Football’s offensive tendencies and development were confirmed during the World Cup 2018, where the ‘achieving-mentality’ won over the ‘avoid-mentality’, but the lack of structures and systematics of the national teams also mean that the offensive top players in particular are having far more difficulties maintaining their level than on club level.
Play to achieve - and win
The offensive part of our beloved game is again the dominant factor for success (over time) after years of avoiding-football-mentality.
Despite the tournament structure and the World Cup’s compact fixtures, the offensive trend has been confirmed in this World Cup. The teams who can and will most offensively with the ball have also got the best results - overall.
I have both objectively and subjectively analysed the World Cup’s 64 games, games, results, etc. and a clear picture of the offensive dominance forms. Many goals have been scored (169 goals / 2.64 per game, which is in line with the most scoring World Cup campaigns in the last 20 years); it has been an advantage to have the ball opposed not to have the ball, even though as expected, this changed in the crucial knockout-matches, where the teams are more careful as well as short-term result focused. \ France in the final, for instant.
Of the 64 World Cup matches, most points (win and draw) were won with an achieving-mentality to the games. My subjective analysis shows that only 8 matches at the World Cup 2018 were won with a decidedly avoiding-mentality. This again demonstrates the need for an offensive approach if you want to succeed at the top level and it is positive for the further development of football.
Why creativity needs structure - not freedom
Another trend from the World Cup 2018 is the fact we saw top players generally unable to continuously perform at the level we week after week see them doing at their clubs. And in particular the offensive profiles.
It became, purely individually, the World Cup of defensive profiles; Diego Godin, Raphael Varane, Simon Kjær, John Stones, Jordan Pickford, Yerry Mena, etc.
Today, in the big clubs, the approach is very systematical and structured in the offensive part of the game. Recognizable patterns are incorporated, certain positions are to be filled and collective moves are carefully incorporated into the training curriculum. Manchester City, Napoli and Juventus are top examples of this structure.
The clear concepts give the players a foundation on what they need to do, where to be, what to look for, in the different phases of the game.
However the national teams suffer from a low number of periods together and minimal training time, so we do not experience the same systematics and incorporated collective moves in the national team football, and it affects the top players’ achievements as they in the national team are to “invent” the game themselves and create solutions themselves.
That’s why we see top players like Neymar, Mesut Özil, Isco, David Silva, Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah, Christian Eriksen, Sadio Mane, Luis Suarez, Sergio Aguero, Ousmane Dembele, Gabriel Jesus and even Harry Kane (despite the goals from set pieces) do not reach the individual top level we see them perform in the big leagues as well as in the Champions League. Eden Hazard, Luca Modric and Kylian Mbappe were the exceptions and were strong individually offensively.
And this proves the unexplained misunderstanding that prevails in the world of football: That creativity occurs when you put the players free and ‘just let them play’. No.
It’s not even a football topic, but hardcore science. Creativity needs structure - not freedom. The brain needs some clear structures to start the creative processors. Without structure, chaos and stress arise, and we won’t find creativity. And therefore, the offensive top players are struggling more at the national team level.
What did we learn from the World Cup?
In some headlines, I will briefly outline some World Cup trends and key focus points from Russia 2018:
- VAR: It was expected to make an impact and it did, even in the final, and I’m still not convinced due to the downsides of the system and changes of the game; all the extra penalties and missing offside, etc.
- Set pieces: We knew it in advance, but it still became a tournament where the set plays were even more important than ever; about 45% of all World Cup goals came from set pieces (73 goals of 169 goals, which is an increase from the last European Championship and World Cup 2014) and countries such as England (9 goals of their 12) and Uruguay (5 goals out of 7) build their offensive concept mainly on set pieces
- The effects of the best club coaches; Pep Guardiola, Maurizio Sarri, Jurgen Klopp and Maurico Pochettino, etc. – especially in the off-the-ball pressure phases where the teams worked more aggressively pressing forward compared to previously more low organized in passive defensive blocks
- Few 3-backline teams compared to be tendency in the top 5 leagues in the recent two seasons
- Win your xG (expected goals) and higher the chance to also win the game: In 48 games of 64 the xG won as well as won the game in the end
- Almost 33% more goals from possession phases (passes and play through one line at a time) compared to direct play (early direct/long ball)
- Goals from open play are still created primarily through combination play (wall pass, etc.) in the central areas of the pitch (zone 14) and a ‘deep pass’ was the main origin from goals scored in open play (21 goals created after a deep pass of the 96 ‘open play’ goals).
- Very few goals after wide (high) crosses; 6 of 96 open play goals and a high conversion rate as well, so not an entirely efficient last 3rd strategy
- Most goals scored in open play came from ‘underloaded situations’ where the defenders were overloaded (for example 3v2 or 2v1)
- Most goals scored in open play inside the box came from a first touch finish (from the goal scorer) = few touches & limited time for the offensive players
Europe is dominating the World of football
On a more strategic level, the European football dominance continues. The World Cup has now been won four times in a row by a west European country, and since 2002, the podium spots have been occupied 11 of 12 times by an European - primarily a west European country. Significant numbers - and not a coincidence.
Football is not only about having a good coach, tactics, luck or some talented players. The main reason is a far better and more modern football education; from children are 5-6 years old, they simply get a more structured and qualified training in Europe than on the other continents.
In addition, Europe dictates football’s development, which is towards a more systematic and structured game. While youth training and game understanding in Africa, North America, South America and Asia are still more individualized, and therefore the other continents are struggling to stop the European dominance until they discover they need to change their work and understanding of modern football.
The other continents must understand the modern game demands both individual and collective skills. And they need to analyze the game principals, future development areas in football and look at how a modern football player and team are educated, build and structured.
They will continue to develop individually skilled players, especially in South America, who can transfer and play in Europe, but they will still lack the structure and systematization to succeed as a national team.