May 27, 2023

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World Cup trends: the quality of standards deteriorated, everyone made the game easier, possession prevented winning, and adaptations under the stars helped

High Angle View Of Various Sport Equipments On Green Grass

Vadim Lukomsky – about the tactical lessons of Qatar-2022. 

“We missed you so much,” Jamie Carragher enthused on Thursday after the Manchester City-Liverpool match. – Club football is a completely different level compared to national teams. Yes, I am also impressed by the shots from Argentina – there are a lot of emotions there, but in terms of quality football teams cannot compete with such matches.”

The Athletic tactical expert Michael Cox wrote a positive column based on the World Cup, but also noted that the tournament is good precisely because of the emotions and the set of memorable moments: “If you sit down and seriously analyze the quality of the tournament, then the World Cup will hardly reach the status of “more or less good”. This World Cup failed in many ways. Often the first halves were monstrously slow (especially in the group stage, where exactly half of the 48 matches were left without goals at half-time). Teams only defended and played so compactly that the creators, with the exception of a couple of truly great players, could not think of anything. It was impossible to attack through the center.”

In the 21st century, the World Cup no longer serves as an exhibition of ideas and does not provide an opportunity to look into the future in terms of tactical trends. Now big tournaments for national teams are about survival in extreme conditions and desperate attempts to compensate for the lack of detail that exists at the club level.

This is also extremely interesting. It’s just that the tactical trends of the World Cup should be treated accordingly. This is a guide to coaching in anomalous conditions and a real-time experiment (what can be done quickly, and what can not work). In Qatar 2022, most teams had only a week of clean time before the tournament, so the described features of national team tournaments have multiplied.

Let’s figure out what problems this gave rise to and how the coaches tried to get around them.

The teams didn’t know what to do with the ball. Possession often got in the way of winning

In 2016, Carlo Ancelotti, in a column for The Telegraph, described the reason for the simplification of the Euros and the World Cup: “The national team coaches get very little time to train with the selected squad between the end of the season and the start of the tournament, so sacrifices are inevitable on their part. It takes hours of practice to teach a team to patiently come out of defense and develop short passing offenses, unless we are talking about Spain, which has a bunch of players who learn this all their lives.

An alternative, easier way is to bet on counter-attacking football. To do this, you need to organize the defense well and train the players not to panic under the pressure of the enemy in order to catch him on the counterattack at the right time due to the presence of fast forwards, always ready to open up.

Belgian coach Roberto Martínez elegantly revealed the same problem ahead of Euro 2020: “At club level, you have 60 pre-season training sessions to organize the team. At the national team level, the same work needs to fit into three training sessions.

In Qatar, this problem was more urgent than ever. The two main avenues for national teams in recent years have been to simplify the game (rejecting difficult ideas and often possessions in principle) or copying club connections with minimal upgrades (basic club). Usually, both methods can produce results if implemented correctly. Only the first one worked at the 2022 World Cup.

“I have been working at the national team level for a long time. Before the World Cup in Brazil, we had 28 days to prepare, in Russia – 24 days. Now it’s only a week. For such a period it is impossible to work out something seriously, ”complained France coach Didier Deschamps.

Predictably, the main victim of this approach was the ball game. Pretty much everyone chose to organize without the ball (it’s faster) and believe in skill/natural connections between offensive players. Spain coach Luis Enrique said that even this limited tactical work was done through video – without full practice on the field: “In terms of tactical theory, we train on video more than on the field. Some players do very different jobs at clubs but try very hard to adapt to our requirements.”

The result has been a clear advantage for teams that spend more time without the ball. The Moroccan national team illustrates this trend – never before has a team with such modest possession reached the semi-finals:


In the 21st century, only Uruguay 2010 has done something similar, but not so radically. The words of the Moroccan coach Walid Regraga fit brilliantly into this picture: “We play in the style that we know best. What is the meaning of 70% possession on two hits? I will ask Infantino to give an extra point to teams that have more than 60% possession of the ball. We came here to win, not to own the ball.”

