The curtain has finally come down on the 2018 World Cup. And contrary to what many had feared (hoped, in some cases), the tournament was definitely a success, with upsets and surprises aplenty. By the time the first round of matches had ended, the defending champions had been beaten and by the time the final whistle blew, there was yet again a new world champion – no team has succeeded in retaining the World Cup since Brazil did in 1962. As the tournament progressed, a number of trends emerged, of which these ten were the most notable:
Possession ain’t enough
Possession might be nine-tenths of the law and until 2012, even pretty much all of football, but the 2018 World Cup was notable for teams that dominated possession but were beaten by opponents who simply used the ball better. This was perhaps best exemplified when the past masters of possession football, Spain met Russia. Spain made more than a thousand passes in the match, had 79 per cent of the possession, but still ended up losing. The ultimate champions, France, had 34 per cent possession in the final against Croatia and 36 per cent in the semi-final against Belgium. And won both matches with a degree of comfort. It is no longer about keeping the ball, but what you do with it!
“Traditional” powers exist mainly in tradition…for now!
A World Cup semi-final line up without Brazil, Argentina, Italy or Germany? It had never happened in a World Cup. This time it did. Italy could not even qualify for the tournament, and the other “traditional” powers looked poor shadows of themselves. Yes, diehard football fans still looked up to them but they looked like faded carbon copies of their stereotyped versions – there was very little Samba about Brazil’s football, Germany had nothing steamrolling about them and Argentina moved as smoothly as an elephant wading through an ocean of treacle in hob nailed boots.
The era of “strong” managers is waning
Didier Deschamps might have won the World Cup but he did not convince pundits till the very end of his tactical acumen. And the same could be said of most managers at the tournament. Even England’s Gareth Southgate who got the best press of them all, was praised more for his understated manner and his waistcoat (??) than for any radical tactical innovation. Right through the tournament, tactical nous was at a bit of a premium, and there was no manager that really stood out, although Oscar Tabarez of Uruguay and Vladimir Petkovic of Switzerland both won accolades for disciplined and well drilled sides. There were, however, no radical strategies or formation switches that caught the eye. Tactically, this was dull fare. And perhaps that was because the best managers, be it Guardiola or Klopp or Mourinho, are actually not in national team management.
VAR is a WIP (work in progress)
This was the first World Cup in which video footage was used extensively to help the referee. The referee could be advised by a panel of referees called the video assistant referee (VAR) who would be viewing the footage of the match from various angles. The referee could also consult video replays to take a decision. Seems sound in concept? Well, in practice it was a bit of a nightmare, although France would not complain – the world champions benefited from dodgy VAR calls in their first match against Australia and again in the final against Croatia. The VAR often slowed down the match, creating long intervals, seemed to come into play only on select occasions, and worst of all, often did not deliver decisions that were clear cut. The core idea of using video footage to make the right decision seems very much on point, but its implementation is way off target.
It is not about all out attack…
Almost every World Cup has had teams that would thrill us with their willingness to go on the offensive from the word “go.” They would not always end up winning the trophy but would leave spectators with some amazing memories. Well, not this time around, with perhaps the very honourable exception of Senegal and occasionally Japan. Even teams with phenomenal attacking talent like Belgium and France, opted to sit back at times and absorb the pressure. The concept of playing football seemed to have gone back to the 1980s where going ahead and defending was more important than doubling your lead.
…but about hitting on the break
This was also the World Cup which saw the return of the speedy counter attacker. Whether it was France’s Mbape, Croatia’s Perisic, England’s Harry Kane or Belgium’s Eden Hazard, counter attacks were an increasing source of goals in this World Cup. The idea of sitting back, inviting the opposition on to you, and then hitting them with a quick speedy break was the theme of the tournament. It did look spectacular but barring the odd match, often resulted in one-dimensional encounters, with greater stress being placed on lying deep in defence.
One-man teams are passe’
The increased stress on defence meant that it was no longer enough to have a single player of near legendary status in one’s ranks – one needed at least three or four exceptional ones to really make a difference. Argentina and Portugal discovered that the hard way as their strategy of “give it to Lio/Cristiano and pray” simply refused to yield dividends thanks to better organised defences. Even a team like Brazil had to switch from using Neymar as their key attacker and spread the responsibility to the likes of Coutinho. The days when a player like Maradona could “carry” a relatively less accomplished side with him seem to be history.
Europe has trumped South America…for now
Once considered the bastion of “real” football, South America cut a sorry figure at the 2018 World Cup, with just two teams, Uruguay and Brazil making the last eight. More than the number, however, what really surprised many was the fact that the teams did not look as accomplished technically as their predecessors – in fact in terms of sheer achievement, Uruguay perhaps did best, playing well beyond its potential. Brazil and Argentina seemed strangely disinterested and inconsistent and even a team like Colombia that had so enthralled spectators four years ago, dished out relatively mediocre football. The current flavour of football is distinctly European, with far greater accent on discipline and pace than on passion and sorcery. Yus, we are complaining!
FIFA Rankings count for nothing
Going into the tournament, the top five teams of the world as per FIFA’s ranking were: Germany, Brazil, Belgium, Portugal and Argentina. Only one of those made the semi-finals. The team that won the tournament, France, was ranked at number 7, while Croatia was ranked at 20. Want more? The lowest ranked team of the tournament actually was the host, Russia, at 70, and that team almost beat runners up Croatia.
Players are now not just fallible but collapsible
Diving by payers plumbed new depths at this World Cup. Neymar’s comical rolling and writhing might have launched a million memes but he was by no means the only guilty party. In just about every team there were players who would drop at the slightest hint of a breeze, and writhe around holding different parts of their anatomy. Even players from the English team, once considered the “men among boys,” were guilty. The VAR system for some reason did nothing to curb these. Perhaps it liked the memes…