In international football, there are no more easy games
The future of mankind, they say, is written in its past. Wise words, which have certainly held true in the context of the 2018 World Cup.
While Russia 2018 has been one of the most singularly exciting showpiece events in recent memory, the reasons for the same have been largely narrative driven.
As traditional giants like Germany, Argentina, Spain, and Brazil fell by the wayside, talented secondary powers like Croatia and Belgium shone. Even teams like Morocco, Iran, and South Korea exited on the back of valiant efforts.
It’s been abundantly clear that in international football, there are no more easy games; the gap that once existed between crème de la crème and upstarts has narrowed to a sliver.
Unfortunately, that’s more than one can say for the tactics and the football, which has been, to put it mildly, reactive. While Pep Guardiola’s sprinkling of post-modern possession football was the dominant stylistic influence of the last two World Cup triumphs, traditionally defensive virtues of low blocks and fast breaks have very much become vogue in Russia in 2018.
While in 2010, Spain perfected the death by a thousand cuts with mesmeric midfield control and high possession numbers, in 2014, Germany won a fourth star with Manuel Neuer redefining goalkeeping by maintaining an average position outside his own penalty box. Four years on much has changed with international football hitting the reset button on the anticipated evolutionary direction.
Possession is overrated, high defensive lines are passé and the late 90s and early noughties era of deep defensive lines, hulking forwards, power-packed midfields and fluid wingers are making a comeback.
Consider this. In 2018, all four semi-finalists fielded goalkeepers whose average position was inside the six-yard box. Hugo Lloris, a man used to taking the initiative from the back for his club side has even said how his coach wants him to only focus on the traditional goalkeeping virtues of playing his line.
In Mario Madzukic, Harry Kane, and Oliver Giroud, three out of the four teams also field a traditional centre forward who has hardly focused on scoring goals from open play. Their main job has been to provide a physical foil for their talented wing counterparts. The other, Belgium’s Romelo Lukaku, also in the same mold, has been “lucky” to have a coach committed to attacking that presented him numerous opportunities. Until, that is, their boldness was also the cause of their doom. Much to their chagrin.
In midfield, players like N’golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi, Marcelo Brozovic, Jordan Henderson, and everyone’s favorite Mauroane Fellaini provide a combative base on which the foundations of the team are built. Finesse is a thing of the past.
Players like Xavi, Xabi Alonso, and Andrea Pirlo are seen as luxuries that functional international sides can ill-afford. The Englishman Henderson even became a viral Twitter hit with a video clip of his series of aimless forward passes for England against Croatia proving quite popular. Suffice to say, Henderson didn’t care -- England had achieved their best result in decades.
And that has been the crux of the problem.
In high-stakes international football tournaments like the World Cup, the ends very much justify the means. No one really cares how you do it, as long as you do it. Most fans are in it only for those four weeks; might as well see your team win.
The Frenchman Antoine Griezmann said it best when presented with Belgian goalkeeper Thibault Courtouis’s criticism of the defensive tactics of the French. “Does Courtouis think he plays Barcelona football at Chelsea? I don’t care how we do it, all I want is a second star,” said the Atletico Madrid star, no stranger to low blocks and fast breaks.
In 2018, most sides have derived inspiration solely from the wings. Ivan Perisic leads the Croats with four goals from left-wing while Kylian Mbappe has been the tournament’s biggest draw playing on the right. For Belgium, Eden Hazard has been sensational while Kevin de Bruyne has found a new lease of life using his pace as either a false 9 or an inside right. Even England have used the mercurial dribbling skills of Raheem Sterling to good effect.
In summary, football 2018 has been largely about low defensive lines, combative midfields, a big man up front and a creative wing outlet. Possession has been sacrificed, sometimes deliberately, with teams deciding to close ranks in front of their own penalty box and break quickly and in numbers. In any case, counter-attacks have always been the best method of scoring goals. What’s wrong with playing the odds?
It kind of makes sense too; after a gruelling club season, teams often have very little time to prepare, and regulation defending is much easier to coach than tailored attacking moves, especially when you come up against massed defenses of less-able sides. Hence, the general principle has been to focus on keeping the goals out and hope the wing sparks take care of the goals via quick breakaways. If not, there is always extra-time, and penalties.
Not that there haven’t been goals. At 2.6 goals a game, Russia 2018 is only marginally behind 2014 and well ahead of 2010. In fact, it is almost exactly at par with World Cup 98, a tournament with which it bears numerous stylistic similarities.
What has been more interesting has been the kind of goals. The more combative approach has meant that teams have won more free-kicks and set-pieces around the box and many have focused on these alone as the source of goal scoring success. A mind-boggling 68 goals, or a record 42% of all goals in this World Cup have come from set pieces -- England with 9 of their 12 goals from this route ruled the roost.
The last World Cup with this high set piece numbers? France 98 of course. And third on the list? USA 94. A pattern emerges.
Not that any of this matters come tonight.
As Antoine Griezmann has so clearly stated, France won’t care how they play or how the goals come, as long as they do. And if they need inspiration, all they need to do is cast their glance to the past and the 1998 World Cup final against Brazil which was won by two Zinedine Zidane goals from set-pieces and a classic Emanuel Petit breakaway.
The names may be different come tonight, but I wouldn’t put my money against the manner of the goals being much different.
Quazi Zulquarnain Islam is a freelance sports writer.