This year’s World Cup has stood out for a number of reasons, from the dominance of set pieces to the way Russia has hosted the event. A look at five of its standout features:
Set pieces drive England
After 570 minutes and 4 goals from corners, England found a way to smuggle the six-foot-two John Stones into the box unmarked during extra-time of their semifinal. The defender leapt and sent the ball whizzing towards the far post. But for Croatian Sime Vrsaljko’s clearance, England might have been on their way to the final. It would have been fitting for a tournament labelled “set piece orgy” by former US defender Alexi Lalas.
Of the 160 goals scored in Russia, 70 (or 43%) have come from set pieces, eclipsing the 36% in 1998 and far head of the tallies in 1994 (33%), 2002 (29%), 2014 (27%) and 2010 (24%). They fuelled the deep tournament runs for Uruguay and Russia, who scored five times from set pieces. But no team made dead balls come alive more than England. Of England’s 12 goals, 9 came from set plays — 4 corners, 3 penalties and 2 freekicks, including Trippier’s opener in the semifinal. Led by coach Gareth Southgate, the team has turned around the team’s patchy set-piece record, by Americanising the plays. As in American football, England has specialist coaches; it has also adapted the hustling basketball tactics of screening, stacking, picking-and-rolling. While the routines aren’t necessarily new, Southgate, owing to limited creativity from open plays, had to perfect the science into an art. And it is not just the underdogs; finalists France have scored from 4 set pieces, including the semifinal goal from a corner, which prompted Belgium coach Roberto Martinez to say: “The difference is just a dead ball situation, a set play. It was one corner and that’s the type of detail you get in a World Cup semifinal.”
Youth trumps experience
“You can’t win anything with kids,” it was once said. This World Cup has challenged that idea. In fact, results suggest it may be more worthwhile to invest in the precociousness of youth than the so-called advantages of experience. Anyone watching the pace and audacity of Kylian Mbappé, 19, would appreciate the virtues of a mind unscarred by failure. A more world-weary player would think twice before attempting the breathtaking runs and deft back-heels in a high-stakes match. Just think about Lionel Messi, who seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The contrast between Mbappé and Messi’s teams illustrates this. With an average age of 26, France are the second-youngest team and have reaped the rewards of energy and enthusiasm that come with youth. Of course, it helps that all their players have been playing in top European leagues for years. Argentina are the third-eldest, with an average age of 29.3, and looked leg-weary in comparison to more dynamic sides. England has an average age of 26 — Harry Kane, the tournament’s top scorer, is 24 — while Croatia and Belgium, the other two semifinalists, also figure in the younger half.
Argentina demand vs supply
Argentina were spoilt for choice in attack — from Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero to Paulo Dybala and Christian Pavon — to complement Messi. So wide were their resources that they had to leave out Mauro Icardi, Serie A’s top-scorer last season. If only they had similar depth in defence. Their first-choice centre-back, Marcos Rojo, played only 12 matches in all competitions for Manchester United last season. Nicolas Otamendi, a more regular fixture of Manchester City, has a reputation for being haphazard, which he lived up to against Croatia. Gabriel Mercado, Federico Fazio and Nicolas Tagliafico are not even club starters. Gone are the days when Argentina brimmed with defensive talent — Roberto Ayala, Gabriel Heinze, Roberto Sensini and Javier Zanetti. The ageing Javier Mascherano is perhaps the last of the dwindling ilk.
This is indicative of a larger issue: European clubs want strikers and forwards from Argentina — Brazil and Uruguay are providing defenders in abundance.
A number of the perceived minnows inverted the cricketing axiom “the best form of defence is attack” to “the best form of attack is defence”. Take the Icelanders who, with just a handful of attacking outlets, used an ultra-defensive approach in which almost the entire game was played in the half. It proved handy in not only prevent a drubbing but also frustrating the opposition and sneaking in a point or two. Iceland, who kept Messi on a leash, eked out a point against them. With a default formation of 5-4-1, Iceland sometimes had as many as nine men in the box, and looked to score only when counter-attacking opportunities presented themselves. Denmark and Switzerland, both of whom reached the pre-quarterfinals, too relied on a caution-first approach that paid dividends in the group stages. The intrinsic flaw of this strategy, however, is that no team can defend its way to the back-end of the tournament.
To Russia, with love
The World Cup came to Russia at a time when it was accused of meddling in US elections and carrying out state-sponsored doping at home. Amid paranoia in the West, thousands of fans stayed away. For those who weren’t influenced, Russia rolled out more than the red carpet. It relaxed visa norms, made train travel between host cities free for match-ticket holders and opened previously “closed cities”. There was not one case of hooliganism, as was widely feared. The 5,000-plus journalists covering the tournament and the 736 players all return with good memories of Russian hospitality.
The Red Square of Moscow and lanes of Leningrad were taken over by fans from Peru, Mexico and Argentina. They were joined by locals, pleasantly surprised at their own team’s performance, as vodka flowed like the Volga.
As President Vladimir Putin hoped, and FIFA president Gianni Infantino agreed last week, the World Cup made the world “fall in love” with Russia.