Five things the Premier League might learn from the World Cup
The World Cup offered some great insight into players who have not shown fans their best for their clubs. But what could the Premier League learn for next season?
1. Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku can play if they're allowed
Jose Mourinho is a stubborn man. This is not exactly a startling revelation, and of course a manager who has been as successful as him must be stubborn to a point. But that has become frustrating when it comes to a couple of Manchester United players, specifically Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba. Both men have enjoyed their moments at the club, but there's a clear sense that neither have played to their potential.
However, one wonders if Mourinho has learned any lessons from watching his two most high profile attackers during the World Cup. Lukaku, while only scoring in the group stage, was terrific until the semifinal, despite Roberto Martinez's tactical tinkering, and looked more at home in a Belgium shirt than he has for United.
Similarly Pogba excelled for winners France and it was particularly interesting that he was so good in the sort of disciplined role that Mourinho has wanted him to play. The obvious point is that anyone can play well with N'Golo Kante alongside them, but Pogba was terrific in the final too, when Kante had a stomach problem and was a virtual passenger.
Mourinho should look at why these two players, £165 million worth of talent, have performed better for their countries than they have for their clubs. Might it be something to do with him?
2. Spend more time on set pieces
There were 273 goals scored from set pieces last season in the Premier League, from a total of 1,018 -- that works out at around 27 percent. At the World Cup, the ratio was 73 out of 169 -- 42 percent.
One has to take into account the small sample size, and the fact that VAR increased the number of penalties awarded, but Premier League managers are always looking for a small edge. Perhaps having noticed the difference made by corners and free kicks in Russia, more emphasis will be placed on preparation from dead ball situations?
It might be particularly important for teams outside the elite: Leicester, for example, cannot compete with Manchester City or Liverpool in terms of technique and passing but they might be able to gain an edge through a well-drilled set piece routine. On talent alone, England were not the fourth-best team in Russia, but thanks to their excellence in set pieces situations they got to the semifinals.
3. Ante Rebic should be at the top of some shopping lists
Quite rightly, Luka Modric got the lion's share of praise and indeed the Golden Ball for his performances in Russia. But not far behind him on the list of reasons for Croatia's unlikely progression to the final was the performance of their wingers.
Ivan Perisic has been well known for some time and, strictly in terms of a transfer target, at 29 he might be a little old to spend the €55m that Inter Milan were asking last summer when Manchester United were chasing him. However, Ante Rebic could be another option.
A bull of a wideman, Rebic is 24 and has just signed a permanent deal at Eintracht Frankfurt having spent a couple of seasons on loan there. However, that doesn't mean a big offer wouldn't tempt the German club into selling now. The World Cup is a notoriously bad place to scout for players, but Rebic's relentless style would appear to be perfect for the Premier League, and he would probably fit with any of the Premier League's big hitters.
4. Positional flexibility isn't a dirty phrase
In the past, if one were to say a manager was deploying a player "out of position," it was an obvious criticism. But has this World Cup shown that being a little more imaginative when it comes to position doesn't have to be a risk?
Most of the England team essentially played slightly out of position: Kyle Walker isn't usually a centre-back; Jesse Lingard doesn't usually play in a midfield three; Kieran Trippier is an occasional wing-back. Elsewhere, Benjamin Pavard has played much of his career as a centre-back but impressed on the right with France; Diego Laxalt is usually a midfielder for Genoa but did well at left-back for Uruguay; even winger Nacer Chadli did OK as a wing-back a couple of times for Belgium.
Of course, managers should beware of too much experimentation and of being too clever for their own good, but this World Cup has shown that positions should not be set in stone.
5. It might be time to ditch the obsession with possession
Last season, the top six sides in the Premier League possession table also happened to be the top six sides in the actual table -- Manchester City had 66.4 percent of the ball over the season -- but at the World Cup, those figures were reversed: none of the top six in the ball-retention stats reached the semifinals, two went out at the group stage and another two in the first knockout round.
France had the ball 49.6 percent of the time, so it's worth considering that if the world champions had the ball for marginally less time than they didn't, whether possession is not quite as desirable as many in the Premier League think?
There are obvious caveats: again, the sample size must be considered; the dynamics of club and international football are different; the bigger Premier League teams often can't help but have more of the ball because of how smaller sides play against them. But while we've known for some time that keeping the ball does not necessarily equal success, this World Cup has provided more stark evidence.