“The Most Exciting World Cup Of All-Time”
Many are calling Brazil 2014 “the most exciting World Cup of all-time.” While that claim reeks of hyperbole and premature historicism, it’s not completely off base. Teams scored an inordinate number of goals (49) through the first round of (16) group matches. The 3.06 goals/game rate is the highest for an opening round of group stage matches since 1958.
The 1958 World Cup does not offer much basis for comparison. Teams were still fielding high-flying, four and five-forward formations. Moreover, there were only eight initial group stage matches. The numbers were skewed by one of them: France 7-3 Paraguay. So, the 2014 World Cup is on pace to be the most prolific “modern” tournament. That is a noticeable uptick from 2010 in South Africa, which, at this point, was on pace to be the least.
One reason has been shoddy defending. Teams have conceded six penalties through 16 matches in 2014. There were seven in the entire 48-match group stage in 2010. Five goals have been scored from corner kicks, compared to four from the entire stage in 2010. The three own goals is more than the entire 2010 tournament, and that figure does not count the unofficial ones.
Fatigue seems to be a factor. Heat and humidity have been issues, not just at Manaus. Jeremy Schaap described on-pitch conditions during the USA-Ghana match as “brutal.” Tiredness produces a ripe environment for mistakes, lapses in concentration and, consequently, goals.
Of the 49 goals scored so far, 10 have come from fresh-legged substitutes (20.4 percent), 22 have come after the 60th minute (44.8 percent) and 16 have come in the final 10 minutes of either half (32.7 percent). Six teams have taken a lead within the first 30 minutes, tried to protect it and lost. There’s nothing more “exciting” than late match narrative swings.
Another reason is a shortage of fit, quality, experienced defenders. Brazil may have the “most expensive back four in history,” with David Luiz and Thiago Silva now at PSG. But the former is erratic and the latter is past his prime. Dani Alves and Marcelo are supplementary attackers. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar, currently on loan in MLS, has been a non-entity at club level since 2012. Their midfield has struggled to control space in front of them.
Let’s run through some other prominent teams. Argentina has a questionable defensive line and goalkeeper. Spain has a dodgy, unfit back four protecting a dodgy, unfit goalkeeper. Germany (with Lahm in midfield) and Belgium have no natural fullbacks. Holland has a new goalkeeper and an entire back line of World Cup neophytes. Louis Van Gaal’s “brilliant” Spain strategy relied on Aston Villa’s Ron Vlaar to man mark Diego Costa, 1 on 1. That’s before you progress down to teams such as Uruguay, reliant on Diego Lugano’s desiccated husk.
While even countries such as Algeria have young attacking talent, the list of countries who can produce a top-caliber goalkeeper, a resolute back four and a 2010-style double pivot in the defensive midfield consists of France and, perhaps, Italy.
Tactics, as a result of the talent, the conditions and a natural ebb and flow, have shifted. Instead of dropping deep and maintaining possession, teams are pressing high up the pitch, hoping to get their dynamic attacking players the ball in space on the counterattack. More Real Madrid or Liverpool. The Pep Guardiola “false nine” has been replaced by (at least de facto) two-forward formations with the ball. Not coincidentally, we have seen teams such as Mexico, Argentina and the Netherlands experiment with three-man back lines, a normal counter for two strikers.
Another factor, compared to 2010, is the ball. Adidas’ infamous “Jabulani” ball from 2010 was wonky and inaccurate from long range. Its effects were exacerbated by altitude. Few teams had experience playing with it. This condensed the attacking zone to a tight area around the goal. It offered a huge advantage to teams content to sit back and defend. Paraguay scored three goals, won one match in regulation and nearly reached the semifinals. Lowly New Zealand went undefeated through the group stage. A hyper-talented Spain team slogged to the trophy with four 1-0 wins in the knockout rounds.
The 2014 ball has gone down much smoother. Compared to 2010, the attacking zone has stretched and the aerial game is now viable. We have seen 12 headed goals through the first round of group matches in 2014. There were just 16 during 48 matches in 2010. There have been four goals from indirect free kicks thus far. There were just seven through the entire 2010 group stage. Netherlands 2010 used Wesley Sneijder’s guile to unlock the box. Netherlands 2014 is bombing dead on balls over his head to Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben in space.
Brazil vs. Mexico may portend adjustments and a regression period over the second and third rounds of games. But it took some stupendous goalkeeping to keep that match 0-0.
It Has Only Been One Match!
Because true, competitive international soccer is infrequent, we enter tournaments with entrenched perceptions. Abrupt, “shocking” results can lead to abrupt, shocking narrative corrections. Don’t fall prey.
Spain may not be as bad as they looked against the Netherlands. They lost their first match in 2010 against Switzerland (albeit by a more sober score line) and went on to win the tournament. The Netherlands may not be as good as they looked against Spain. Dutch fans will remember their Euro 2008 squad, led by Sneijder, Robben and Van Persie, that drilled Italy and France in the group stage, before limping out to Russia in the quarterfinals.
History’s classic cautionary example is 1982 Spain. The Italians went winless in the opening group stage, against Peru, Poland and Cameroon. They went on to beat 1982 Brazil, Maradona-led Argentina and West Germany to lift the trophy. One could also point out the 1982 German team which opened with a shock loss to World Cup debutant Algeria, yet went on to reach the final.
Lesson: Stay rational. Keep an even keel. Don’t turn this into an NBA playoff series. Especially, you “I believe that we will win,” crowd.