It was a hectic start to the FIFA World Cup, with the first round of matches generating more excitement than any international football tournament in recent memory. There were shocking surprises, impressive victories, individual brilliant moments and plenty of drama.
Here are a few takeaways:
The high press
Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the World Cup was the willingness of the so-called weaker teams to move up to capture the ball in opposing territory.
Arsène Wenger, FIFA chief for global football development, said pressing had become “absolutely universal” around the world ahead of the start of the World Cup. And it was a technique that has proven useful for teams that have changed their approach to pushing the problem off the ball when they don’t have the individual talent to compete on the ball.
The emphasis is on winning back the ball in areas of the field where teams can threaten offensively and capitalizing on the little possession they get, as opposed to reclaiming the ball in defensive areas only to be faced with constant attacks later will.
Key to Saudi Arabia’s surprising 2-1 win over Argentina was the remarkably high defensive line, which not only upset the opposition but also went offside a total of ten times – resulting in three disallowed goals. Japan’s second-half turnaround against Germany was based on similarly high pressing. One of the lesser-known results was Tunisia’s well-deserved draw with Denmark, which resulted from the same risky approach.
Teams that sit back and wait alone for counterattack opportunities – like Iran, Costa Rica and Serbia – all suffered big losses.
emphasis on width
The majority of international teams in this tournament have relied on creating opportunities from large areas rather than central channels.
Canada were brilliant against a lackluster Belgium and their full-backs were a source of constant threat. Both Morocco and South Korea’s strategies relied on overloading the wings, pushing their full-backs very high and isolating defenders. Both England and France looked far more menacing when they could bring defenders into play, bringing their wingers up and their strikers in the spaces.
Distance was also crucial for Saudi Arabia, who created the biggest statistical uproar in World Cup history. Not only did their wingers push higher to push opposing wingers deeper, but they also helped their full-backs by defending the lead by falling back to create a two-on-one and leaving no room behind their defensive line to den Argentina could benefit from wide areas.
Sticking to wide areas in build-up can usually be a safe but monotonous form of football, with teams spraying passes from end to end, carefully searching for an opportunity. But by judiciously using the wide spaces – more and more teams are now playing three-at-a-back to utilize the attacking power of their full-backs – they have given this approach an advantage.
Full-backs have become the most important element of many teams. And after studying each other’s early games, it will be exciting to see how others react defensively.
Argentina and Germany weren’t the only top teams to miss the beat in the first round. Belgium beat Canada 1-0 but were undoubtedly the inferior team, with Uruguay barely managing to draw 0-0 with South Korea. Portugal against Ghana, bottom of the tournament, needed a dubious penalty and some late luck to win 3-2. 2018 finalists Croatia were defeated 0-0 by Morocco.
A certain level of fatigue can be felt at the inaugural Winter World Cup as teams travel to Qatar after a grueling season opener. Countries where the majority of players play in the top European leagues are not only affected by injuries but also by fatigue. These teams also had less than a week together to practice and prepare for the World Cup and were not yet able to finalize game patterns together.
A majority of Asian countries, on the other hand, spent about three to four weeks before the tournament began. The leagues in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran all ended in October.
The big sides that got it right have gotten it right so far – England won 6-2 and Spain 7-0, while France and Brazil won 4-1 and 2-0 but could have scored many more goals . Expect the usual suspects – notably Argentina and Germany, who both created chances and had above-average xG and other stats in their favor – to appear together in the games to come.