FIFA World Cup 2018: Out with the old, in with the new
World Cup 2018 has sparked a rethink on football strategy. Here’s what the four semi-finalists—England, Belgium, Croatia and France did differently
Bengaluru: That the Word Cup semi-final line-up does not feature any of the past winners from this millennium, including top-ranked Germany and Brazil, shows a shift in what works. It will set off a rethink on strategy.
Brazil dominated possession and had more shots on goal in its quarter-final with Belgium. But the classiest play came from Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku, who tore away in counter-attack after a Brazilian corner. He kept control despite being surrounded by half a dozen yellow-and-green jerseys, looked up momentarily, and found Kevin De Bruyne with space on the right.
De Bruyne’s long-range shot placed inside the far post gave the goalkeeper no chance. Brazil’s attempts to score, in contrast, were either hurried or without a clear sight of goal in a crowded penalty box.
After Spain won the World Cup in 2010 with tiki-taka, other teams started to pay attention to ball possession. Germany had the ball 64% of the time when it beat Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final. Possession had a defensive component, in limiting opportunities to score for the opposition, as well as an attacking element in slicing through defences with triangular formations and thrusts forward with deft passes.
Two things have noticeably changed in this World Cup. Defences have become adept at disrupting short-passing routines. Russia showed against Spain that 11 large bodies in the penalty box leave precious few gaps to exploit. Belgium’s unlikely heroes, the tall Marouane Fellaini and the muscular Nacer Chadli, clamped down in midfield on Neymar and Philippe Coutinho, the main threat from Brazil.
The second difference from the previous two World Cups was in the quality of possession football. The German team appeared to be a victim of its own success in 2014, with not enough fresh blood. Spain was past its prime, and the new lot did not combine well with the old maestro Andres Iniesta. Brazil was over-dependent on its left wing as Willian on the right was missing in action against strong sides. His replacement Renato Augusto arrived too late.
The result was often possession for its own sake rather than with intent.
You need the right personnel for any strategy you choose, or fit the strategy to the men you pick. The breathtaking Belgian counter-attacks that produced the last-minute winner against Japan and delivered the second killer blow to Brazil, came from the best forward combo in this World Cup. Eden Hazard won the FA Cup this year for Chelsea. His sidekick Romelu Lukaku was the top scorer for Manchester United. And the Belgian goal-scorer against Brazil, Kevin De Bruyne, was the playmaker for English Premier League champions Manchester City.
Even that may not have been enough against Brazil who had arrived at the World Cup with a rock-solid defence that hadn’t conceded a single goal in 2018, and a fast-recovering Neymar. So the Belgian coach Roberto Martinez decided to gamble with a change in formation from 3-4-2-1 to 4-3-3 with De Bruyne deployed as a false 9 (a centre forward who hangs back and also collects the ball at the back instead of being a spearhead). This rattled the Brazilian defence weakened by the suspension of Casemiro in midfield, whose replacement Fernandinho scored an own goal. Brazilian coach Tite responded with a 4-4-2 formation at half-time, but it was too late.
Martinez’s other gamble was to replace his regular midfielders with Fellaini and Chadli who had come on as substitutes against Japan and scored a goal apiece to turn the game around from a 0-2 deficit.
The speed and strength of Chadli proved a handful, allowing Belgium to swiftly morph from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 when they had possession. And Fellaini played a crucial rearguard role to keep Neymar at bay.
“When you are playing against Brazil, you are playing against the yellow jersey, you are playing against five World Cups, so you have to be brave tactically,” said Martinez after the game.
Speed and directness of attack without fussing over losing ball possession also characterizes the next highest-ranked team in the semi-finals, the understated France who crept through the group stage without a ripple before being goaded by Argentina to produce a four-goal burst.
Teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe was clocked at nearly the speed of Usain Bolt, which explains why others around him look like being in a freeze frame when he’s on the move.
The classy Antoine Griezmann, who was among three finalists for best footballer in 2016, is a perfect accompaniment with his probing moves, long passes and finishing ability.
France had less possession than Uruguay in the quarter-final, but that did not stop Les Blues from dominating the game. Uruguay, hamstrung by the absence of the injured Edinson Cavani and his deadly duet with Luis Suarez, hardly got a shot at goal through France’s Maginot line of Benjamin Pavard, Raphael Varane, Lucas Hernandez and Samuel Umtiti. Coach Didier Deschamps, who captained France to victory in the 1998 World Cup at home, picked a team of young players in form to execute his tightly controlled, counter-attacking game. And it’s paying off.
Another youthful side in the semi-finals is England. Coach Gareth Southgate has drilled the team to hold their positions and ball possession with short passes, as they did against Sweden. But England also combine this with crosses and aerial passes with regularity into the danger area. That’s possession with intent to attack. And England have been the best at converting the resultant free kicks and corners.
Three-quarters of England’s goals have come from dead ball situations, for which they have Southgate to thank. His stint with the NBA to borrow tactics from American basketball in creating space and ‘screening’ defenders is giving dividends.
What’s helped England also is the introduction of VAR (video assistant referee). Defenders who might have got away with grappling in the penalty area are being penalized, as referees know they can fall back on VAR for confirmation or reversal. This is akin to what happened to cricket after the advent of the ‘third umpire’. Field umpires are now happy to call borderline LBWs. Similarly, the proportion of goals from set pieces has gone up to nearly half in this World Cup, from a little over a quarter in the last one.
England is pitted against dark horses Croatia, who dominated the group stage, with a 3-0 drubbing of Argentina being the highlight. They’ve underwhelmed since then, squeaking past Denmark and Russia on penalties. But in Barcelona playmaker Ivan Rakitic and Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric, Croatia have the best midfield in the tournament.
That, along with the best forward line of Belgium, the fastest man Mbappe of France, and the best set piece orchestrators in England promise semi-finals that will treat us to attacking, risk-taking football.
Good-bye to obsession with Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and Spain.
Sumit Chakraberty is an author and freelance writer based in Bengaluru.