Qatar has shown football that puts a premium on defensive lines and speedy counter-attacks

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The other night Lionel Messi had 13 touches of the ball as he jinked past the masked Josko Gvardiol in that memorable run for Argentina’s third goal against Croatia in the semifinal. Yes, someone actually counted. There are people doing just that, keeping track of every touch of the ball, every pass relayed, received and rolled forward.

This is the World Cup for the football nerd, the sheer volume of data made available has been simply staggering. From player heat maps to defensive transitions to final third entries, all of them extrapolating ‘xG’ or expected goals, the exercise has taken on a totally different dimension. But all of it must have crashed whenever Spain touched the ball at this World Cup.

Luis Enrique’s side regularly logged in over 900 passes almost each game, evoking memories of the brilliant Spanish sides of the last decade. But as the tournament in Qatar progressed, it was clear that the idea was becoming something of a footballing anachronism. Against Morocco in the second round, a game they should’ve won suffocating their rivals by drowning them in a sea of passes and possession, Spain themselves got entangled. When they exited, no one, bar a few, was mourning them. In six matches, Spain had completed a total of 3,819 passes – an average of 954.8 passes per game – and generally put everyone to sleep.

Compare Spain’s passes average to Morocco’s. Ahead of their thirdplace play-off with Croatia, the north Africans averaged just 366 passes in six matches played. Meagre, or highly effective, depends on which side of the idea you stand. France, Sunday’s finalist against Messi’s Argentina, themselves have logged in just 523.3 average passes per match on way to their title match.
Later, after vanquishing Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, Morocco’s coach Walid Regragui would tell us why he cares so little for numbers. “Guardiola was my hero too once,” Regragui would say, implying that Manchester City’s Spanish coach, father of the possession football in the modern game, today has few takers of his philosophy.

‘The Europeans don’t like us because we don’t play like they want. You love the statistics of football more, but there isn’t just one way of playing. It’s time to destroy statistics. If you start giving points for possession, then it’ll be another story, but it’s no good if you have (only) two chances in the game. It doesn’t matter how much possession we have.’

In all the euphoria over Messi and Mbappé ahead of the final, there’s been talk that defence-mindedness has returned and taken over flair. Shots at goal has taken an alarming dip, with compact defensive lines dictating the narrative and flow of play. Counter-attacks then become the final flourish for goal.

Yet, while that is partially true, does it mean that it has been a defensive World Cup? That’s a tricky one. Zlatko Dalic, Croatia’s seasoned coach and minder of a skillful bunch of technical and flair-minded footballers, was asked this one. ‘What you think is more decisive in football now? Is it now the era of counter-attacks? Does it mean that ball possession is not as important as it used to be before? Has this World Cup signalled the end of the tikitaka style?’ Answer any one.

“I think the tiki-taka is a thing of the past,” Dalic would tell us, invoking the famous Spain asphyxiation against Morocco — a result that alarmed the purists and gave a much-needed sense of belief to the outliers. “France are playing completely the opposite, and differently in the last two World Cups.”

Dalic would be referring to France’s furthering of their previous idea of the Russian World Cup four years ago, when a 20-year-old Kylian Mbappe tore trough the heart of opposing sides with raw pace. Now, there’s a certain refinement to that model, with the intelligent Antoine Griezmann and adept Aurelien Tchouameni initiating the transitions behind their three-man attack.

Dalic believes that the future of football lies in the speed of counter-attacks, and fast transitions. “That will be the key for the future success of all teams,” he would say. Does that mean more onus on defensive lines, though not necessarily a defensive mindset? Possibly. But that would also result in lesser goals being scored in the future.

“A compact defensive block, and then breaking out quickly where your fast players are, will be decisive. I see this developing as the primary tactic in the future,” Dalic would reveal. The idea would show in Croatia’s absorption of Brazil’s attacking pressure in the quarter-final win they squeezed out. Despite a so-called attacking surplus, Brazil’s manager Tite showed tactical rigidity, banking more on using positional play which may not have enabled the quick transitions that they needed.

Argentina learnt early from their mistakes against Saudi Arabia. While always insisting like a fundamentalist that their playing style won’t change and ‘it is non-negotiable,’ Lionel Scaloni proved more adaptive, silently introducing faster, younger, even if inexperienced, players who run in from behind and press for the recovery. Argentina’s recovery rate has improved with each game. It has helped that Argentina have in Rodrigo de Paul, an advanced fulcrum-cum-ball-winner who plays high up the field. Before going into Sunday’s final, De Paul had completed 476 passes, the most in his squad and covered a total distance of 61.03 km in six games.



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