A head cold is laying me low at the moment, but with much appreciation to Michael Salter of Pocket Quintilian, here are some reflections from a friend of mine on the World Cup of 2018, starting with part one of three:


A PARADOXICAL WORLD CUP

Russia 2018 was, in so many ways, a World Cup of paradoxes.

A tournament with the highest goal-per-game ratio for quite some time, it yet featured so many of those goals which leave neutrals feeling somewhat cheated: penalties, own goals or cheap set-piece affairs. And the winner of the Golden Boot was actually in wretched form for much of the event.

A tournament which featured a number of surprises still ended with one of the nominal favourites lifting the trophy, and with no teams from outside Europe or South America still in contention by the quarter-final stage.

A tournament which was predicted to be one of the most “problematic” in recent times both on and off the field, given its location and the contentious introduction of VAR, ended up being one of the friendliest World Cups in history, with no red cards for violent conduct and nothing but praise from travelling fans.

And, of course, the 2018 World Cup produced a winning team that played to nothing like its potential in a single one of its seven matches.

THE DEATH OF TIKI-TAKA?

If Spain’s glorious victory in the 2010 tournament heralded the triumph of the tiki-taka strategy, many felt that La Roja’s ponderous, unimaginative, one-paced display against Russia in the Round of 16 sounded its death-knell.

To be sure, possession football received a number of body-blows at Russia 2018. Hitting an opponent on the breakaway or snatching a goal at a set-piece was the order of the day for so many of the teams, and it was highly significant, as Football365’s Daniel Storey has mentioned in his excellent summary of the tournament, that France’s possession stats for their knockout games were pitiful.

There were other examples, and the most poignant of them involved Portugal. The European champions’ 1-0 win against Morocco was, from a pure football point of view, an absolute travesty. After a cheap, early set-piece goal (the story of the tournament, in many ways) the Moroccans had 90% of the play, with the superb Nourredine Amrabat running the Portuguese defence ragged. But there was no-one on the end of the energetic moves, and Cristiano Ronaldo and co. somehow hung on to claim the three points.

And yet in the Round of 16, nemesis caught up with the Portuguese. This time it was Uruguay who scored the early goal, and Portugal went on the attack; again, a dogged Uruguay defence blunted them and the lack of a dangerous strikeforce told against Fernando Santos’s men; this was not their preferred modus operandi. Ultimately it was another set-piece goal – from a defender – that got them back in the game, before Edinson Cavani, with a superb finish, yet again showed the value of a real striker.

With the advent of tiki-taka (although cause-and-effect is hard to judge here), the move to two-line midfields and lone strikers has become all but ubiquitous. Yet I would make exactly the same comment that I made about the 2010 event: the very, very few teams who fielded two genuine strikers, most notably Uruguay, generally did better than expected. Would Brazil have fared better had Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus been able to operate in tandem, as they did for that brief period towards the end of the Costa Rica game when, surprise surprise, Brazil scored their two goals?

One could argue that the supremacy of set-pieces and the general ineffectiveness of possession football at Russia 2018 was due to the fact that these were international teams, with less time to prepare and to develop a proper cohesion. The limited preparation time and the need to get one up over teams of a similar standard perhaps inevitably leads to a focus on set-pieces. But could we perhaps see a move back to twin strikers at international level at last?

– Michael Salter

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