A Russian Retrospective

It’s been a week since France finally won the major trophy this group of players has deserved for the last two and a half years or so, thumping a team of Croatian endurance runners 4-2 to add a second star to the jersey, another set of names to the pantheon of footballing greats, and a giant projection of Olivier Giroud’s face to the Arc de Triomphe. With the return of club football – and the Greatest League In The World – merely weeks away, I’d like to cast a gaze over the great French triumph, the Great German disaster, and the Tony Pulis vindication that took place in Russia over the last month.

The Tony Pulis World Cup

Much has been made of the fact that this World Cup has been won and lost by the fortunes of defenders’ foreheads as much as it has the skill of forwards’ feet; the 70 goals from set pieces were a record, well up from the 62 nodded, poked and slotted in from dead balls into the area in France 98, the previous record.

Everyone – including the anonymous drones operating the blog posts on the FIFA website – has a theory for the increased decisiveness of set pieces. Some have suggested many teams’ plonking of two banks of four behind the ball to defend has reduced the number of goals from open play and thus inflated the percentage of goals scored from set pieces, while others point to Gareth Southgate’s marvellous reintroduction of the great English tradition of queuing to the 18 yard box as a reason for the increasingly close relationship between football and Harry Maguire’s ample forehead.

My pet theory is that as the aforementioned banks of four-plonking has set in across the club game, fewer and fewer wingers and full-backs are able to get in behind the defence and fizz low crosses in from the byline. As a result, the primary means of attacking in wide areas is for a full-back – or wing-back – to cross the ball from a 45 degree angle to the penalty area, a trend which has produced several defenders very capable of hitting accurate balls into the box from exactly the sort of too-wide-for-a-shot, to-close-not-to-take-seriously positions free kicks tend to be given away from. The England wing-backs, Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young, for instance, can count crossing as some of their best attributes, and it’s no surprise that English wing-backs were thus responsible for all manner of Three Lions set pieces, with Trent Alexander-Arnold responsible for taking corners in the group game against Belgium.

Of course, this is all largely entertaining from an English perspective, as the team was a hair’s breadth and a pint of wine away from being led into the World Cup by one of English football’s premier Get It In The Mixer merchants, Sam Allardyce. At a tournament were Yerry Mina was a more reliable goal threat than Falcao, perhaps Big Sam’s Big Plan, of fielding a 4-4-2 spearheaded by the heading prowess of Harry Kane and Andy Carroll, with Wayne Rooney tucked in behind to pick up the second ball, may well have catapulted us one game further than Gareth Southgate and his curious ideals of ‘passing’ and ‘moving’.

Vladimir Assisted Referring

VARgy-bargy. Iran feeling VARd done-by. The aforementioned joke in the subheading I shamelessly stole from Twitter without so much as a throwaway reference to the wordsmith responsible for it. This was the big, international debut of looking at football on a screen, which human beings have done for generations, but which had until now remained an alien concept to that strangest cousin of the human, the football referee.

There was much hand-wringing over the typically vague and never consistently-enforced terminology of VAR and it’s need for there to be a ‘clear and obvious’ reason for the VAR team to get some good old VARing done. Iran’s goal being cruelly, yet fairly, chalked off against Spain; England winning seven hundred and sixteen penalties against Panama for endlessly 619ing red-shirted players in the box; that handball in the final; VAR has not eliminated daft, confusing and game-changing decisions, but that was never the point. At least in my mind, the very limited conditions within which replays can be used means that VAR was never intended to diminish the power of the referee, or de-subjectivise the enforcement of the laws of the game. Quite the opposite, the ability of a referee to perceive the game beyond that which his mere mortal eyes offer them enables that subjectivity to permeate into yet more aspects of the game. No longer are relays reviewed by a shadowy tribunal of officials to determine retroactive punishments, but they too fall under the authority of the Man in the Middle who, let’s not forget, has been responsible for a triple-yellow card as recently as 2006.

Ultimately, VAR seemed to frustrate a great number of fans, both hardcore and casual, for failing to remove subjectivity and dubious decisions from the game. But VAR, in its current form, could never do that; for as long as the final authority rests with a single official, the referee, all the bells, whistles, slow-mo replays and goal-line cameras in the world will only grant the referee more scope and power with which to be subjective, to be wrong, and to be criticised. I think VAR was largely a success at the tournament, insofar as it removed most of the terrible oversights that will inevitably come when four people try to keep track of 22 other people across an area of eight square kilometres without rioting in the streets, but that it needs to go further. More officials need to be able to influence the outcome, not merely recommend the consultation, of video replays if we are to remove human error from the human office of refereeing for good. That is, if we want to remove such errors in the first place.

The death of the individual

This section comes with an asterisk, and a hint at a more general point that perhaps drawing sweeping narrative conclusions about the state of world football, and the trends contained therein, from a tournament that is really little more than 64 exhibition matches played at the end of a far more difficult 10-month season, is folly.  The asterisk, of course, is that 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo was able to more-or-less single-handedly earn Portugal a point in their opening game against Spain, with a sublime hat-trick that made him the oldest man to tuck, rifle and curl three balls into the back of a net in World Cup finals history.

However, his star quickly faded against the combined footballing might of Morocco and Iran, while the tournament’s other star names – a title I am basing almost exclusively off the amount of hype the players receive when their cards are unveiled in FIFA Ultimate Team pack openings – Lionel Messi and Neymar, floundered.

