The early stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup brought plenty of excitement and incidents, with viewers experiencing a host of games during the group stage that quickly racked up an average of more than three goals per game.
Fast forward to the round of 16, though, and a considerable drop in the goal tally has been immediately evident: 19 goals in eight games. Of those, only 12 actually came in the initial 90 minutes of games.
There are perhaps a number of reasons why this has been the case, and it doesn't necessarily stem from teams abandoning the attacking emphasis of their games that marked the opening fixtures at the finals in Brazil.
Gap Between Teams
A less gung-ho approach is a natural course of events as important tournaments progress at the international level, unless the teams taking part are exceptionally good, exceptionally brave or exceptionally reckless.
Even though the 2014 World Cup has been extremely entertaining so far, there isn't much question that there have not been too many "very good" teams around. Some have been impressive going forward but poor in defence, or vice versa, but only maybe Chile, Colombia and France, plus Germany at times, have shown an aptitude to do both along with controlling games and finding victories.
Other traditionally good sides or nations expected to do well this time have fallen short in some matches, even if they still remain in the competition.
What the likes of Costa Rica, Greece and Algeria have shown is that where there is a clear plan in place and players who suit a system and will work hard for the team cause, the gap between the "big teams" and the smaller is decreasingly visible.
Germany coach Jogi Low explains how his side has found attacking space hard to come by, per Reuters:
It's not a stroll in the park in the World Cup. There are always some matches like this in a tournament where you have teams that fight hard, where the opponents are defending really tough and playing aggressively. You need matches like this one at the World Cup. At some point you've got to expect a match will go into extra time.
Invariably, where those more fancied nations have triumphed has been on account of an individual or partnership being better in attack and ultimately just being able to give that little bit extra where it counts most. Argentina's Lionel Messi has been the biggest indication of this so far in Brazil.
8 - Lionel Messi created 8 chances against Switzerland, the most for a player in one game this World Cup. Artistic.— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) July 1, 2014
Pressure and Expectation
Of course, some teams travel to the World Cup hoping to win, while some just hope to get out of the group stages. Once through the last 16, though, it becomes a matter of historical significance and importance. One more single victory, by whatever means necessary, could mean breaking a decades-old hoodoo, giving confidence that a run to the final is possible—or even heralding the greatest international success of a particular nation ever.
In some cases, that kind of pressure brings about a will to not lose rather than an urge to win.
As a result, a more safety-first outlook is not unexpected or ill-advised.
Greece vs. Costa Rica was a pretty good example of such, with neither side having ever been as far as the last eight before. It was tight and tense. There was a defence-first approach, and, partly because of that, there was a lack of attacking plan in place—particularly visible from the Greeks when they were playing against 10 men.
Brazil themselves, by contrast, dare not lose at such an "early" stage and have been unable to get their best form to the tournament. Perhaps the pressure of expectation has played a big part on the individuals in the side, rather than the overall tactics of the team, which has been settled for the past two years.
Conditions and Game Time
One other factor to note is, of course, the conditions the players take part in. Yes, they are the same as the conditions for the group games, but the difference is the match itself. A group game is over after 90 minutes, and, save for the last round, there is another chance to rectify errors soon after.
The knockout games sees teams in the knowledge that if they go all out too early—pressing, counter-attacking in numbers, overcommitting and having to race back—they could be a spent force by the time extra time rolls around.
Five of the eight last-16 matches went to extra time. Concede a goal in the last 30 minutes, and, as Algeria and Switzerland have found out to their cost, time is short to muster both the energy and influence on the game to find a response.
The United States mounted perhaps the most spirited comeback of all in the final 30—but the two goals they conceded early on in extra time also proved just a bridge too far.