July 4, 2018


Possession lost on the World Cup stage as defences learn to adapt: Tactical postmortems must also factor in those things which cannot be planned for, as Spain and Germany can attest (Jonathan Wilson,  4 Jul 2018, The Guardian)

And, as so often, there is a danger when dealing with general trends in overlooking specifics. The reason for the early exits of Germany and Spain are manifold, and only partly related to tactics. Joachim Löw admitted his side had been arrogant and had perhaps not seen the warning signs. Perhaps he selected too many established names on reputation rather than recent form. The squad seems to have been riven by cliques.

Löw himself was perhaps found out: at the last World Cup he struggled to get the balance right between attack and defence and was bailed out by Miroslav Klose, who scored a vital goal against Ghana before offering a focal point to the forward line from the quarter-final on. Here, without Klose, or an in-form Thomas Müller, there was no edge to Germany's attack and so despite 65.3% possession over the group stage, their threat was limited. Combine that with their issues in checking opposing counterattacks - damningly highlighted in pre-tournament friendlies - and the only outcome can be disappointment.
It's natural, of course, that the longer a mode of play exists, the more strategies spring up to counter it. Xavi observed two years ago that Spain often struggled against a 3-5-2 (such as Chile deployed against them in 2014 and Italy in 2016) because it is difficult to press high against a team with five passing outlets at the back, particularly if they have two centre-forwards to occupy the central defenders. That was the route Russia's coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, took, and it worked - but Spain were also guilty of wastefulness in midfield in a way their champion sides were not.

No one is better on strategy and the history of strategy than Mr. Wilson, but a few American observations:

(1) When an opponent plays defensively and packs defenders into the box it tends to neutralize your advantage in skills.  at that point, if you don't have a striker or two up front who can head a ball in off a cross, you're always going to struggle to score.  You can temper this advantage if you have a midfielder who can score from range, but Spain never replaced Xavi Alonso.

(2) alternatively, you could choose to absorb some pressure yourself and then hit the other team on the break, with a more open field to play with. But, if your team is old, as both Spain and Germany are, you not only lose that second option--you just don't have enough pace for an effective counter-attack--but are going to have even more trouble getting anyone open in the attacking zone.

(3) Meanwhile, the ability to play that sort of quick counter depends on having a strong back four to cover if you lose the ball, measured in a very different way than soccer analysts think of it: not the four defenders but your goalie two central defenders and your holding midfielder.  Spain used to have Casillas, Puyol, Pique and Busquets in those spots, all of whom were great.  Neither Germany nor Spain is terribly good in those positions this year (though David DeGea should be). [by this measure alone, we'd expect Brazil to win and Uruguay to be dangerous.]

Combine it all and there's really no reason to expect an old, ball possession team with weak defense to do terribly well.

Posted by at July 4, 2018 6:21 PM