Earlier in this World Cup we discussed the tyranny of possession, the idea that, in the wake of tiki-taka, every team had to look to pass the ball constantly and that any other way of playing was somehow wrong and inadmissible among right thinking people.
World Cup 2018 Diary: Penalty Pain For Spain, Croatia Struggle Through Against Denmark
That has, of course, always been drivel and yet over the last decade since Spain and Barcelona took that style to its zenith, teams hopelessly ill-equipped to follow the model have slavishly tried to comply, compelled so to do by coaches without the intellectual capacity to think for themselves and without the necessary character to go against the grain and go their own way.
Football should be a game of diversity of approach, of teams playing different styles, doing different things to confound one another. But such is the power of fashion that we have drifted into a game where one style is seen as good, others shameful.
Perhaps this World Cup will finally give the lie to such nonsense for the high priests of the possession game, Spain themselves, have been hustled out of the competition by a side who, on paper, should not have been fit to lace their boots. But by playing a different style, by defending deep, defending well and looking to cause problems on the break, Russia took the game through 120 minutes, all the way to penalty kicks and ultimately, into the last eight.
Of course, the pundits are furious, distressed that the Russians have ripped the wings off a butterfly but the truth is rather different. In their obsession with possession, one which initially came out of the perfectly noble idea of controlling a game, they have become enfeebled by a fetish and forgotten entirely that winning football matches has nothing much to do with the journey. It is all about the destination.
Spain have nobody but themselves to blame. At no point at this World Cup did they truly convince, at no stage other than when spurred into retaliation by their Iberian neighbours Portugal taking an early lead have they looked to have any attacking venom. Instead, they’ve had all of the ball – 79% against Russia – and done nothing with it. It’s time not only for Spain to rethink their game, but the rest of the world to conclude that there are other, more effective ways, to skin a cat than merely playing pass the parcel with it.
Effective isn’t always attractive of course and today was the dawning of that phase of the World Cup when the pressure really kicks in – and that is especially so of this second half of the draw, stuffed with teams who might just get a World Cup final place that they would not have dreamt possible two weeks ago. Tournament football doesn’t always anoint the best team come the finish and it’s especially rare that the best two contest the final.
The Euros have specialised in that – Portugal, Greece and Denmark were clearly not the ‘best’ sides in their winning years for instance – but the World Cup can do it too. As it stands, probably the best four sides in Russia, in no particular order, have been France, Uruguay, Brazil and Belgium, though perhaps Croatia might argue on the basis of their group form. The draw decrees that only one of the four can survive.
The bottom half of the draw is full of lesser lights, all of whom will have spent the last few days thinking their luck might be in and, as a result, started to feel pressure they’ve not had to deal with in the group phase. That pressure was written all over a desperate encounter between Croatia and Denmark that not even Luka Modric could elevate.
Croatia seemed paralysed by the scale of the historic opportunity ahead of them and could find no rhythm, becoming increasingly cautious as the game went on, unwilling to risk a mistake, leaving the combative Mandzukic totally isolated against a composed and drilled Danish defence.
Ultimately, Modric set Rebic in on goal, only for him to be hacked down. Modric took a dreadful penalty that Schmeichel saved, but only after being a yard off his line when the ball was struck. How does VAR not put that right? Is there any point to this system at all? Wasn’t it brought in to deal with such obvious mistakes? Is there any point having a rule if your not going to bother implementing it? They then ignored it through the shootout too, in which the bulk of the penalties were choked with tension.
In the finish, it went the way of Croatia who know they have got away with one and will be all the better for it. Colombia, England, Sweden and Switzerland will be mightily hacked off.