Nobody's Safe in Russia

Prior to the start of this year’s World Cup a huge amount of focus was being paid to the question of fan safety in Russia. Russia’s domestic leagues have a bad reputation for hooliganism and organised bands of Russian gangs set upon England’s fans two years ago in France. In contrast, we’ve not seen a modicum of negativity coming out of Russia, especially in such an age of social media transparency.  

The fans may be having the time of their lives; partaking in the revelry, experiencing Russia at it’s best, it’s most open, and it’s safest but it’s a whole different situation for the players themselves. There isn’t a single team that can go to sleep at night in full confidence of what lays ahead of them and who they will have to meet if they are to lift the trophy in July.

Failure to break down

If this World Cup in Russia has taught us anything it’s that the gulf of quality and ability between teams has vastly reduced on the whole compared with previous years. Defences have tightened, tactics have become more fluid, and it’s difficult to break teams down. Even if teams are still not evenly matched on paper, the underdogs have certainly wised up.  

Many have been quick to laud the fact that up until the final round of group games when France met Denmark, there wasn’t a single game that had ended in 0-0. True, but this fact masks something that is being experienced throughout this year’s tournament, and that’s the diminished ability of teams to break down their opponents and score an early goal.

Regardless of the favourite in a match, tactics are sharper

This has been evident in the amount of games that have failed to register a single goal in the first half which is climbing up towards 20. It’s only been in the last couple of games that teams have started to score an increased amount of goals in the first half. It shows us that regardless of the favourite in a match, tactics are sharper and it takes the half time pause for coaches to have a word in the dressing room, and to switch it up to make a breakthrough. But does it take away the entertainment value? Obviously not. We’ve barely even noticed.

Crunch matches

It’s true we are starting to see things open as we near the end of the group stage. Teams are beginning to come into form, to find their rhythm and to find their identity. But what we’ve been lacking as well as first half goals is an absence of the absolute destruction of teams. Only a handful of games have been won by more than two goals. Russia’s opener against Saudi Arabia was an early exception to the rule, being followed more recently by England’s 6-1 demolition of Panama.  

It’s not necessarily that ‘smaller’ teams are catching up, but that they’re getting better at matching up

A testament to the entertainment value of this World Cup despite the aforementioned patterns, is that people simply aren’t noticing the lack of goals in some games. The trend has been that teams will win 2-1 or 1-0 rather than seeing games such as Portugal and Spain knocking lumps out of each other to finish 3-3.  

It shows two things. Number one is that World Cup matches have become a tighter affair. It’s not necessarily that ‘smaller’ teams are catching up, but that they’re getting better at matching up. They have an ability to setup in a way where they feel more confident and comfortable. Secondly, the lack of a predominant method or theory across the board such as the counter attack, the tiki-taki, or the lamp-it-upfield-and-chase-it method shows we’re experiencing a much more globally representative game this time round.

Set piece sensations

A not so silent menace has been steadily creeping back into this year’s tournament, something we thought was gone from football forever, something that plagued us all eight long years ago. That’s right, the vuvuzela can be heard at some games much to the dismay of everyone, everywhere.  

The vuvuzela is an annoyance but one thing we should be grateful for is that goals are being scored from dead ball situations. This comes in contrast to South Africa 2010 when there was a distinctive lack of free kicks scored, largely blamed on the Jabulani ball. Now with the help of VAR we’re getting penalties like it’s Christmas Day everyday, and free kicks are raining in from masters like Messrs Ronaldo and Kroos.

You ain't seen everything yet

It’s true, there has been no single stand out team that we can point to and say ‘they’re gonna win this one’ (despite what England fans might think). No team, whether pre-tournament favourite, world-class squad, plucky underdog or dark horse has shown themselves to be capable of unequivocal praise or removing of doubt.  

France don’t seem to have realised they’re at a World Cup, and who knows what Spain are doing

Heavyweights Argentina have made it through but are falling apart at the seams. England look dangerous but have yet to meet a real test. Germany have blown hot and cold. Brazil are struggling to score and knit together effective play. France don’t seem to have realised they’re at a World Cup, and who knows what Spain are doing.  

Then there’s the other side of the coin. Teams from Group H who nobody gave a fighting chance like Colombia, Japan and Senegal are playing great, expansive football. The hosts Russia look like they could run for days. Portugal look weak as a team but you can never doubt Ronaldo. Even Switzerland look up for it.  

We’ve starting to see games open up, and more space is being created both on the pitch and in the difference in scorelines. We’re even seeing the match ups for the round of 16 take shape. But bear in mind the knockout stages will be a whole different kettle of fish. The knockout stages will sort the contenders from the pretenders.

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