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At FIFA World Cup, teams reap rewards for playing through the wings

With more and more teams guarding the central part of the pitch, wingers and fullbacks have made effective moves.

South Korea's goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu, top left, and teammates fail to stop a shot on goal by Brazil's Vinicius Junior, not seen, who scored his side's first goal during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Brazil and South Korea, at the Stadium 974 in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Spain tried a thousand passes against Morocco. When that didn’t work, they started to cross the ball. 21 attempts later, no goals came but the inevitable penalty shootouts did. Of the crosses attempted, Spain only landed two of them. It would be the story of a team that knows how to play in the middle of the park but found themselves at a World Cup where the football has been relegated to the wings.

Crossing and effective play from the wings has been the story of this World Cup. With more and more teams employing a mid and low block to leave the central part of their pitch guarded, the wings are the only places left to begin attacks from in a World Cup where teams barely got any time to work on the complex positional play in the final third of the pitch. Wingers and fullbacks have become cherished currency.

After the end of the group stages, FIFA chief of global football development and former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger revealed that goals from open-play crosses were up by 83% from the 2018 World Cup and that the shift to football being played in the wide areas could mean that the team with the best wingers would win the World Cup.

In club football, the answer to mid and low blocks seen at this World Cup is to circle the ball around to the wingers and create mismatches and imbalances.

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Midfielders keep switching the ball from one side of the pitch to the other until a gap opens, a mistake is committed and suddenly there is space or time for a player on the wing to act.

Usually, this means that wingers are more the tip of the sword than strikers. It is the reason players like Kylian Mbappe, Mohammed Salah and Phil Foden have gained the success they have. They are adept at one-on-one situations, scoring scenarios and can link up play in the final third of the pitch even though most of the opposition players are back in their positions.

At this World Cup, teams guarding the middle of the park have been ferocious enough to make opposing teams not take them on. A 33% reduction to be exact, according to the FIFA Technical Group Study. Before the start of the Round of 16, Jurgen Klinsmann, who is part of the study said that this was favouring South American teams with better wide players at their disposal.

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But as the rounds have gone on and one stage of the knockouts are out of the way, it isn’t the wide areas and wingers that should be in focus, but rather how those teams are tactically setting themselves up to take the best advantage of these areas.

Spain for example, were looking to their fullbacks to move far up the field and overlap their wingers. This was so they could put balls in from that position. But rather than put crosses that were in the air, they chose to go with the on-ground crosses into the box.

In the group stages, according to data by the Athletic, Spain were 13th when it came to open-play crosses (they made 39 of them). But when it came to open-play ground crosses, Spain were first among 32 teams at the World Cup. 48.7% of their crosses were on the ground, the most among all teams.

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Brazil on the other hand, used their wide areas differently. Against South Korea, the South Americans overloaded the pitch and constantly made imbalances in the left side of the pitch. This allowed Vinicius Jr and Neymar to stick to that side and have the option of a get-out-of-jail card in Danilo who was tasked with following down the left flank as a supporting player.

While most teams at this World Cup, Morocco for example, have tried to maintain a very tight and compact unit in the middle of the pitch, the South Koreans decided to man-mark Brazil. The individual quality of their wingers was too much for the Koreans who routinely got beat – starting from the very first goal where Raphinha brushed off his defender and made a cutback into the box for Vinicius Jr to score.

But no other team has utilised the cut back from the flanks as well as the Dutch have at this World Cup. It comes down to the quality of the chances that they’ve created – especially in their match against the USA. The Dutch, when with the ball, prefer to play on the break and it starts with Frenkie de Jong and Nathan Ake looking for one of the two Dutch wingers.

And it is the quickness of their counter that kills. Usually, the first identifying factor of the Dutch counter is Memphis Depay. Playing on the left wing, the attacker holds the ball down when he receives a pass and allows the Dutch to move forwards. He then passes the ball to the midfield, who then spray the ball to the opposite wing.

It is here where both Dumfries and Daley Blind are so crucial. Dumfries, the right back, cuts the ball in as the last line of USA’s defence sticks together. They are essentially five players guarding two – but failing to pick up the man coming in late into the box – the very man who started the play by dropping deep in the first place, Memphis Depay. The Dutch scored two more goals that same game. The second, another Dumfries cutback, this time to fellow wing-back Daley Blind. And then Daley Blind’s cross late in the game which found Dumfries.

First published on: 08-12-2022 at 18:25 IST
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