A couple of days off between the quarterfinals and semifinals gives us a chance to reflect on what has happened so far across the 60 games of World Cup action we have enjoyed up to now. There have been many notable occurrences so far: France and Italy’s early exits, the debate over goal-line technology, Ghana’s achievements and the handball that ended them, and the curse of the vuvuzela.
All these are significant, but one thing that is really worth looking at is perhaps slightly less controversial, but equally important: the return of the defence. To borrow a phrase from American Football, “Offense wins games, defense wins championships,” seems to be the order of the day at this year’s World Cup.
The four teams who have reached the semifinals bear this out well; in the 20 games they have played between them, Uruguay, Holland, Germany, and Spain have conceded only ten goals.
An astonishingly watertight set of defences have been vital to their progression into the final four and will surely play a key part in the next two games of whoever lifts the trophy on July 11.
For all the talk of the trouble the Jabulani ball would cause goalkeepers, there has been very little follow-through into the games. A couple of high profile keeper errors aside, there has been little in the way of Jabulani related chaos, and the flurry of long-range goals that some had predicted is yet to happen.
If anything the ball seems to have caused more trouble for attacking players than defences and may have contributed to this potentially record-breaking goal drought.
The lowest scoring World Cup on record is the 1990 tournament which saw an average of 2.21 goals a game, but with its current mark of an average of 2.22 goals a game, this year looks set to run that record close. With the four defensive units that remain, there is a fair chance that this may very well become the lowest scoring World Cup of all-time.
So what’s the cause of this lack of goals? Here are five big reasons:
1. The South American Way
This may seem strange to say in the immediate aftermath of Argentina shipping four goals to Germany and Brazil looking so vulnerable to set-pieces against Holland, but up to that point South America had led the way defensively. This was particularly prominent in the group stages, where Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina conceded a measly six goals across their 15 games.
Forget all the clichés about South American’s penchant for all-out attack and obsession with flair, the 2010 editions of these sides are well drilled and defensively astute, with even Maradona’s influence on Argentina not enough to hamper that. Well, at least until they met those free-flowing Germans.
2. Misfiring stars
Think about it. How many of the world’s top players have performed at this World Cup, particularly in front of goal? Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, and Fernando Torres, the Premier League’s top three strikers, have each drawn a blank in the tournament.
Of course each could point to injury problems going into the tournament, and Torres still has a chance to break his duck, but the drought is surprising nonetheless.
We must also mention the world’s best player in this respect. Lionel Messi played reasonably well and seemed to do everything except score in Argentina’s five games, but ultimately he drew a blank despite having more shots than any other player.
Kaka went goalless, Ronaldo’s only goal was the sixth of Portugal’s seven against North Korea, Robin van Persie has led the line in all five of Holland’s games and has only one goal; the list goes on.
Of course there have been exceptions (Villa, Higuain, Forlan, anyone in a Germany shirt), but generally the world’s top attacking players have fallen short this time around.
3. Negative tactics
Switzerland, Greece and Ivory Coast were among the main culprits for this one. A plethora of sides seemed content to barely cross the halfway line for most of their matches, particularly against the better sides in their group.
They showed virtually no ambition and hoped to nick a goal on the break, which sometimes paid off (Switzerland against Spain, New Zealand against Italy) but more often than not was their undoing (Switzerland versus both Chile and Honduras, Greece against South Korea and Argentina, Ivory Coast against Portugal).
Greece’s Otto Rehagel, Switzerland’s Ottmar Hitzfeld, and good old Sven with Ivory Coast were undoubtedly intent on not losing rather than trying to win, and many a football purist would have been pleased to see them fail to get out of the group stage.
This was most perfectly encapsulated in the final half hour of New Zealand’s final group game with Paraguay. With the result of the Slovakia-Italy game as it was, a goal for New Zealand would have allowed them to top the group, yet they seemed completely devoid of attacking impetus. This may have been a simple lack of quality, but one can’t help wonder what might have been if they had thrown everything at the South Americans in the closing stages rather than settling for not losing.
4. One goal up is usually enough
Only twice in the group stage (Greece over ten-man Nigeria and Denmark over Cameroon) and once in the knockout stages (Holland knocking out Brazil) has a team come from behind to win the game, with a one goal lead often decisive in games at this tournament.
Many teams, most notably Holland, Spain, and Germany (albeit with occasional help from a Uruguayan assistant referee), have proved to be highly adept at shutting the game down once they are a goal up.
This hasn’t necessarily been a negative, with the teams often holding their lead through large spells of pretty passing. But only the Germans have gone on to secure victory by scoring another goal or two, with the other teams seemingly happy to run the risk of settling for a one goal advantage.
Possession is fine, but if you don’t use your spell of dominance to push for a second goal, it can come back to haunt you; just ask Brazil.
5. The 4-2-3-1 is King
The most fashionable formation among most of the top teams at this World Cup, and one continually ignored by Fabio Capello, is the 4-2-3-1. This is far from a negative formation if you have the talent in your attacking midfield trio, as Germany’s trident of Lukas Podolski, Mesut Ozil, and Thomas Muller have showcased so spectacularly, but the two defensive midfielders do provide a lot of defensive protection.
This time around it seems to have been employed by many of the World’s top-ranked nations, each with their own version of the pairing: Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva for Brazil, Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel for Holland, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira for Germany, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Anthony Annan for Ghana.
These pairings are not limited to defence alone, with one of the two given the freedom to break forward on occasion or build attacks with their passing range, but make no mistake, their main responsibility is to stop the team conceding and get the ball to one of the midfielders in front of them so that they can work their magic or feed the lone striker.
For the most part, the system seems to have worked for the teams who have employed it, particualrly at the defensive end, but it may just end up being a big reason why this World Cup is remembered as one where goals were few and far between.