Another important point is the update of the anti-record for possession in the winning match for the team. Japan beat Spain at 17.7%, the lowest score ever won by a winning team since 1966.

At the distance of the entire tournament, the trend also works. Only in 25 out of 64 matches did the winner have more possession of the ball than the opponent. This is the smallest value in the modern history of the World Cup (after the transition to 32 teams). The Athletic converted this data to points per game (taking into account draws) – and came up with similar conclusions: a lower percentage of ownership guarantees a positive result more often than a higher one.

To fully comprehend the data, one must keep in mind that the ball is often in possession of the favorite. Notional France owns the ball more than Australia, not because it’s a deliberate style trait, but because they’re given the ball. At the same time, the victory of France is more likely with any styles of teams. In matches of approximately equal rivals, the statistics will be even more egregious.

This is partly why in such meetings in the group stage there was a feeling that both teams were trying to give the ball away. Xavi noted this: “I watched almost all the matches. The teams are very focused on the result. There are few teams with an attacking style in the tournament. Everyone thinks first of all about defense. The only exceptions, perhaps, are Spain and Brazil – the rest are waiting for mistakes.

Waiting for mistakes is a very accurate description of the tournament. The trend of low possession wins is well complemented by another trend – a decrease in the number of continuous possessions per match. That is, the ball rarely passes from team to team. In 2010, matches averaged 96 possessions. Since then, this figure has been declining from tournament to tournament. In 2022, there were only 87 possessions per match.

In practice, this means that more often than ever before, we have seen a situation in which one team has the ball without visible resistance from the other, but has little idea what to do with it.

This is especially noticeable at the beginning of the matches, which were the most unprincipled (further goals or the pressure of the result forced us to act more actively). Only 18% of goals were scored in the first 30 minutes of matches. With an even distribution, one would expect about a third of the goals (actually, a little less, since this 30-minute without stoppage time, but 18% is an anomaly, which well reflects the problem of lack of ideas). In the Premier League, 28.9% score in this segment; in Ligue 1 (the lowest of the top 5 leagues) – 26.4%.

The reason for the low level of positional attacks is more or less clear. A more interesting question is why the teams camouflaged her so badly – sometimes they didn’t even try and dragged us into boredom. This is clearly seen in the example of the most common and banal method of masking problems – long-range strikes. Seemingly an obvious solution when you don’t know how to open a defensive opponent, but in Qatar they were approached less often than ever before. The average distance from the goal at shots dropped to 14.5 meters.

In 2010, more than half of the strikes were long-range – 55%. Now – only 39% (historic low). On the one hand, this fits well with modern trends – club football is also less likely to hit from afar. On the other hand, in the conditions described, they directly suggested themselves.

Pep Guardiola’s former assistant at City, Juanma Lillo, offered a simple hypothesis – modern players are not able to rebuild (almost everyone has a good base, but problems with improvisation and initiative): “It is true that now we hardly see bad players. But there are also fewer outstanding ones. In trying to kill the bad guys, we killed the good guys too.”

The importance of standards has drastically declined. This is contrary to the trends of the last World Cup

Another way to disguise a problem in attack is to develop after set pieces. There was a real collapse here – and this, unlike long-range shots, is at odds with both club trends and previous national team tournaments. 25 goals after set pieces against 51 at the 2018 World Cup:


To some extent, the drop is due to the nature of the matches. The features described above (low pace, low number of ball transitions from team to team) that reduced the number of attempts. But the implementation also dipped noticeably: the teams showed the worst efficiency in terms of transforming set pieces into strikes and goals.

It is a fact. How to interpret it is a big question. The simplest explanation is that standards are another victim of lack of preparation time. The whole emphasis was placed on the organization of the game without the ball. Such an interpretation suggests itself, because there is definitely no trend towards a decrease in the importance of standards in world football – there is a reverse trend (inviting special coaches for free kicks / corners / outs and increasingly subtle rallies).

