FIFA World Cup: Learnings from the first round of matches

It has been a frantic start to the FIFA World Cup, the first round of matches providing more excitement than any other international football tournament in recent memory. There have been shocking upsets, thumping wins, individual moments of brilliance, and high drama.

Here are a few takeaways:

The high press

Argentina soccer fans watch the team lose to Saudi Arabia at a World Cup Group C soccer match played in Qatar, on a large screen set up for fans in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina, early Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Gustavo Garello)

Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the World Cup has been the willingness of the so-called weaker teams to advance further up the pitch to win the ball in opposition territory.

Arsene Wenger, FIFA’s chief of global football development, had said that pressing has become “absolutely universal” across the world before the start of the World Cup. And it has been a technique that has proven useful for teams that have changed their approach to force the issue off the ball when they do not have the individual talent to compete on the ball.

The emphasis is on winning the ball back in areas of the pitch where teams can threaten offensively, and make use of the little possession they get, as opposed to winning the ball back in defensive areas, only to face constant attacks later.

A defining part of Saudi Arabia’s shock 2-1 win over Argentina was the remarkably high defensive line, which not only rattled the opposition but also caught them offside a total of 10 times – leading to three disallowed goals. Japan’s second-half turnaround against Germany was built around a similar high pressure. In one of the more under-the-radar results, Tunisia’s well-earned draw against Denmark came from the same risky approach.

Teams that chose to sit back and wait for counter-attacking opportunities alone – like Iran, Costa Rica, and Serbia – all faced big defeats.

Emphasis on width

Belgium vs canada, FIFA world cup, canada in FIFA world cup, Qatar 2022, BELCAN Belgium’s Lois Openda crouches on the pitch at the end of the World Cup group F soccer match between Belgium and Canada, at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. Belgium won 1-0. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A majority of international teams have relied on creating opportunities from wide areas, rather than central channels, in this tournament.

Canada were brilliant against a lackluster Belgium, and their wing-backs were a source of constant threat, Both Morocco and South Korea’s strategies relied on creating overloads on the wings with their wing-backs pushing very high and isolating defenders. Both England and France looked a lot more menacing when they were able to draw defenders in by getting their wide players advanced, and their forwards into the spaces.

Width was crucial to Saudi Arabia too, who caused the biggest statistical upset in the history of the World Cup. Their wingers not only pressed higher to push opposition wide players deeper but while defending the lead, also helped their full-backs by trailing back to create two-on-ones and leaving no space in behind their defensive line for Argentina to use from wide areas .

Sticking to wide areas in the buildup can usually be a safe yet monotonous form of football, with teams spraying passes from one end to the other, carefully looking for an opportunity. But in using the wide areas incisively – more and more teams now play with three at the back to be able to use the attacking ability of their wing-backs – they have added an edge to that approach.

Wing-backs have become the most crucial element of a lot of teams. And after studying each other’s first games, it will be intriguing to see how others react to this defensively.

Club fatigue

Japanese players Japan players celebrate the end of the World Cup group E soccer match between Germany and Japan, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Argentina and Germany were not the only top teams in the first round that were off the pace. Belgium defeated Canada 1-0, but were undoubtedly the worse team, Uruguay created close to nothing in their 0-0 against South Korea. Portugal against Ghana, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, needed a dubious penalty and some late luck to win 3-2. 2018 finalists Croatia were held 0-0 by Morocco.

An element of fatigue is evident at the first winter World Cup, with teams traveling to Qatar after a grueling opening phase of the season. Countries with a majority of their players playing in the top leagues in Europe are not only affected by injuries, but also by fatigue. These teams also had less than a week together to train and get ready for the World Cup, not yet able to set the patterns of playing together.

A majority of the Asian countries, on the other hand, have had about three to four weeks together prior to the start of the tournament. Leagues in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran all wrapped up in October.

The big teams that got it right, have got it right so far – England won 6-2 and Spain 7-0, while France and Brazil won 4-1 and 2-0 but could have scored a lot more. Expect the usual suspects – especially Argentina and Germany, both of whom created chances and had above-average xG and other stats in their favor – to have their act together in the games that follow.


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