has a decent chance of winning the Golden Ball, especially if he gets a winners medal.

Nahuel Molina

Argentina’s squad isn’t the strongest in the full-back department, so their players in those positions will need to step their game for this final.

Atlético’s 24-year-old right-back Nahuel Molina is sure to have a very tough day at the office. He will likely not come across his clubmate Griezmann too often but could face a fair few problems against a certain Mbappé. If that was not enough, he might also have to watch for Theo Hernández’s overlapping runs.

Clearly, Molina is going to have his work cut out when his team do not have the ball, but it will be equally interesting to see how he behaves when they do.

Molina has tended to stay relatively deep in possession, often since Ángel Di María is deployed on the wing right ahead of him. His heatmap from the World Cup reflects this.

We have discussed this in the aforementioned tactical preview of the final, but Molina will have a real dilemma in possession. The rationale behind staying deep is simple as it would enable him to keep an eye on Mbappé and prevent any counterattacks from going through him to the best of his abilities.

If the 24-year-old right-back gets forward, it will be to help his side overload the weaker left wing of France’s defence.

In turn, the space behind him could be exposed in transition, so he will have to make very measured decisions in terms of his positioning throughout the game.

Aurélien Tchouaméni

Argentina have tended to defend in a pretty compact defensive block throughout the World Cup, making themselves very tough to play through.

That is part of the reason why they have the joint-best defensive record based on xG conceded per 90, so France will not find creating chances from sustained possession easy.

Therefore, young Real Madrid midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni, the only Frenchman to start all six games at this World Cup, could prove crucial.

He has completed the fifth-most progressive passes at the tournament, and as his event map shows, he tends to get the ball into dangerous areas between the lines (often places where Griezmann could be found).

Out of possession, Tchouaméni’s defensive positioning will likely be on the left side of central midfield. That is the region of the pitch that Messi loves to drop into, so the 22-year-old Frenchman must be extremely attentive at all times.

Emiliano Martínez

Given that this is a final between two top-quality teams, there is a good chance they will not be separated in 90 minutes or extra time, so both sides should be prepared for penalties.

Argentina have already experienced such a situation in the quarter-finals (and, indeed, in their Copa América campaign last year), where an unlikely hero rose up.

Emiliano Martínez was at Oxford United around a decade ago, but he has now cemented his name on Argentina’s number one jersey.

In regular play, his shot-stopping is decent and he has made a couple of big saves (such as the last-minute smother of Garang Kuol’s effort in the round of 16), but he really shines when facing shots from 12 yards.

In the aforementioned 2021 Copa América, Martínez saved three penalties in a shoot-out against Colombia to keep his side in the tournament, which they went on to win.

Against the Netherlands in Qatar, he kept out the first two to help Argentina advance to the semi-final.

The Aston Villa goalkeeper is not particularly nice to his opponents in such situations, to say the least, but what matters to Argentina is that he has delivered when called upon.

If he comes under the spotlight in the final, France will surely not be in a comfortable position.

Stats courtesy Opta via Fbref and Vizz App.

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