The last four World Cups have delivered diminishing returns in goals scored. There were 171 at France 1998, 161 at Japan and South Korea 2002, 147 at Germany 2006 and just 145 last time out in South Africa.
The average goals-per-game number has fallen from 2.67 to 2.27 in that period (according to FIFA). In South Africa we saw the second-lowest goals-per-game average in World Cup history—only Italia '90 delivered less value, coming in at 2.21 (via The Guardian), though it still managed to captivate us in a way South Africa could not.
The 2010 winners, Spain, lifted the trophy having scored just eight goals in seven games, at a meagre average of 1.14. France scored 15 in '98 (2.14); Brazil 18 in 2002 (2.57); even the traditionally defensive-minded Italians managed 12 on the road to triumph in 2006 (1.71).
Tactically speaking, 2010 witnessed a prevailing mindset that put the onus on suffocating opponents to death by keeping possession, rather than shooting them down in a hail of bullets. Spain were magnificent in their cautious execution and will be remembered as one of the great teams, but nobody can deny their modus operandi was to grind teams down.
In a 2010 poll run by The Guardian, 58 percent of readers supported the notion that Spain were "boring." After the first round of group matches in South Africa, which yielded a record low for goals, BBC sports editor David Bond came out with what everybody was thinking. "It's official - this is the most boring World Cup in history," Bond wrote.
Looking back, B/R's tactical analyst, Sam Tighe, believes Jose Mourinho was partly responsible:
Only a few teams really went for it at World Cup 2010. It was the birth of 4-2-3-1 and that can be attributed to Jose Mourinho's successes with Inter Milan (Inter won the Treble in 2010). There were also a lot tired players playing within themselves after long domestic seasons. Only two or three teams really attacked—Germany, Chile and Argentina being the obvious ones.
The big question is whether Brazil 2014 can deliver the antidote—an attacking feast where the strongest teams go for the jugular and we get served with the tournament the heritage of Brazilian football deserves. It's not that Spain should be criticised, just that the world is ready to be entertained in a different way. The world wants an answer.
Being the tournament with the greatest concentration of potential World Cup influencers, the Champions League is a good place to look for clues. The stats hint that we can look forward to a far more open World Cup in 2014.
Inter won the 2009-10 tournament averaging just 1.31 goals-per-game. Barcelona took that number to 2.31 for 2010-11, with Chelsea at 1.92 on their way to unlikely triumph in 2012. If we look at the quarter-finalists this season, four of the eight (Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Juventus and PSG) are at over two for that number (stats as per UEFA).
Examining the last eight, only Juventus would be deemed to have a world-class defence. Barcelona, Madrid and even Bayern, though solid, have been found vulnerable. Their most influential players are in attacking roles and thus their default route to victory is by trying to out-score the opposition.
The goals-per-game average for the 2012-13 tournament so far is higher than it's finished for at least a decade, at 2.95. The balance of power appears to have shifted from those who stop goals to those who score them.
The Premier League is another place to look for evidence. There's been much said about the standard of defending in England's top flight this season and the glut of goals we've witnessed.
"It pains me to say it as a defender but it seems that keeping clean sheets is becoming a lost art," said former Arsenal man Martin Keown in November 2012, as per the Daily Mail. "I think the main reason for the leaky defences is a positive one. Managers this season are looking to play expansive, attractive football."
Outside of Spain, who continue to play to their stifling 4-3-3 blueprint, a theme of more cavalier, attack-minded sides with vulnerable defences emerge when we look at potential World Cup 2014 challengers. Hosts Brazil are the obvious example, with Argentina and perhaps Germany (particularly on the evidence of shipping four against Sweden) in that category also.
"Sometimes, I have to cover my face when the opponents are attacking," said Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella recently, as per BBC.
There also appears a greater weight of world-class attacking talent to draw from as we look towards Brazil next summer. Along with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, there should be genuine excitement about watching the likes of Radamel Falcao, Neymar, Eden Hazard, Stephan El Shaarawy, Mario Balotelli, Edinson Cavani (should Uruguay make it), Marco Reus and Mario Gotze—to name but a few.
Creative, attack-minded players have been to the fore in the Premier League and the Champions League this season, not to mention in Spain and Germany. Hopefully that bodes well for the fare we're served at Brazil 2014.
Nobody should expect a return to the free-scoring orgy that was the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, which produced an average of 5.38 goals per game, but it does feel as though the dour attrition of South Africa 2010 has prompted a natural reaction away from negative tactics.
Coaches are looking for the answer to Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 and an answer to Spain. It might just be that the answer comes in a form to entertain the masses and starts a new trend in the opposite direction.
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