“Teams that couldn’t adjust defensively and show patience and discipline to withstand those spells [of possession from opponents] found themselves chasing the game. France were without question the best at this…”
“There was […] a return to what we would consider ‘outdated’ centre forwards like Mario Mandzukic, Olivier Giroud and, somewhat, Edinson Cavani…”
“With VAR in place in 2006, England’s 83rd minute opener by Peter Crouch against our Soca Warriors would have been disallowed…”
“We can look at smaller programmes like those in Morocco, Senegal, Egypt, Iceland and even Croatia, to see what can be accomplished with administrators who are clear-eyed and void of corruption…”
So what should we take away from the Russia 2018 World Cup?
Canada’s HFX Wanderers head coach and ex-Soca Warriors boss Stephen Hart, ESPN analyst and former World Cup 2006 and England Premier League goalkeeper Shaka Hislop, ex-Trinidad and Tobago technical director and US-based coach Kendall Walkes, and Fatima College and QPCC coach Wayne Sheppard share their views with Wired868:
Wired868: What stood out for you about the Russia 2018 World Cup?
Kendall Walkes: On a personal level, the greatest fascination for me from this World Cup was seeing the game at a crossroad with the blurring lines between older traditions and modern ways of approaching soccer.
The disappearing foam, the advent and use of VAR, the off/on protection of star players (more on that later!) are all modern ways.[…] The world is now getting introduced to the electronic eye as an extension of the team of officials, which is actually commonplace in American sport. How the soccer world handles that will have a big impact on the game going forward, and it made a huge difference at this World Cup.
Stephen Hart: Physically, teams were very well prepared; this was evident. Every team showed how the collective was important for success, even without world class talent. Even Saudi Arabia, who had a poor opening, bounced back with a balanced performance. You could see every player working for each other and willing to do the little extra.
What was also evident was the defending in wide areas. The final four teams all had fullbacks who could defend first and foremost.
Almost every team also had their top players playing in Europe. I think this was important. Many teams had players who were involved in the European Champions League at some stage and this contributes significantly to the team’s collective experience.
From a sentimental perspective, I love when teams have a clear identity of play. However, globalisation in coaching does take away from this.
Wayne Sheppard: One of the main things that stood out for me was the number of completed corners and indirect set plays. And when I say completed I mean that resulted with a shot on goal.
I think that the introduction of VAR had a big influence on this. Teams have, in the recent past, gone away from zonal marking schemes at corners and set pieces, and have instead adopted pure man to man ones, simply because defenders were by and large getting away with wrestling attackers and denying them a chance to attack the balls delivered into the area.
The introduction of the VAR has—by the sheer weight of goals and shots—put paid to that in this World Cup. This sword cuts both ways as infringements by attacking players have also been spotted.
With VAR in place in 2006, England’s 83rd minute opener by Peter Crouch against our Soca Warriors would have been disallowed—and who knows how that game and the group would have progressed from there!
Wired868: What were the prevailing tactical trends—and the pros and cons of them?
Shaka Hislop: The standout trend from the 2018 World Cup was the number of teams that used attack and pressing the ball high up the field as the foundation of their play.
I was expecting that teams would sit back and be cautious, particularly in the early rounds when it seems they are often more concerned with not losing than with winning. This tournament was different. Maybe it was Russia’s 5-0 opening day rout of Saudi Arabia that set the trend; but, whichever way, it made for upsets and an outstanding tournament.
The pros for such an approach were evident all tournament long. The cons were that regardless of the stage—and almost regardless of the opposition—your opponent will have periods in the game when they dominate. Teams that couldn’t adjust defensively and show patience and discipline to withstand those spells found themselves chasing the game. France were without question the best at this.
On their path to World Cup glory, neither Lionel Messi (Argentina), Luis Suarez (Uruguay), Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku (both Belgium), Luka Modric nor Ivan Rakitic (both Croatia) were able to have much impact in their respective games against [France]. That is some list!
Walkes: There was not really a progressive domineering style of play like we saw in the last two World Cups. Spain’s early elimination raised questions as to the continuing value of the ‘tiki taka’ style, as their hundreds of passes did not give them much penetration and was not as effective as in the past.
I think the world is again searching for a new soccer blueprint or style. In this World Cup, the saying ‘to the victor’ doesn’t end with ‘goes the spoils.’ I don’t think the champions gave us something that everyone will be trying to adopt like they did after Spain’s 2010 triumph and Germany in 2014.
