Prior to the recent goal glut and wave of excitement that has accompanied the second round of group-stage games, the World Cup had admittedly, been somewhat of a drab, lifeless affair. A dearth of goals inherently connotes the diminution of attacking play, and the first round of group stage games saw just 25 goals scored, a pitiful total when compared to the 39 goals scored at the same stage at the last World Cup in 2006. The Premier League’s leading exponent of attacking football, Arsene Wenger, has bemoaned the comparatively low level of ‘entertaining football’, ascribing this problem to high expectations and levels of pressure upon players. Speaking earlier this week, the 60-year-old Frenchman stated
“The biggest teams who have the highest level of expectation cannot express that talent yet. One reason is caution, fear of failure, response to huge demands. These teams will just glide through though, most of them, then you will see them really play. The lower [ranked] teams have done quite well and one of the things at the World Cup now is that there are no real weak teams any more who get beaten 10-0. Basically, the big teams with high expectations play these first round games just to get through. I don’t think [they play that way] consciously but more out of fear of failure.”
Does Le Professor have a point? Has pressure killed off attacking football at the World Cup?
The cagey and hesitant displays thus far of the likes of Italy, England and France would certainly seem to allude to caution borne from pressure. Although England aren’t renowned for flamboyant, attacking football in the vein of Spain and Brazil, they have yet to exhibit the form shown in qualifying. As I explained in an earlier article, the England team are so scared of failing to live up to the excessive hype generated by the media that they’ve yet to show ingenuity and have failed to ‘throw caution to the wind’. For bigger nations, such as England, the fear of failing to progress from their group cannot be understated. The fear of national ignominy and scapegoating in the instance that their team doesn’t make it through to the last 16 must play on players’ minds to some extent, and we have seen examples of teams opting to ‘play it safe’ tactically.
On the other hand, it can be argued that the pressure is akin to the pressure that was placed upon players at all previous World Cup tournaments. The likes of Diego Maradona, Pele and Ronaldo were all burdened by the same weight of expectations in previous years, yet managed to shine on the world’s biggest stage. The argument here is that true champions and sporting greats can fight off the burden of pressure to succeed at the World Cup. Whilst he has yet to score, Lionel Messi has been playing with all the fervour and grace with which he does for Barcelona, and the likes of Kaka and David Villa have also shown glimpses of their tremendous club form too.
The relatively low number of goals scored in the opening round is also reflective of the increased level of quality at modern day World Cup tournaments. Unlike earlier incarnations of the event, there are fewer ‘whipping boys’ at the tournament (as highlighted by Wenger); many of the so-called minnows at this summer’s event have several squad members plying their trade in some of Europe’s more competitive domestic leagues, and many smaller nations are now more tactically astute and physically athletic than before. Whilst both Brazil and Argentina beat weaker opposition by the margin of a single goal against North Korea and Nigeria respectively, the scorelines were indicative of the stout defensive organisation and resilience of the opposition, not the failure of the South American giants to play their traditional style of attacking football.
Upon reflection, especially given the more open nature of the group stage’s second-round, it appears as though the reduced prevalence of attacking football at the World Cup results from a variety of factors. Given the importance of starting the tournament well, it is imperative not to lose your first game at the World Cup in order to maximise chances of reaching the latter stages of the tournament, and curbing overly attacking instincts is a sensible way of achieving this.
Due to the stop-start nature of international football, international team-mates aren’t as in tune with each other as club team-mates, so early games see teams finding their collective feet. Towards the end of this group stage, we’re finally starting to see teams play with more cohesion and fluidity.
In light of what Wenger said, I believe to some extent that pressure has reduced the prevalence of attacking football at the World Cup, but it is just one of a number of factors that have contributed to this occurrence.
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