Qatar 2022: Hart looks beyond W/Cup drama to “cookie cutter” players and absent national identity

“[…] Perhaps I just long for the era that made me fall in love with the game—when national teams had distinct styles, based largely on the imagination and improvisation of their players. It has been, despite all that I have said, an enjoyable World Cup.

“However, when I hear people marvel at an outside of the foot pass or a piece of dribbling, I think to myself: this used to be the norm! I suspect that coaches and coaching courses have to shoulder the blame…”

In the following guest column, former Trinidad and Tobago and HFX Wanderers head coach Stephen Hart reviews trends at the Qatar 2022 World Cup:

France midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni (second from left) celebrates with teammates after his goal against England in the Qatar 2022 quarterfinal round.

Maybe it’s globalization. Maybe it’s modern communication. Maybe it’s the fact that the vast majority of the players apply their trade in Europe. Maybe it’s the fact that now every team is overanalysed. Maybe it’s the fact that physically players and teams are not only athletic, but willing to cover every blade of grass.

Maybe it’s simply just me. However as I said before, in my humble opinion, most teams looked the same at this World Cup: very structured, organised, positional, and waiting for moments to strike rather than engaging in free-flowing football.

We also are not seeing the emergence of players we can term special. Very few “unknown” individual players have blossomed at the Qatar World Cup—with the exception of Morocco’s Europe-based trio of Sofiane Boufal, Sofyan Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi.

And when I say blossomed, I mean got you to sit up and take notice, if not applaud.

This could be due to the over-exposure of football, or teams having eight or nine players simply to recover the ball, for their one special player.

Morocco midfielder Sofyan Amrabat (left) was a revelation at the 2022 World Cup.

I am not saying the games were not exciting from a perspective of upsets and late drama. Rather I’m saying that for a large portion of the games, not much happens.

Instead you see lots of possession, mainly from side to side, with no intention to penetrate. Combined play through the central areas are rare, with tactical fouls the norm—since the majority go unpunished.

Similarly, simulated dives have reached a sickening level to the point where you can no longer be apologetic for the sport. Was there even one card shown for simulation in the 80+ games?

Maybe this is why, with the majority of fans being televised viewers, that this World Cup’s broadcast noticeably has so little replays of referees’ decisions, or controversial situations, etc.

Cameroon forward Vincent Aboubakar (left) is sent off after taking off his shirt to celebrate his goal against Brazil.
Referees have not been as harsh in punishing diving.

In my last column, I spoke about the “cookie cutter” sameness of modern players and the lack of creative players and dribblers, which is evident—obviously with a few notable exceptions—at the current World Cup.

It is sad to say that even the African nations have lost their playing identity. Why has this happened?

Of course, this is just my opinion and maybe I am incorrect. Perhaps I just long for the era that made me fall in love with the game—when national teams had distinct styles, based largely on the imagination and improvisation of their players.

It has been, despite all that I have said, an enjoyable World Cup.

Brazil players (from left) Raphinha, Vinicius Junior, Lucas Paquetá and Neymar Junior dance their way past Korea Republic in the 2002 World Cup Round of 16.
(via FIFA)

However, when I hear people marvel at an outside of the foot pass or a piece of dribbling, I think to myself: this used to be the norm!

I suspect that coaches and coaching courses have to shoulder the blame, and I am part of that fraternity.

Today, coaching courses focus more on coaching the TEAM rather than the individual, which is a mind-set that has filtered down into the youth game.

I think the pressure to win has changed the way coaches approach the game. Four bad results and you’re fired now—even youth coaches are judged in the same way.

Trinidad and Tobago attacker Real Gill (left) holds off a Suriname defender during Concacaf U-20 Championship action at the Estadio Olimpico in Honduras on 23 June 2022.
(via TTFA Media)

I have heard coaches tell 13-year-old players: “that is a low percentage pass”. And when coaches enter into discussions, subjects like dribbling are low on the list.

Yet the same coaches would say there is a need for creativity and imagination in players! I just have to shake my head at that.

Perhaps it matters that, in the coaching fraternity, all coaches are trained the same.

How can you expect coaches to create environments where creativity is encouraged in development, when the coaches themselves are not allowed to be creative?

Brazil coach Tite (right) passes on instructions to a player.
(Copyright Reuters)

Just look at the Netherlands, a nation where one club produced Marco Van Basten, Gerald Vanenburg, Bryan Roy, and Dennis Bergkamp.

Argentinian football produced players with a unique dribbling style in which they almost glided past opponents, like Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona, Osvaldo Ardiles, Hernan Diaz, Pablo Aimar, and Fernando Redondo.

Their ability to use the collective play of quick combinations in tight spaces was a joy to watch—just go look at the Argentina goal scored by Diego Maradona against Greece at the 1994 World Cup and tell me! The lead up to that goal got you off your seat.

And don’t even get me started with Brazil! They all had a distinct identity.

Brazil midfielder general Socrates (centre) runs into space between Argentina midfielder Osvaldo Ardilles (right) and his teammate.

Now the media will say that some of these attractive teams did not win and they were naïve, etc, etc. Yet the same media remembers those sides fondly, and talks about how boring certain competition winners played.

So pick your poison?

At coaching courses nowadays, there are loads about team play, data analysis, etc. And we hear things like “the data shows this is not effective”. You go to Ajax and you see the same sessions as a club in the USA, focused on lots of possession, holding positions, your offensive and defensive lines, etc.

We have two main types of coaches: those on the field and those on the computer.

Argentina captain and superstar Lionel Messi gestures after their quarterfinal win over the Netherlands via kicks from the penalty mark.
(via FIFA)

Coaching on the computer is about analysing details, almost dissecting every aspect of play—both individual and collective. However, on the field you have to get across ideas based on the players’ qualities and try to get some type of working relationship within your game model.

They all coach the same way though.

After saying all of this, people must realise that football is a game of mistakes. Look at the goal Brazil conceded against Croatia where several errors occurred.

Leading 1-0 minutes left, Brazil got caught with five players up the field and their left back Alex Sandro chasing Mateo Kovacic in the midfield. Mistake. Casemiro should have fouled Nikola Vlasic in the centre circle. Mistake. The result is a goal.

Croatia playmaker Luka Modric (right) in action against Brazil at the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

Now do you really need data analysis?

Regardless of planning and detailed analysis, which undoubtedly the Netherlands conducted, and regardless of coaching on the field—all things being equal—it took a genius pass from Lionel Messi to unlock Netherlands.

Which coaching course can claim responsibility for that?

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