Waiting in the wings
Football fans have been praising the quality of the 2014 World Cup to high heaven ever since the opening game when Brazil kicked it all off with a 3-1 victory over Croatia. Supporters were treated to 49 goals in the opening round of fixtures, a far cry from four years ago where only 25 goals were witnessed in South Africa.
Thomas Muller's hat trick in Germany's 4-0 thumping of Portugal puts the Bayern ace top of the goal scoring charts, though it's Oscar who was WhoScored.com's highest-rated player (10.0). The Chelsea midfielder was instrumental in Brazil's win, providing the assist for Neymar's equaliser, before netting late on to seal all 3 points for the Selecao.
No player completed more dribbles than Oscar (seven) and many feel the 22-year-old could have a bigger role to play than the likes of Neymar if Brazil are to lift the World Cup. However, while much of the focus has been on the attack-minded stars, it's the full-backs who have perhaps made the biggest impact at the competition thus far.
Ricardo Rodriguez, Daley Blind, Serge Aurier and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado have registered the joint most assists (two), despite the former trio playing at left or right-back for their respective nations. Rodriguez in particular was expected to impress for an exciting Switzerland side on the back of a notable campaign for Wolfsburg.
Only Franck Ribery (8.24) had a better WhoScored.com rating than the Swiss star (8.02) in the Bundesliga last season, with the 21-year-old scoring or assisting more goals (14) than any defender in Europe's top five leagues last term. The young left-back has the capability to break forward from defence to provide a goal scoring or creative threat from deep and he displayed this in Switzerland's 2-1 win over Ecuador.
His performance on Sunday means only Oscar (10.0), Arjen Robben (9.96) and Alexis Sánchez (9.34) had a better WhoScored.com rating than his (9.33) after the first round; he created the most clear-cut goal scoring opportunities (two) so far and interest in him will surely rise should he build on his promising start.
Blind, however, will give Rodriguez a run for his money as the best left-back at the competition. The Ajax youngster may be operating higher up the pitch under Louis van Gaal, but his role in Netherlands' 5-1 thrashing of defending champions Spain was crucial.
The 24-year-old's inch-perfect pass for Robin van Persie's first half equaliser set the Dutch on their way to victory, before he repeated the feat for Robben's first and Netherlands' second after the break. Only Sulley Muntari and Dmitriy Kombarov executed more key passes (both five) than Blind (four) and he has the offensive capacity to provide another attacking outlet.
Blind's WhoScored.com rating (8.64) ranks among the top-20 players of the tournament, though it falls below Aurier (8.72). The Ivory Coast international was key to their 2-1 win over Japan, and his two assists highlight his creative talent, while he is consistent in picking the right pass for his teammates with the goals provided coming from just three key passes.
The 21-year-old further enhanced his reputation with a fine defensive display versus Japan, with no player making as many interceptions as Aurier (six) in the first round. Not only does this bring attention to his reading of the game, but also the athleticism to return to a defensive position, despite being tasked with overlapping on his side of the pitch.
Modern day full-backs are expected to press high to provide another offensive option for teams, but boast the physical capabilities to return to their defensive positions when needed. Rodriguez, Blind and Aurier all performed these duties commendably for their respective nations.
With the heat and humidity expected to play a big role in the competition, left- and right-backs must boast the fitness levels to yo-yo up and down their flank during the 90 minutes. 4-2-3-1 is commonly the formation of choice for managers, so full-backs are often called on to provide the width for their teams. The midfield three behind the striker are more inclined to cut inside, so the likes of Rodriguez and Aurier are tasked with finding space in the final third to deliver a potentially devastating cross.
This was the case against Ecuador and Japan, respectively. Rodriguez's second assist came in second half injury time and despite breaking forward at every opportunity over the 90 minutes, the Swiss was able to pick out Haris Seferovic from the byline to secure the win. While Aurier was not as advanced as Rodriguez to provide for Wilfried Bony and Gervinho, he was still well placed in the Japan half to receive the ball from Yaya Toure and Bony, respectively, for each goal.
Full-backs are likely to play a key role in Brazil this summer and there are some who have made an immediate impact at the 2014 World Cup. Impressive starts to the competition by Daryl Janmaat (8.17) and Atsuto Uchida (8.08) mean no less than five feature in WhoScored.com's top-20 highest rated players.
As the competition wears on, their fitness levels will be pushed to the limit, but this could be the World Cup where full-backs make all the difference to their respective nations. Should Rodriguez, Blind and Aurier, amongst others, build on their notable starts in Brazil, it's possible the likes of Switzerland, Netherlands and Ivory Coast can go far in Brazil.
Words: Ben McAleer
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.