The 2018 World Cup had, up to this point, been the most thrilling World Cup of my lifetime. As far as the Group Stages went, and even into the first day of the Round of 16, we were spoiled rotten. Teams flew forward into attack. Different styles flourished. There were goals. So many goals. Classic goals. World class goals. There were comebacks and upsets. There was drama and intrigue and breakout players and dear god remember all of those beautiful goals?!
Then on Sunday it all came crashing back to Earth.
In the first game we had Spain vs. Russia, a slog of an affair that was marked by Spain passing the ball over 1100 times and doing little else. There was an own goal and a penalty kick, then Russia packed 10 men in the box. Spain passed around the midfield for 120 minutes. Then there was a penalty shootout, which I guess was tense and interesting, but other than that, woof.
The second game between Croatia and Denmark got off to a firecracker of a start — two goals in the first four minutes. Both goals were poorly defended and not particularly pretty, but it didn’t matter. After the 120-minute slog of Spain and Russia, we had action! This game was off to a flying start! Here we were going!
...And then it all ground down to a halt. Perhaps freaked out by the wild start to the game, both teams buckled down on defense. Instead of going for broke and trying to win the thing, they started playing as if they were trying to not lose. Croatia’s Luka Modric and Denmark’s Christian Eriksen, two of the more dynamic and brilliant players alive, were both left trying to find incisive moments with teammates who didn’t seem to eager to push forward and get into good positions or try anything.
Again the match ended 1-1, again we went to extra time, again not much happened ... until the 114th minute when Ante Rebic got in clear, got taken down from behind, and earned a penalty which Luka Modric had saved by Kasper Schmeichel. We had a shootout again, this time won by Croatia, and to be fair, it was amazing. It was a thrilling four minutes to start and a thrilling few minutes to end. Other than that, not a lot.
Everyone just seemed ... careful.
The thing is: This is how most international tournaments go. Teams that advance deep tend to be the ones who don’t make huge mistakes, and a way to avoid huge mistakes is not to try anything wild. Teams won’t commit too many men forward. An outside back who might normally make a surprise run into the opponent’s box will stay back instead, not wanting to expose his team to risk. No one wants to be the guy who lets his team down, so in another match where he might try and make a daring pass to split the defense, he’ll go with the safe ball to keep possession.
We saw this in the first game, in which Spain completed 1100 passes, but seemed afraid to try a pass that might not work. (90% pass accuracy is great, Spain, but not if the passes aren’t doing anything.)
For a lot of international tournaments, this sort of uninspired soccer is common as well, because national teams just don’t play together enough. On his club team Tottenham, Christian Eriksen plays constantly with his Spurs teammates, and they have built a beautiful chemistry, especially moving forward in attack. Eriksen knows the runs Harry Kane and Dele Alli and Son Heung-min love to make, and they know where he loves to put the ball and how he likes to pass. They practice together constantly. Clubs play upwards of 40, sometimes 50 or more matches together in a season, and train constantly.
For his national team, Eriksen has a few camps annually, some friendlies, and that’s it. He doesn’t have the day-in, day-out interactions on the field to build the chemistry and the telepathy that makes beautiful offensive soccer.
So most teams at international tournaments try to hastily patch together an identity, come up with a style that works, and hope for the best. If there isn’t enough time to do that offensively, a lot of times it makes sense to just get organized defensively, not try anything too crazy, and grind out results.
That was Sunday at the World Cup. We had four teams, all in their own way, trying to grind out results. They did it in different ways, but it all produced for some boring soccer.
I hope today was an anomaly. I hope teams keep going for it. I hope the tactics aren’t too negative, and players keep trying crazy shit that makes us cheer. We’ve had an all-timer of a World Cup so far. Let’s hope the realities of international soccer, and the raising stakes, don’t change that.