5 Days In – A Peculiar World Cup – The Real Reason

Jun. 06, 2010 - Magaliesburg, Joanesburgo, South Africa - epa02189713 Portugal's national soccer team player, Cristiano Ronaldo, plays the ball during the training session at Bekker High School in Magaliesburg, South Africa, 06 June 2010, in view of the upcoming FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

There are the obvious explanations. Teams are not accustomed to the new Adidas football, teams are frightened to lose the first game, teams are set up to not concede the first goal. Could the real explanation be that football has changed?

The game is professional in a way that it has never been before. Teams arrive and perform with such tactical rigour that the game is almost mechanical. The majority of the players in this World Cup are coached by trainers, not the managers, who have all been educated in the same way. There is personal identity, of course, but when all the trainers are utilising the same tools they are likely to use them in the same way. If we were to swap the coaches, trainers and managers of the national teams around, arbitrarily, so that they ended up in charge of a different team, would results truly be that different? Would any team have a different style? Each manager has looked at the players available to them and decided on the most appropriate tactics. The sad thing is that every other manager would probably choose the same tactics if they were in charge of the same players.

It is akin to the theory in Harvard academic Rakesh Khurana’s book, ”Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEO’s”, which claims that the attributes of the Chief Executive’s of major corporations have less effect than we like to imagine. Their impact is minimal. What actually matters is the core of the business. In football terms, the manager, the training, it is all periphery. What actually matters and has consequence is the talent on the pitch.

When a team is better they will usually win in spite of their manager or trainers. In club football the manager has an effect over the course of the season in respect to player transfers and squad rotation. In a tournament, the manager’s impact is limited to choosing the squad, which often chooses itself, and substitutions, the World Cup equivalent of squad rotation, because of their immediate importance. Much of the time even the substitutions are fairly obvious.

Brazil are not playing with a more reserved style because of Dunga, they are playing that way because Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Adriano are not worthy of a place in the squad. At the moment Kaka, Robinho and Elano are asked to defend as much as they attack because the coach knows they are not as potent in attack as their predecessors were. If Brazil were awesome offensively, Dunga would choose an offensive system. Portugal have a solid defensive base and a single extra ordinary attacking talent. So they choose a reserved system with an attacking focus through Cristiano Ronaldo. Argentina are weak defensively but top heavy in terms of attacking options. Consequently, the Argentinian style is unbalanced, wonderful offensively but vulnerable defensively. It is not because of the coach but in spite of him. Every team is playing the way the other teams manager knows they will, because if they were in the other managers shoes they would do exactly the same.

What this World Cup needs is a dominant personality. A player or a manager who does what the other team, and perhaps even their own, is not expecting. At the moment every player and every manager is following the book and the matches are typically tight affairs. It makes for tense viewing but unattractive highlights. 5 days in, it is a peculiar World Cup.

5 thoughts on “5 Days In – A Peculiar World Cup – The Real Reason”

  1. Very good point. In modern football a team is akin to a professionally managed organization. There is not much difference in individual skill any more. There are few remarkable exceptions but for the most part so called star players is more of a marketing hype.

    So it all comes down to team organization, tactics and motivation – all features of professional management. Professional management almost always focuses on two things – minimizing/mitigating risks and increasing probability of desired outcomes. Which in football often translates into defensive result-oriented style of play. And applying “industry best practices” that are the best fit for a specific set of players.

    1. Andrei, you have made some nice points yourself. The idea of professional management, in the business sense, focusing on mitigating risk and increasing probability of desired outcomes. It is very much the way in contemporary football. I will advance these points in another, more advanced article, if the situation at the world cup remains the same.
      As it is, right now, Bielsa and Chile are offering a nice tonic.
      He has taken a relatively mediocre team, good – indeed, but by no means a team with players as extravagant as the style with which the coach asks them to play. Bielsa is unique, his team is unique, and they are interesting to watch. Of course there is more to it, but i will save that for an article.

  2. And, indeed, the most distinctive performance so far, stylistically, has been North Korea’s. Their defensive discipline is very different in kind from the sort of play we see from all the other teams.

    If that kind of crazy isolation is what’s required to keep football from melding into a single “way to play the game”, then perhaps we should choose to enjoy the inevitable here.

    1. I really liked Korea DPR and their distinctly different style of play. It is refreshing to see a side that goes out without well known players but has a clear purpose and team goal in mind. I was really hoping they could pull out at least a draw against Brazil.

  3. It’s way too early for this kind of analysis. Wait until we’ve got through the group stage. First games are often cagey affairs with most teams aiming not to lose it. And we haven’t even had all the first games yet!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *