World Cup finalists France and Croatia both rank among the top five teams in goals per 90 minutes in Russia, though neither has been an offensive juggernaut, aside from each team’s game against the hapless Argentina defense.
The finalists have instead used rock-solid midfields to anchor their sides in both directions, often relying on stars whose top accomplishments tend to be overlooked by traditional box-score statistics.
Both France’s N’Golo Kante and Croatia’s Luka Modric have piled up plenty of club honors in recent years, but neither had starred at a major international tournament until now. They meet in Sunday’s final, after which one of them will lift the winner’s trophy, and either could raise the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.
Here's a closer look at the direct impact each has had on his team's fortunes in Russia:
N’Golo Kante, interception king
Unsurprisingly, the 27-year-old Kante has not been France’s flashiest player. That honor goes to 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe, who electrified the world against Argentina and has been relatively quiet, at least in terms of scoring goals, otherwise.
Kante has done the dirty work in Russia, just as he did in winning back-to-back Premier League titles with different clubs (2015-16 Leicester City and 2016-17 Chelsea) and sweeping the three major Player of the Year awards in 2017. He led the league in both interceptions and tackles over the previous three seasons, and he fills a similarly invaluable role for France.
The only two Frenchmen to play all 540 minutes in Russia are Kante and center back Raphael Varane. Kante leads the team in touches, passes and recoveries, among other stats. And he’s not merely a compiler based on minutes played.
Of the 249 players with at least 250 minutes at this World Cup, Kante ranks fourth in interceptions per 90 minutes (2.3), and the three players ahead of him (Nigeria’s Wilfred Ndidi, Uruguay’s Lucas Torreira, Russia’s Roman Zobnin) were all on teams with less possession than France’s 51 percent.
Kante is also 10th in recoveries per 90 minutes (8.0) at this World Cup. No other player ranks in the top 15 in both categories.
Look at the scatter chart of his interceptions: five of them are in the attacking half. That may not sound like much, but it’s the second-most in the tournament.
His interceptions are evenly split geographically, with 10 apiece on the left and right halves of the field. No other player in Russia has as many as seven on each half of the field.
Kante tends to disrupt plays before they become truly dangerous. Only one of his interceptions was within 20 yards of France’s goal, with one other in a prime shooting location.
His defensive excellence has helped France limit opponents to 8.5 shots per game, fourth-fewest in the tournament. Les Bleushave conceded 0.63 expected goals per game, third-fewest behind Uruguay and Brazil, at a rate of 0.07 expected goals per shot, fifth-lowest in Russia.
For a broader example of Kante’s importance, check out France’s 10-game qualifying campaign. In the 397 minutes he played, France surrendered 0.40 expected goals per 90 minutes, compared to 0.96 in the 503 minutes he was off the field.
Luka Modric, Croatia's do-it-all dynamo
Like Kante, Modric is not an unknown, nor does he lack accolades. The Croatian has won nearly everything possible at the club level, including four Champions League titles and two FIFPro World XI honors with Real Madrid.
What Modric had not done before this year was advance in the knockout stage of a major international tournament. Croatia went out in the World Cup group stage in 2006 and 2014 and failed to qualify in 2010. Often a popular sleeper pick, Modric and Croatia did progress from the group stage at two European Championships, but were eliminated in the first knockout match in 2008 and 2016.
On Sunday, Croatia will play its first major final, and Modric is currently the second betting favorite for the Golden Ball, thanks to a well-rounded game that few can match.
He has two goals (including a penalty) and one assist in Russia, and he leads the tournament with 604 minutes played and 39 miles run.
Modric has the numbers of influence: he ranks third in the tournament in touches and fourth in passes completed, leading Croatia in both categories and spending most of his time in the middle third of the field.
He does defensive work, as he’s tied with Kante for most recoveries at this World Cup (48), and no player has won possession more times in the middle third of the field (31).
Modric is also the offensive talisman, with 16 chances created, double the total of any teammate.
His numbers are not simply a byproduct of Croatia’s three extra-time games. He is one of five players who rank in the top 25 (out of 249 players with 250 minutes) in both chances created and recoveries per 90 minutes. He and his club teammate Marcelo are the only two of those five to make the knockout stage.
Modric doesn’t have elite defensive numbers of a destroyer or a classic No. 10, yet he remains above average all around. He finds the ball defensively, ranking 71st in interceptions per 90 minutes and 107th in tackles per 90.
Going the other direction, Modric has shown a willingness to run at players in the midfield. He ranks 38th in one-v-ones per 90 minutes, and he’s been successful at a 68 percent clip (tournament average is 56 percent).
That makes him one of seven players who rank in the top 75 in both interceptions and one-v-ones per 90 minutes at the tournament, and Brazil’s Willian was the only other one of those to win at least 60 percent of his one-on-ones.
Modric’s steady style matches his team’s accomplishments in Russia. Croatia hasn’t been the most glamourous side, but it remains one of four teams not to officially lose a match (France, Spain, Denmark – the latter two eliminated on penalties after a draw). Croatia hasn’t always dominated, but it has won the expected goals battle by at least half a goal in five of six games, with the exception of the relatively meaningless group finale against Iceland.
Now Modric and Croatia are on the cusp of winning the world’s most coveted trophy–but they’ll have to outduel Kante and France to do so.
Paul Carr is Director of Content Development for TruMedia Networks, which collaborates with OptaPro on ProVision, a web-based soccer tool used by clubs and media for analytics, scouting and recruitment.