The 2018 World Cup storylines just keep on coming. Despite the tournament not having he same spark in open play that it did in 2014., the groups stage has had its fair share of drama. Uruguay were a popular dark horse pick by pundits yet they’ve been less than impressive even with their perfect points tally, the 2014 World Cup finalists in Argentina and Germany are on the brink of exiting in the group stages, Belgium haven’t slipped up yet, and there’s a pathway emerging for one of Mexico and whoever finishes second in Group F to make the semifinals, which would’ve been beyond what was expected of each of them coming into the tournament.
Germany may have out shot their opponents by a margin of 44–20, but there’s a level of panic surrounding the 2018 iteration of the team that hasn’t been seen in German football in over a decade. Of course, the healthy shot differential doesn’t come close to telling the entire story, and it obscures the fact that their shot quality on both ends has made it where the balance of there performances much closer to even with their opposition. It also doesn’t account for the several failed Mexico counter attacks, which could’ve made things worse. And, it doesn’t help that Germany needed an injury time wonder goal by Toni Kroos to keep alive any reasonable chance of progressing into the round of 16.
What emerged for the second straight match is the total lack of a support system in place to defend transition opportunities. While Sweden didn’t have anywhere near the collective amount of speed and dribbling that Mexico did, which allowed them to tear Germany to bits, they were still able to create good shooting opportunities because of similar issues. Germany had an aggressive approach to their buildup where only Antonio Rudiger would be in his own half while Jerome Boateng would be tasked with pinging passes from a higher position with the fullbacks providing length in the final third.
In fairness, Sweden’s lack of explosive athletes suggested this would be the match to get away with that type of strategy, except that didn’t happen which makes the problem that much more glaring. Another problem with Germany was the lack of men who were in between the lines of Sweden’s forward and midfield lines, which made it even harder to put some form of resistance on Sweden runners when they saw opportunities to create transitions.
I’m not sure what Germany can do at this point to change things considering how deeply committed they are to playing an aggressive buildup based almost solely around the passing and movements of Toni Kroos. Perhaps moving to a midfield three could ease things a little with another body there to slow things down, but we’re starting to see the drawbacks of having an offense revolve around one man, even if that one man is as awesome as Toni Kroos is.
Goals from set pieces have started to dry up just a tad from the rapid pace we saw over the first few days, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t seen some cool tricks being pulled from set piece plays. There have been a couple of routines pulled off by major sides, starting with the one unveiled by Spain versus Iran that also had the delightful bonus of creating a proper goal-line scramble at the end of it.
This wasn’t the only interesting routine to have happened over the past few days. Serbia had their own neat, multi-layered routine against Switzerland which ended in a near goal. Serbia had Dusko Tosic positioned near the edge of the penalty area and created a runway for him to sprint into the heart of the 6 yard box for a diving header, which he missed on. Three Serbian players in some form shift to the right while Nemanja Matic drifts off to the left.
You can’t talk about set pieces without talking about England, who have done enough cool things that they could warrant their own entire post at this point. Their first goal came from a corner routine that looked fairly similar to the one used by Serbia. The difference being that Ashley Young set a pick for John Stones to get a head of steam for his header, with his teammates creating the lane to run into.
And then England one-upped themselves by doing this later on for goal #4, the equivalent of a set-piece heat check after their prior successes.
The 2018 World Cup: come for the gravitas, stay for the set piece wizardry.
From a pure statistical standpoint, there hasn’t been a team that has combined shot volume with good locations like Belgium has done in their first two games. Granted, both of those games have come against Tunisia and Panama, which makes you take their performance with a grain of salt. They did some of this in Euro 2016, where they piled on shots and scoring chances against lesser teams before their eventual exit against Wales.
But, you can only beat the teams in front of you, and to this point, they’ve done their job. During the competitive portion of the match, Belgium were able to get traction during buildup play by having players in close proximity within the half space areas, which allowed for combination play and quick 1–2’s into more dangerous areas of the pitch. Romelu Lukaku in particular was quite good, laying the ball off before darting into goal scoring positions (related note: Romelu Lukaku is very very good).
There were also times when the game devolved into chaos ball where Tunisia either were counter pressed immediately by a Belgian player or simply gave the ball away under little pressure. Belgium frequently had an unsettled Tunisia defense to run at, and in a game where transition opportunities are high between the two sides, the difference in talent level was so grand that Tunisia got burned by playing with fire.
We’ll start to get a better idea of Belgium once they play England, and whether or not Roberto Martinez can truly silence the critics who don’t think he’s the man most equipped to maximizing Belgium’s collective talent level as a squad, but it’s been smooth sailings so far which is all that can be asked considering the chaos that’s gone on for other heralded teams at this tournament.
There is a stereotype that comes with African sides that the way they play is based on “pace and power”, which is a dangerous way of thinking. It gives little depth to teams like Senegal and ignores how they actually play and function. This isn’t to say that Senegal don’t have pace they can rely on, because a side that employs both Ismaila Sarr and Sadio Mane certainly has speed to be utilized in both attack and defense, but to simply think of them as just athletes on a pitch is naive at best, and quite problematic at worst.
For the majority of the match against Poland, Senegal put forth a very credible performance in how to create a stabilized defense while playing four attack minded players. Poland often look bereft of ideas in how to punish Senegal’s lopsided 4–3–3 defensive setup. Whenever Grzegorz Krychowiak dropped back to form a 3v2 with his center backs, Alfred N’Diaye and Idrissa Gueye made sure that there weren’t any passing lanes offered up to Piotr Zielenski to receive the ball and turn to make his next action. If Zielenski received a pass, he was immediately pressured into passing backwards to a teammate. Combine that with the effective work done by Sadio Mane and Ismalia Sarr to nullify opposition fullbacks and Poland basically generated nothing of note until their late flurry in the last 20 minutes.
Senegal similarly constricted Japan during the early portions of their next match. Senegal started off by defending in a much more traditional 4–3–3 with the addition of an extra central midfielder in Babou N’diaye. There was a lack of space available for Japan in the middle of the pitch making it hard to receive a pass and have enough time to turn and do something. That, in turn, meant that they had to slowly circulate the ball or just try and ping long passes (their first goal came from one such long pass down the wing). In particular, there was a clear emphasis on putting pressure on the ball by Senegal whenever they were in their own half to regain possession. As the match went on, Japan were able to slowly build more attacks that bypassed Senegal’s front line into some open space. One effective method was having a player drop deep which attracted Senegalese pressers opened up space for Japan to carry the ball forward.
What happened in the second half should set off some alarm bells for Senegal ahead oftheir match against Columbia. Japan found way to start making passing moves through the middle of the pitch and they’re significantly less talented than Colombia. To this point, Senegal have made it work defensively in ways that go beyond tired African football tropes, only giving up 18 shots through two games and the shot quality on average has been low enough that coach Aliou Cisse will largely be happy with what’s gone on. We’ll see whether this lasts when they play Columbia with a round of 16 spot on the line.
(Header image courtesy of the Press Association)