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FIFA World Cup 2022: Players to watch in the Round of 16

Al Khor, Qatar; England midfielder Jude Bellingham (22) passes the ball while defended by United States of America forward Haji Wright (19) during the second half of a group stage match during the 2022 World Cup at Al Bayt Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

With the Group Stage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup now behind us, it’s time to look ahead to the Round of 16. Eight games spread across four days will determine which teams make it into the Quarter-finals. Based on the performance of each player in the Group Stage, our model predicts which players are likely to receive a high average grade in their next game.

The model is trained on data from the Big-5 European leagues: Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany), Serie A (Italy) and Ligue 1 (France). It takes each player’s performance in his last three games into account to predict his average grade in the next game, both in terms of quantity (number of events) and quality (sum of grades).

NETHERLANDS vs. USA: CODY GAKPO, NETHERLANDS

After scoring the opening goal for The Netherlands in all three of their Group Stage games, the 23-year-old Cody Gakpo has put his name in the mix for the golden boot race. Gakpo has scored with his head (vs Senegal), left foot (vs Ecuador) and right foot (vs Qatar), proving how versatile the PSV Eindhoven forward is, which becomes even more evident from his grades: 85.2 for shooting, 80.7 for aerial duels, 78.4 for 50/50 duels, 74.7 for challenges and 70.8 for crossing.

ARGENTINA vs. AUSTRALIA: HARRY SOUTTAR, AUSTRALIA

Yeah, sure, you can pick Lionel Messi as your one to watch for this game, but the question remains: can he do it on a rainy night in Stoke? Although it’s unlikely to rain in Qatar, Messi is going to have to beat Harry Souttar, the 6′ 6″ center back who normally plays his games for Stoke City. Souttar, who was born in Scotland, currently has the third-highest aerial duel grade of the tournament (93.9), and also grades well for challenges (82.6) and passing (77.1).

FRANCE vs. POLAND: ANTOINE GRIEZMANN, FRANCE

Some players transform when they put on their national team jersey; Antoine Griezmann is one of them. The 31-year-old forward has been struggling at the highest club level in recent years, but he has never lost his spot for Les Bleus. And rightly so, he has scored 42 goals in 113 caps, but even more importantly, he is one of the key creators for Deschamps’ side. With a 94.7 crossing grade and an 87.1 passing grade, France will be looking at Griezmann to find openings in the Polish defense.

ENGLAND vs. SENEGAL: JUDE BELLINGHAM, ENGLAND

When England reached the final of EURO 2020 (played last year due to the pandemic), the team wasn’t very joyful to watch, partly because of a lack of creativity in midfield. Things are different this time, and most of that can be attributed to Jude Bellingham. The Borussia Dortmund youngster has been vital for England on their quest to bring the trophy home. With 87.3 for shooting, 80.1 for passing and 76.0 for crossing, Bellingham has been one of the best central midfielders in the tournament and he will be looking to add to that versus Senegal.

JAPAN vs. CROATIA: JOSKO GVARDIOL, CROATIA

Josko Gvardiol has been an impressive figure in the FIFA World Cup so far, not only because he is wearing a face mask after breaking his nose on November 9, 2022. With a couple of great defensive actions, Gvardiol was one of the main reasons Croatia managed to hold onto a goalless draw against Belgium to proceed to the Round of 16. The 20-year-old center back has grades above 80 for passing, 50/50 duels and challenges and is expected to shine versus Japan again.

BRAZIL vs. SOUTH KOREA: GUE-SUNG CHO, SOUTH KOREA

At the start of the tournament, Gue-sung Cho had roughly 20 thousand followers on Instagram. His current tally is well over 2 million. Cho has chosen the world stage for his breakthrough, scoring twice against Ghana. With an 89.1 grade, only four players have a higher grade for shooting. Not only has the 24-year-old been dangerous in front of goal, with 6′ 2″, he has the size to beat defenders in the air, which is shown by his 75.6 aerial duel grade. Cho will have his work cut out for him against Thiago Silva and Marquinhos.

MOROCCO vs. SPAIN: PEDRI, SPAIN

Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the difference between Spain trying to score and Spain trying to run the clock with passing. Pedri, a 20-year-old midfielder, has been one of the bright spots for Luis Enrique’s side. In a team that passes the ball a lot, Spain has attempted almost 800 passes more than any other country, Pedri has been the best with an 87.6 passing grade. The 2021 Golden Boy, an award presented each year to the best footballer aged under 21, will be looking to unlock the Moroccan defense.

PORTUGAL vs. SWITZERLAND: MANUEL AKANJI, SWITZERLAND

When Manchester City decides to buy a player, you already know that his passing must be good. This definitely holds true for Manuel Akanji, who joined Pep Guardiola’s side last summer from Borussia Dortmund. Based on his performance in the group stage, the model predicts Akanji to have the fourth-highest passing grade in the Round of 16, only behind Bellingham (England), Pedri and Rodri (both Spain). Akanji, known for his incredible talent to solve complex calculations in a matter of seconds, will be an integral part of Switzerland’s plans to beat Portugal.

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