During his broadcast of the Italy-Paraguay match, Ian Darke, never shy in his observations of that match before him, made the astute observation that the Italian penalty area “must be a minefield” to the Paraguayans by the way they seemed to avoid it at all costs.
While Darke’s comment focused on Paraguay’s defensive “negativity,” that match was one of the many where we have seen teams exhibit solid approach play, only to loop a cross to row Q, fire a missile well over the bar, or fail to pick out a teammate in the box with a fairly simple pass. Italy could have and should have been up 2-0 by halftime, and they paid for failing at the end of their attacking moves by dropping two points in Group F.
Indeed, the final third has been where attacks go to die in this year’s World Cup.
In a very informative article in the Guardian, Rob Smyth details some telling statistics from this year’s World Cup. While most attempts by goalkeepers to assail a new ball are dismissed by the general sporting populace, perhaps criticisms of Jabulani aren’t so far off.
According to stats by Opta, just 1/3 (33.4%) of shots have been target, roughly a 10% lower accuracy rate than the Champions League and Premier League campaigns from last season. While Smyth concedes the World Cup sample is much smaller, if you are watching the game there is no doubt that you have been thoroughly disappointed with some of the finishing and crossing thus far. World-class players are skewing golden opportunities time and again.
But to blame a ball is a poor, poor excuse for professionals. They have had time to practice with the ball, and adjustments need to be made.
Another contributing factor is the changing nature of the game. As written in a previous post on this site, the game is more professional than ever, and as Jose Mourinho’s assault on Europe’s trophy cases attests to, if a team can remain tactically disciplined and organized, they can absorb pressure and employ a successful counter-attacking strategy.
The defensive organization of North Korea, Nigeria, and Switzerland have stifled the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Spain to a combined 3 goals in their opening matches. Inferior teams voluntarily concede possession knowing that a point in these early matches is far more important than trying to score goals against technically superior sides.
Most guilty of poor play in the last phase of an attack is Spain. As favorites, there is a massive world microscope on the Spanish. As expected, the Barcelona boys dominated possession and put together breathtaking attacks, only to see that final ball scuffed, not controlled properly, or missing the target. The Opta statistics show that Spain led the pack with an incredible 49 touches in the Swiss penalty box (17 more than Chile in second place), yielding exactly zero goals.
Just as Internazionale soaked up the pressure against Barcelona in this year’s Champions League semifinal, Switzerland defended like heroes and went route one. They got a scrappy, ugly goal to send the defending European champions into a shock from which they could not recover.
It has been argued that there have been minimal exciting goals because teams are more cautious in this opening round of fixtures, but that doesn’t sum it all up. There has been solid approach play by the likes of Italy, Ivory Coast (who should have beaten Portugal) and Brazil, but with no end product. Disappointment does not come from negative, defensive tactics across the pitch but rather positive, attacking tactics getting thrown out the window in the last third with shoddy passing and finishing.
Obviously, there are many contributing factors for why the final third has become a black hole so far, but the bottom line is that the attacking talents on the pitch simply need to step up their game. Whether it is pressure, defensive organization, or Jabulani, the play in and around the box has to improve if we are to get the goals we so crave.
As I write this, Argentina is putting a show on against South Korea, but their 2 goals so far have been an own goal and a soft goal from another set piece. Again, brilliant approach play, awkward finishing.
Who else is frustrated with play in the final third out there?