The most memorable standard of the tournament, Wout Weghorst’s goal against Argentina, can serve as an ironic epitome of the trend. The Netherlands national team was praised for the cold-blooded performance of the homework at the most intense moment of the match. Only later, Louis van Gaal honestly admitted that this goal was an unsuccessful drawing of another blank. A rare case when lack of time helped.

Giving the ball, the teams almost did not sit in the penalty area. The main stage of the tournament is the middle block

Now official FIFA statistics measure how much time a team spends in the middle block – without active pressure, but not near the box either. This is part of a new statistic introduced at the initiative of Arsene Wenger – therefore, it will not be possible to compare the proportion of time in this stage with other World Championships. There is a strong feeling that the teams addressed the middle block most often.

There are radical exceptions on both sides. For example Poland and Costa Rica as explicit buses with no middle block claim. Germany and Spain as teams with the desire to always press. But most of the teams often turned to the middle block. It could be the top teams, who are waiting for the moment to start pressing, and the underdogs, who are waiting for mistakes and a chance to counterattack.

Perhaps the most memorable example is the victory of Saudi Arabia over Argentina in the first round. The Saudis had 31% ball possession, but caught the opponent offside 10 times. That is, the team owned the ball at the level of a classic bus, but to call them that way the language did not turn, as they were located high and left space for the opponent to open behind their backs.

Saudi Arabia is a radical example. They could pay dearly for such courage (even against Argentina they were lucky) – often the defense was too high, and the players with the ball were not given the necessary pressure. But choosing a bold defensive path (even at 31% possession) was obvious and highly deliberate.

A more balanced version of this football is the Morocco national team. A typical pattern from any Regraga team match is a perfect 4-1-4-1 in the middle block (they got into the box only at the very end of the matches):

Top teams have often found themselves in a similar position due to their refusal to press high. For example, the Brazilian national team waited with the help of the middle block, then to intensively choke opponents on the flanks:

Perhaps, it is the tools and interactions of teams within the middle block that are the most interesting element to study at this World Cup. In club football, the styles of underdogs and favorites are much more distinct. Perfected variations of the game in the middle block can diversify the current picture.

At the World Cup, such an arrangement during defense was categorically frequent, which led to a number of side trends:

1. Man-marking key opponent players

In the waiting mode of the middle block, it is extremely important to neutralize the opponent’s players who are able to aggravate in one pass (since the defense is not in the penalty area, there is where to throw). Often the middle block was combined with selective personals.

Louis van Gaal resorted to this technique in varying degrees in every match. This is how the Netherlands held back the US midfield:

France used a man-mark for Amrabat and Unai in the semi-finals:

Argentina turned off Marcelo Brozovic through a personal assignment from Julián Alvarez:

Well, the classic – Youssef En-Nesiri as the shadow of Sergi Busquets in the match Spain – Morocco:

The combination of techniques (personal guardianship and the middle block) is quite logical. With the right choice of dangerous opponent players, you can turn off the rally stage and make the ball roll sterile.

Less dangerous players get time and space, but this is based on the poor quality of the pass, the lack of coordination between the passer and the opener, and the readiness of their own defenders to read the pass. The bet on such personal computers was often justified.

2. Goals after protracted passes

One of the most mysterious trends of the tournament is goals after categorically long reshuffles. England in the match with Iran updated the record for the number of assists before a goal – 35. But even more powerful is the fact that the 4 longest scoring attacks in the history of the World Cup happened in Qatar 2022:

What’s more, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, the US and Belgium also set their personal bests for most assists before a goal. At first glance, this is at odds with the trend “teams played poorly in positional attack.” But if you analyze the goals, you can find a common element.

The team passes for a long time (sometimes without a clear goal), the opponent is in the middle block, the opponent still manages to be lured into pressure, which the team passes and punishes in space. Most of the lingering goals were just that. A reference example is the attack of the Netherlands against the USA .

3. It’s time for us to learn the term “cutback”

Cutback is one of the main terms in English tactical jargon. In Russian there is a long analogue – “rollback under attack.” But, perhaps, it’s time to learn the original (or come up with a separate Russian word) – there were a lot of goals and chances after this type of attack.

