Organisation Trumps Individual Brilliance in Tighter World Cup Knockout Rounds

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Organisation Trumps Individual Brilliance in Tighter World Cup Knockout Rounds
Buda Mendes/Getty Images

For a while, this looked like being the World Cup of the individual. There was a period in the group stage when it felt like 1994 all over again: Every team had their starusually, but not necessarily, a playmaker.

Brazil had Neymar, Argentina had Lionel Messi, Colombia had James Rodriguez, the Netherlands had Arjen Robben, France had Karim Benzema. Even the sides that failed had a star looking anguished—most notably Cristiano Ronaldo looking in disgust at his Portugal team-mates.

At first that was endearing. There was a strange sense of chaos to the football as the familiar pattern of international football lagging five or so years behind the club game was repeated, but inexpertly.

It has become increasingly common in the club game for teams to press high up the pitch, look to win the ball early and hit their opponent before the defence has the time to set itself. As the game has undergone a process of "Bielsaficacion," transitions have become a buzzword. 

The trend had been for international sides to sit deep—the lack of time available to national coaches leading them to favour the lowest common denominator, the most cautious approach—but this tournament, at least at first, broadly saw the opposite.

Given that lack of time for finessing the approach, the pressing was often not as well organised as it might have been, the result being a host of teams leaving space behind their defensive line and being exposed.

The group stage yielded 2.83 goals per game, unheard of riches in recent times as a sense of giddiness prevailed. All that, though, rather dried up in the knockouts.

In part that was because the better-organised teams went through, and because teams became better organised as the tournament went on. And in part it was because those sides who were over-reliant on one creator found him shut down—which is, of course, always the problem if a team funnels their attacks through one hub.

Chile showed how Neymar could be closed down, and Brazil had ruthlessly clipped James Rodriguez's wings, even before Juan Camilo Zuniga's clumsy challenge ended Neymar's tournament.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

In the end, the two sides who have reached the final are the ones that best combine individual excellence with the team unit.

Germany's front four have a mesmerising capacity to interchange, something born of long, repetitive practice on the training ground. The restoration of the Sami Khedira-Bastian Schweinsteiger partnership at the back of midfield has given the defence increased protection, with Philipp Lahm's return to right-back offering attacking width from deep. 

The victory over France in the quarter-final hinted at better balance than they'd had in their opening four games, when their high-pressing game too often left them open. The victory over Brazil in the semi, breathtaking as it was, merely confirmed what had been apparent since the last World Cup: This Germany is supremely good at finishing off opponents who lose their discipline.

Argentina will not collapse in the same way in the final. They will be tough and steely, as they were in winning their own semi-final, against the Netherlands, sitting deep to protect their slow back four. They may be reliant on Messi for inspiration going forward, but they also have an impressively solid foundation for him, one in which Javier Mascherano has been exceptional. 

After all the excitement of the opening weeks, all the sense of celebrity stars leading teams, all the openness and space, the two teams who will contest the final have far more familiar virtues.

They are disciplined and resolute, have improved as the tournament has gone on and, for all the talented individuals in their squads, have the discipline as a team to follow a tactical plan. System has reasserted itself.   

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