It’s that time again. Here are some more players you’ll want keep an eye on over the next few days (who you might not have thought of). So, without further ado…
Axel Witsel, Belgium
While playing for Benfica, Witsel was very highly regarded, and was always looked at as a player who will eventually make a big-money move to a top European league. Well, the big (huge) money move finally happened, but the level of competition to which he went hardly improved at all. Moving from the Portuguese Premeira Liga to Russia’s Premier League was, at best, a lateral move. Having said that, it’s not often that you see a player play as well as Witsel has been and then completely fail once finally making a move to a tougher league. His performances for Zenit St. Petersburg have been fantastic, having started in 29 of their 30 league matches and coming on as a sub in the one match he didn’t start. Zenit went on to finish 2nd in the league, falling a single point short of eventual champions CSKA Moscow. He was also ever-present for them in the Champions League, starting in seven of the team’s eight games.
On an individual level, Witsel really shined. According to WhoScored’s player rating formula, only four center-midfielders had a higher rating than Witsel’s 7.15 this past season. He was the 19th most fouled player in the league, a stat that shows his willingness to hold on to the ball long enough in order to find the best available pass. It becomes even more impressive when you realized that he averaged a measly 0.5 turnovers per game, quite a remarkable accomplishment for a player who was basically tied for the most passes attempted per game in the entire league.
For Belgium, it’s easy for Witsel’s name to get lost in the headlines. He is, after all, mostly a holding midfielder, and that position rarely receives the recognition it deserves. The likes of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois and Vincent Kompany will surely receive most of the praise for whatever success Belgium have in this tournament. Even his possible midfield partner (who is far from a guaranteed starter) and afro-brother Marouane Fellaini is a more recognizable name, if only for the fact that he plays in England, and this season made the move to Manchester United.
If, however, Belgium opt to go with the attacking lineup that most expect them to play with, Witsel’s role will be as crucial as ever. He’ll be responsible for protecting the back-four, picking the ball up from the defense and transitioning defending into attacking, while also moving high enough up the field when Belgium are in possession to ensure that expected starter Mousa Dembele isn’t left alone in the middle of the field. It’s almost always a thankless job, but it’s one that Witsel has done very well when it has been asked of him. It’d be shocking to me if he fails to impress at that role during this World Cup, and maybe he even plays well enough to finally make that leap to one of Europe’s top leagues.
Dmitry Kombarov, Russia
Another player who represents Russia’s Premier League, Kombarov is even less a household name than Witsel. And, as is the case with the aforementioned Belgian, Dmitry is one of the league’s best players. For those unfamiliar with Kombarov, think of the more famous (and also Russian) Yuri Zhirkov in his prime for a rather fair comparison. Zhirkov, a more familiar name due to his time with Chelsea, was an exciting attacking left wing-back who was creative enough to play as a left-winger if needed but also contributed enough defensively to warrant a selection on a team’s back-four. Konbarov is very similar, both in his style-of-play and work-ethic. The main differences between the two is that Zhirkov usually felt more like a winger who was capable of playing left-back while Kombarov is stronger defensively but can also really attack well. The latter may even be the more “complete” player, when taking all facets of the game into account.
Despite Spartak Moscow’s disappointing 6th place finish, Kombarov, the legendary Russian club’s captain, enjoyed himself a fine campaign. He was recognized as the 2nd best left back in the league by the Russian Football Union, which votes on the top-3 players at each positions at season’s end. His five assists tied for 13th best in the league, with Vitaliy Denisov (who was selected as the top left-back on that top-players list) being the only defensive player with more (six). Kombarov’s 44.5 passes per game were the 2nd most amongst full-backs, further proving his importance to Spartak’s attack. On the defensive end, he averaged 2.7 tackles per game, good for 17th best in the league, while also making 1.9 interceptions per contest.
His role with the Russian national team looks to be established, having started two of their final three friendlies leading up to the World Cup and, playing the full 90 minutes in those starts and coming on at halftime in the final warm-up game vs. Morocco. With Russia’s squad being weaker than it’s been in previous tournaments (most notably Euro 2012, even though they failed to make it out of the group), Kombarov should have a large role, especially going forward. That’s something he’s used to at club level, so it shouldn’t be an issue.
Kombarov is a pure modern-day full/wing-back, who possess the ability to both defend (pretty well, at that) and attack (very well). He can play short passes and whip in crosses from wide areas, so linking up with either an inverted winger or a more traditional one won’t an issue in either case. Russia, while not going into this World Cup with the hopes of winning it, are still expect by most to make it out of their group, with a solid balance between their attack and defense needed to accomplish that.
They’ll have to play as a unit, attacking and defending together, transitioning smoothly between both phases of the game. Those are areas in which Kombarov excels and, I believe, he takes this stage to showcase those skills to the world.
Ran is a journalism major and a sports fanatic. As well as writing for Soccer Without Limits, he covers basketball, soccer, and baseball for the Bad Man Bureau. You can contact him on Twitter @truthinwriting.