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.