I think France’s star player was N’Golo Kante. While all eyes were on Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann, you could tell that Kante was the one who coach Didier Deschamps heavily relied on.
He was the cog in the wheel for the French team, who did all the dirty work of destroying the attacks of opponents. A yellow in the final defused him a bit but he was the man of steel—à la Patrick Vieira and others of that ilk—up until then.
Hart: It is funny that some very attractive teams did not get far at this World Cup due to poor starts, or just plain bad luck. Morocco, Peru and Senegal were all very exciting and imaginative.
In the end, this tournament was football without the ball. France were the most efficient at it—patiently waiting for errors and to make swift counter attacks. It was defensive play at its finest.
Interestingly, Paul Pogba did not score or assist up to the final, Olivier Giroud did not score a single goal and Antoine Griezmann only scored on a set play and penalties. Let’s hope these sort of tactics are restricted to tournament play only.
There was also a return to what we would consider ‘outdated’ centre forwards like Mario Mandzukic, Giroud and, somewhat, Edinson Cavani. They worked tirelessly, pinned back their opposing central defenders, were menaces in the air, and created space for wide players to play one v one and run the channels.
I think we saw interesting variation in tactical play from some teams that had the ability to change shape in mid-game. An example would be the Mexico players, who alternated between man marking and pressing. Russia did it too, especially with pressing in their own half. Croatia were able to interchange positions and roles in midfield at will.
We also saw players who were willing to play two ways—back and forward—without question, especially in wide areas of the pitch, and good efficiency in set players. I think VAR contributed to the overall numbers in that regard.
On the negative side, we saw that possession teams that did not have the ability to penetrate in wide positions could not breakdown deep block defending sides like Iran and Iceland.
Worse, there was too much diving to con the referee and players faking injuries on corners and free kicks to prevent counterattacks. There was a lot of tactical fouling to prevent counters too.
Sheppard: One of the things that struck me tactically about this World Cup was the desire of most teams to play quickly through lines of pressure. There was a lot more verticality. This was most evident in the Germany/Mexico game, where Mexico would play quickly forward as soon as they came into possession and caused Germany no end of problems. France, Belgium, Uruguay, Portugal and even England—to name a few—adopted this tactic at some point in time.
The winning teams of the last two World Cups were built around possession, probing for weaknesses and lapses in concentration by the opposing defences. This time around, the teams that put a priority on possession were put to the sword. Germany, Spain and Argentina—the top three teams in terms of possession in the group stage games—all failed to make it to the quarterfinal round.
But if I had to point to one tactical trend in this World Cup, it would be the flexibility of the teams. Most teams used a number of tactics based on who they were playing and what they saw as their best means to success.
France, on taking the lead, would then drop back in a low to medium defensive block—also commonly known as defending on line three (low block) or line two (medium block). This was done to invite opponents to push higher up the pitch and expose space behind their backs, so a speed merchant like Kylian Mbappé and a clinical, intelligent finisher like Griezmann could catch them on the counter.[…] In Croatia’s opening group game against Nigeria, they used Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric in fairly deep roles behind Andrej Kramaric, who played in the hole behind Mandzukic, who led the line. Come their second game against an Argentine team that needed a win, Croatia’s midfield triangle was turned to point backwards, with Modric and Rakitic now operating as a double 10 while Kramaric dropped to the bench and Marcelo Brozovic was introduced as a holding midfielder.
They rotated between those two tactics throughout the tournament, according to the situation of the match.
These are just a few of the myriad of changes made from game to game—and sometimes within a game—at the World Cup. The number of tactical changes seen shows the intelligence and maturity of the players, who have to understand and execute the coach’s instructions. The group stage is something like three games in seven days, so for coaches to shuttle through so many variations demonstrates the quality of these players.
Teams constantly trying to outmanoeuvre each other, like a moving game of chess, gave us more attacking football, as compared to the 1990 and even 2010 World Cups, which were more attritional with tactics employed to suffocate.
The downside to all the tactical tinkering was that, spoilt for choice, coaches can easily get their tactics wrong on any given day; or, as in the case of Jorge Sampaoli and Argentina, have tactics that does not suit the personnel at their disposal.
Wired868: Did any individual talent catch your eye and why?
Hart: I think extensive team analysis and scouting, players’ experience of each other—since so many of them play in Europe—and attention to detail planning, made it difficult for the best individuals to really dominate games.
