Nigeria and Peru entered this World Cup as a pair of very popular underdog darlings. Both teams have entertaining attacking players and are a lot better at scoring goals than they are at defending. Rather than asking their forwards to defend and their midfielders to sit, they both attack quickly and ambitiously, trying creative plays and shooting whenever they get a look at goal.
Both teams lost their opening matches on Saturday.
The possession and shot stats don’t look bad for Nigeria, but Croatia was in control of their 2-0 win all the way. Peru had a ton of chances, but Denmark only needed one to win. The underdogs did their best to play their preferred style and entertain, but both came up short against seasoned European opposition with world class midfielders.
These two games were easy to sell as relatively even matchups, and the games looked even on the pitch as well. But in both cases, the difference makers were the world class players in the center — Christian Eriksen for Denmark, Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić for Croatia. There is a reason these players play their club ball as starters for Champions League clubs Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. They can control games where their teams are otherwise overmatched.
There is also a reason that Nigeria’s front line players are where they are. Alex Iwobi is in and out of the Arsenal lineup due to inconsistency, Odion Ighalo is in the Chinese Super League because he fell out of form for Watford, and Victor Moses plays as a wingback for Chelsea, not as a forward, because he’s better at running a lot than he is at creating shots. You can say similar things about Peru — Paolo Guerreiro and Christian Cueva are above average, but not dominant Brasileirao players. Expecting any of these guys to be the match-winner in a tough World Cup game is asking a lot.
Indulging our fantasies of an ambitious underdog solving an organized, established side is very fun and easy until actual games are played. And then we learn the hard way that it’s not so easy to just take the ball away from, then blow by, a partnership of Modrić and Rakitić, who have four La Liga titles and five UEFA Champions League trophies between them.
One great underdog story did work out on Saturday — Iceland pulled off a 1-1 draw against Lionel Messi and Argentina. And how’d they do it? By parking all 11 men in their own half and clogging up the midfield. Iceland got the help of some excellent goalkeeping too.
Ultimately, that’s the formula for pulling off upsets in the World Cup. Costa Rica made a run to the quarterfinals in 2014 with a defensive system anchored by a world class goalkeeper, Keylor Navas. Paraguay made a run to the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals and did it with defense too, scoring just three goals in five games.
If you don’t have one of the most talented teams in the World Cup, you will not make a deep run with an attacking style. If you try to play fast, fluid soccer with average midfielders against Modric, you will lose.
So here’s a recommendation: Learn to love a big favorite, a Champions League-winning midfielder, or a team that plays competent defensive soccer. If you can’t get behind one of these things as much as you can get into the idea of Peru or Nigeria making some noise, you’ll come away from the World Cup bitterly disappointed.