Defending against this technique is more difficult than against backaches or overhangs. As a rule, the pass should be to a player who is not in the penalty area, but runs. Midfielders and defenders often get confused when passing at such moments, therefore, you can hit almost freely.

At the 2022 World Cup, records were set for the number of strikes (132), goals (18) and xG (14.7) after cutbacks. That is, such attacks were more frequent and more dangerous than in any other tournament for which there is advanced data (since 2010). The growth since the 2010 World Cup is also indicative: over 12 years, the sharpness of cutbacks has more than doubled (from 6.7 to 14.7 xG), and the number of attacks with them has increased by almost 30.

That is, the teams not only use the technique more actively, but also defend the cutback zone worse.

Where is the connection with the middle block? It is used to block the center and send the opponent to the flanks (this has been more successful than in any other World Cup). This made flank play more important. The most effective way to create momentum from the flanks through quality rather than quantity is cutbacks.

Their effectiveness was also aided by personal supervision. Some players in these challenges would get stuck with their opponent, leaving the cutback area more open.

Attacking players are not afraid to shift to more defensive positions

According to Deschamps, France formed into an integral team precisely after the decision to make Antoine Griezmann an eight. The coach loaded the Atlético forward with an additional amount of defensive work, leaving his former powers in attack. Antoine was ubiquitous and literally glued the team together in problem areas.

Similar work was done by Lucas Paqueta in the Brazilian national team – he started as a defensive midfielder next to Casemiro in 4-2-3-1 (he plowed well at this stage), and performed creative functions in attack. Even Portugal Fernando Santos flirted with the idea of ​​Bernardo Silva as a point guard, even if they did not realize this idea as a starter.

It has become normal practice to move attacking players deeper in the pattern. Benefits – Due to creativity, such a player can mask the lack of ideas in positional attacks. Potential harm (imbalance off the ball) was compensated either by the performance of this player, or by faith in the scheme (defense due to compactness and team displacements).

Similar tricks were used with defenders. City defender Rodri played the entire tournament as a central defender. Sid Low called it a “false four” (perhaps it would have gone to the people if Spain had performed more successfully). Joshko Guardiol and Romain Saiss also played more daring roles than at club level, where they prefer to play as flankers in a four. By design, these are similar techniques – without the ball, compactness and scheme help such defenders, and with the ball they give unique qualities in advancing.

Among the unusual flank defenders, Ivan Perisic stood out (he played exactly the flank in the four – several times during the matches and the whole game against Morocco for third place), Eduardo Camavinga (came out as a left back – partly due to the lack of alternatives to Theo Hernandez, but interpreted the role in an unusual way ) and even Bruno Fernandes (played out on the right in defense against Morocco, when Portugal threw everyone on the attack).

Attacks built around Messi and Mbappé (rather than difficult structures) proved to be the most effective

Leo Messi (7+3) and Kylian Mbappe (8+2) are the two most effective attacking weapons of the tournament by a margin. Their shootout in the final symbolized the victory of the superstar adaptation approach over more team-based designs.

The tactics of Argentina and France have common contours. The leader is released from defensive work and responds with an off-scale level of attacking benefit. The adaptations are different. The methods of Mbappe and Messi in attack are the same. Mbappe threatens more often due to the very fact of a high position at the moment the ball passes from France. Messi – by saving energy, which helps him to create in different stages. Leo does not depend on sharpness in fast attacks. At the output, both gave phenomenal performance.

We analyzed the details of the strategies of Deschamps and Scaloni in this material . Due to the lack of time to build more difficult mechanisms, the path they chose turned out to be doubly effective – France and Argentina not only fully realized the potential of the main stars, but also gained a competitive advantage over those who went the other way.


It seems that this World Cup was destined to become a tournament of stars (national football teams, in principle, are more focused on them, and then there are also abnormally difficult conditions for training). Leo and Kilian did not disappoint – and gave us memorable episodes and a lot of emotions. Now it’s time to return to club football – other rules work here, and Jurgen, Pep and Carlo are already waiting for us.