But individual talent was still very evident. Many teams had fantastic goalkeepers; like Jordan Pickford (England), Thibaut Courtois (Belgium), Keylor Navas (Costa Rica), Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico), Hugo Lloris (France), Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark) and Danijel Subasic (Croatia) to name a few.
Of the outfield players, what struck me was how they brought their skills in to the collective effort. Mbappé (France), Ivan Perisic, Modric (both Croatia), Hirving Lozano (Mexico), Ahmed Musa (Nigeria), Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium), Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Cavani (Uruguay) all had moments of brilliance; but their work ethic was impressive.
Hislop: A lot of talent caught the eye. Because so many teams played with styles that mirrored how big European clubs now play, I expect there’ll be a lot more movement of players this summer because of good World Cup performances—whereas recruiting at big international tournaments had previously been trending downward.
Sheppard: The obvious answer here is Kylian Mbappé. He has a maturity that belies his age and understands his strengths and his role. The solo run that led to the penalty decision against Argentina was the standout individual play of the tournament; but there was so much more to admire about his world cup. He isn’t a one trick pony and his skill on the ball will still allow him to navigate defences that are set deeper to deny him space to run into behind their backs. I’m very interested to see where his career goes from here.
But other than him I went for players that impressed but were not already household names—at least not to me.
Lucas Torreira started on the bench for Uruguay. But, by the final group game, was starting at the base of what looked like a diamond midfield. It was plain to see that this guy could do everything—except perhaps mark a Lukaku or Fellaini at set pieces, since he stands at only five foot six. Fantastic 20 yard pace; good passing range and a keen eye for the interception of passes. What really stood out for me was his use of dribbling skill only when required to get out of tight spots, and his use of short passes to move opponents into bad defensive positions that then allowed him to play forward.
It was no surprise to me to read that big clubs are after him after his world cup exploits.
Noureddine Amrabat (Morocco), Andre Carillo (Peru), Ahmed Musa (Nigeria), Salif Sane (Senegal), Hirving Lozano (Mexico) and Juan Quintero (Colombia) were also among my lesser known standouts.
Wired868: What lessons are there for Trinidad and Tobago from the World Cup and which teams best illustrated these?
Walkes: Invest in youth! I think the World Cup showed that youthful energy and skill remains a hit.
Also we can look at smaller programmes like those in Morocco, Senegal, Egypt, Iceland and even Croatia, to see what can be accomplished with administrators who are clear-eyed and void of corruption. Look at how many players are natural-born from those countries and watch the leagues in which they ply their trade.
FIFA qualification bonuses are short-term gains that can greatly enhance youth development and domestic leagues and facility upgrades. Many Mexico and Costa Rica players are now in the MLS and we can use that as a cost-effective investment too. We should be trying to get some of our young players into such leagues to better develop them.
I still believe that Trinidad and Tobago’s best World Cup campaigns came when our core group of players came from the same foreign leagues, such as the NASL during the 1970s and the English leagues in 2006. That’s arguably the blueprint of almost all of the successful World Cup teams.
Hislop: There are a number of lessons that Trinidad and Tobago can take from this World Cup. You can start with the performances of tiny Iceland, which demonstrated how a clear organisational structure and inclusive approach to the game can reap huge benefits.
But, most importantly, I think the need for a national ‘football identity’ that reflects and respects our own footballing history is a must. We cannot hope to emulate anyone else. We can’t simply aim to copy-cat and expect to reap any kind of long term reward.
Another valuable lesson we must take away from this World Cup is that a malfunctioning FA is detrimental to the team, on and off the park—even if you have the greatest player of a generation. Just ask Argentina.
Sheppard: Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup, with a population in the vicinity of 330,000. Although they didn’t advance past the group stage, they were very competitive against established footballing powers and, more importantly, have now qualified for back to back major tournaments. To better understand what they did, let us place the Icelandic experience up against what our local football experts are saying.
Fallacy number one: We need a professional league as a means for our players to develop. That it is essential and without it our football will fail.
Well, Iceland has NO professional league. They have a semi pro league. Just as in Trinidad, their better players go overseas to play professionally.
Fallacy number two: Best way for our young players to develop is to have them playing in competitions as much as 10 months out of the year.
Iceland’s competitive season runs from May to September. Indoor centres have been built to facilitate training and strength work in the off-season.
So how did Iceland—a nation with a combined total of 22,000 men and women footballers—succeed without doing the things that our “experts” say are mandatory? Well for one, they invested in their coaches.