All of the teams that were too reliant on a single player – particularly in attack – faltered. Portugal failed to overcome a similarly reliant Uruguay team, who went one round better by virtue of hanging their collective hat on two players, Cavani and Suarez, rather than one, who were then themselves dismantled by a far more cohesive French side. Argentina scraped through a group containing the smallest nation ever to play at a finals by a single point, and while Brazil impressed in patches, they quickly came unstuck when they faced an opposing side of real quality – and, again, varied attacking threats – in Belgium.

The death of the team

Yet the opposite is also true, the World Cup once again refusing to be bent into convenient and coherent retrospective narratives. Spain, the side that tipped and tapped their way to the top of the world in 2010, lost to a Russian side relying on long balls up to a big bloke and a jolly helping of patriotic flag-waving from the crowds, affirming the death, at the very highest level anyway, of relentless possession fetishisation and attacking fluidity of the Ajax model.

England suffered a similar fate. The Three Lions were the passingest team at the tournament – I know, surprising, isn’t it – but ingeniously did all of their passing thirty yards further back than their Spanish counterparts, never once exposing themselves to being hit on the counter attack or, God forbid, actually threaten the opposition goal from open play. By my count, for all of the passing ideals of this England team, two goals were scored in open play, and neither against sides of particular quality: Jesse Lingard against Panama, and Dele against Sweden. The latter even came from a looping cross in from the wing, making it visually, if not technically, very similar to a set piece goal.

England’s adversaries Belgium can also be lumped into this category; a side possessing the collective creative talents of Edin Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and, apparently, Nacer Chadli, ought to have passed and moved their opponents back into the 1920s and, for periods, especially against Brazil in the quarter-final, they did just that. But perhaps there was too much fluidity, too much implicit trust in the players to key into each other’s movements and pick out passes as and when needed, the footballing equivalent of a dungeon master who prepares little ahead of a session, and relies entirely on their abilities in improvisation and creativity to carry the day. It can work in a salvo against Japan, or a tussle with Brazil, but against a side as structured and disciplined as France, the idea of playing Chadli and De Bruyne as wing-backs suddenly falls a little flat.

A water-carrier’s victory

Returning, at last, to the French, I would conclude that their victory is not the result of having the best single strategy, as it was the Spanish’s in 2010, or the result of being the most cohesive team, as was the Germans’ in 2014, but of having a range of tactics and styles, that can be executed effectively, and moved between at will.

At times, the French sat deep and defended, as they did for much of the second half of the final against Croatia, Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane and Hugo Lloris repelling all manner of chequered-shirted onslaughts (save for the one that Lloris gave to the Croatians, presumably because he had a tenner on Mandžukić to score in both ends). Then, they were able to eviscerate teams on the counter-attack, not simply hoofing the ball into the space opened up by over-zealous attacking, but by pulling defenders to and fro, creating space and panic in the back halves of teams, and capitalising with brutal efficiency, as the peerless Kylian Mbappé did in the twelfth minute against Argentina in the second round, hurtling into space behind the South Americans’ startled back four to win a penalty.

Between these two ends of the team was a midfield second only to Croatia’s in craft, and second only to England’s in hard running. Paul Pogba was disciplined when needed, and able to spray passes around the pitch like a young Tom Brady when the opportunity arose, as we saw with his Pavard-esque sliced pass to Mbappé to set up his own goal in the final. N’Golo Kanté, Blaise Matuidi and Corentin Tolisso ran and hustled, but also passed and moved, spreading out to the wings to cover or support the advancing runs of Antoine Griezmann, or tucking in to give Pogba a passing option, or an extra body to harass ballcarriers with. As the French formations morphed from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 to even 4-4-2, the engine room shifted too, intelligent players doing not what they necessarily expected themselves to be doing, but doing exactly what they realised they needed to be doing.

And, of course, they had the elements of quality – Pavard’s goal, Pogba’s pass to Mbappé in the final – and luck – Argentina being rubbish in the second round, Ivan Perišić’s non-handball three games later- any champion needs. But it is worth pointing out that their route to the final was perhaps the hardest route any team could have faced; Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium is a gauntlet of sides who could all have had reasonable assumptions of bringing it home themselves on the eve of the tournament, and while Croatia’s relentless crawl through extra time and penalties was the stuff of legend, Denmark, Russia and England was a much easier draw on paper.

A lot of this – all of it, the flexibility, discipline and mental resilience to take on, and defeat, all comers – is down to Deschamps. As a player, he Got Stuff Done, one who would put in the hard yards for others to benefit from. The nickname ‘water-carrier’ may be intended as an insult, but it was his prioritisation of discipline, team cohesion and sleeves-rolled-up job-doing that formed the backbone of this team, both in its selection – playing a centre-half at full-back who went on to score the goal of the tournament, or shaping an attack without players such as Alexandre Lacazette and Karim Benzema in a way that did not blunt the unit’s effectiveness – and how well the team performed in games.

As I’ve noted, drawing too many conclusions about the most effective way to play football, or trying to determine the ‘best’ way to play, from the World Cup is something of a fool’s errand. But in a tournament of endless twists and turns – the final alone had an own goal, a penalty, goals from set pieces, otherworldy attacking moves, hilarious goalkeeping blunders and Pussy Riot – it’s no surprise that it was the toughest, most flexible, and most clinical team that won the day.

Now, we have four years of Manchester City seven-nilling their way to consecutive Premier League titles before we can enjoy something like this again, so we’d better get printing those Qatar 2022 wallcharts as soon as.

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