The KSI (Icelandic equivalent of our TTFA) looked around and decided the best way to improve the standard of their football was to elevate the standard of their coaching. They seemed to think that better educated coaches eventually translates to a bigger pool of well-trained players to choose from.
It was a ‘rising tide floats all ships’ approach. Logical isn’t it?
The TTFA has decided to go the other way and invest in an elite program. I have had the benefit of seeing that elite team—aka the National Under-14 Team—play on consecutive weekends and I have been totally impressed by the talent on display from all 30 of the players. Messieurs Stuart Charles-Fevrier, Leonson Lewis, Wesley Webb and the rest of the technical staff have done a fine job, no doubt.
But is this the correct approach for sustainable success? After all, that is what we should be aspiring to—isn’t it?
How does developing 30 boys raise the standard of our country? Why not invest in coaches like the aforementioned staff and others like Angus Eve, Shawn Cooper and Clayton Morris to name a few?
Why not leverage on the knowledge of folks like Hayden Martin and Trendsetter Hawks’ Anthony “Dada” Wickham, in conjunction with TTFA technical director Anton Corneal’s national coaching syllabus?
We need a common manuscript for coaches to follow when coaching the country’s youth; so that Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of almost five times that of Iceland’s, can consistently vie for a World Cup spot.
A rising tide raises all ships—that are seaworthy.
Wired868: Any other points you would like to make about the World Cup?
Walkes: I think FIFA still has to let go of the old ways, which we saw in the treatment of Neymar. Yes, Neymar embellishes; however, almost 90% of the replays show that he was actually fouled and it was reminiscent of what superstars of yesteryear like Diego Maradona and Pelé dealt with.
Compare the penalties awarded to France and England in the first round with what happened to Neymar in Brazil’s elimination game against Belgium. The referee owes the world an explanation about why he did not call one from three possible penalty kick situations in that quarterfinal.
I saw the lack of protection for Neymar as contrary to modern day officiating, which is designed to protect superstars.
I also feel FIFA needs to understand the importance of keeping its best players on the field. The paying public wants to see the best players perform and it is FIFA’s responsibility to rid itself of obsolete rules like two accumulated cards resulting in game suspensions. That’s rubbish!!!
FIFA should recognise the importance of the viewing public and the best players should be given every opportunity to play and not be legislated off the field.
Suspension for one caution in two separate games is utter nonsense! Maybe you can justify that in group games but certainly not the elimination rounds.
Sheppard: This World Cup was a UEFA bashing of all other continents and footballing zones. No CONMEBOL team made it to the semis, no CAF team made it out of the group stage and Japan and Mexico were the only teams from Asia and CONCACAF to get to the Round of 16.
In the past, a non-European team failing to win in Europe could be blamed on climate, time difference, etc. But in the modern game where the world has gotten smaller and most players now call Europe home, it was surprising to see the failure of non-
UEFA teams to advance deeper in the competition. Reason for this? Your guess is as good as mine.
Hart: We will hear a lot about the domination of European teams. Brazil have only themselves to blame for their loss, while Uruguay without Cavani are a much weaker opponent. But, in 2014, the balance between South America and Europe was equal, so I would not read too much into this.
Tournament football is very difficult and unpredictable; and even the best coaches fail at times to guarantee consistency.
WC 98 Winners France were out of WC 2002 Group stage.
WC 02 Winners Brazil out in the quarter finals of WC 2006.
WC 06 Winners Italy out in the group stage of WC 2010.
WC 10 Winners Spain out in the group stage of WC 2014.
WC 14 Winners Germany out in the group stage of WC 2018.
And, in the aforementioned scenarios, Italy, Spain and Germany all still had their World Cup winning coaches at the helm.
Football has no truth. Many of the stats for 2018 were mind boggling, with the exception of who scored more goals in the game. Possession percent, shots on goal, shots on target, corners; none were conclusive.
I don’t necessarily think going to a 48 team World Cup is the best thing for the game. However, it remains to be seen how that will work.
The projected format of 16 groups with three nations and only the group winners moving on—in my humble opinion—does not sound very appetising; then again that is just me.
Whether it is 32 or 48 teams, what is evident is that much of a national team’s success is down to its foundation. You need a strong Federation that works closely with all aspects of its football and is supportive in the World Cup campaign, with detailed consistent planning over a period of time.
For small nations, getting this right could take about 10 years.