A quick glance at the last-16 ties and the subsequent quarter-finals paints a deceptively predictable set of results from the first round of knockout matches at the 2014 World Cup.
All eight group winners progressed at the expense of the group runners-up, but as any of us who have been indulging in this fine World Cup will know, those sides that secured a coveted spot in the last-eight of the competition were made to work exceptionally hard for that privilege.
The amount of glorious failure in the last-16 clashes was astounding, stirring and gut-wrenching, and although none of the supposedly lesser sides were able to grasp a quarter-final spot, their exploits made for some encapsulating drama.
After all, aside from Colombia—who dispatched of Uruguay with a flourish—every single team that progressed to the quarter-finals could just as easily have found themselves on the plane home.
The three favorites for the title—Brazil, Argentina and Germany—were all put under real pressure for long spells by Chile, Switzerland and Algeria respectively. And despite the apparent gulf in class between some of second round opponents, five ties went into extra time—two of which were decided by a penalty shootout—while another match was won by a goal deep into added time.
Glorious failure is exactly that of course: failure. And to lavish praise on sides that have come up short of the quarter-finals does seem a little contradictory. But it’s difficult to recall a World Cup in which the lesser teams gave so many of the more illustrious names such a consistently tough time. And while there may have been an obvious disparity between the calibre of individuals in some of the matches, astute and inventive management has proven to be an effective leveller throughout the course of the Brazil showpiece.
With that in mind, you’d have to say that the refreshing strategies implemented by a host of managers in this competition has been a catalyst for a thoroughly entertaining spectacle. Also, with so much focus on the individuals shining brightly on the game’s biggest stage, it’s a facet of soccer that can and has be flippantly overlooked.
In recent major tournaments gone by, the approach of lesser nations has deviated little from remaining compact, riding your luck and hoping to nick a goal. But there has been a considered deviation away from those kinds of ideologies during this World Cup and while the last-16 results may suggest otherwise, it’s worked well for those bosses brave enough to experiment with diverse and much more positive mantras.
The most pertinent example of the lot is arguably the strides made by the Algerian team. Four years ago the Fennec Foxes were terrible to watch in South Africa. They were reluctant to play with even the slightest hint of attacking intent and instead, looked to spoil games with abrasive, negative tactics. Granted, it did earn them a 0-0 draw against England, but they went out at the group stage without giving their fans a solitary goal to celebrate.
Four years down the line, this team can still be organised and diligent when required, but they’re a lot easier on the eye, too; they became the first African team ever to net four goals in a World Cup game when they swatted aside South Korea 4-2 in the group stages.
Vadid Halilhodzic fashioned a team that is tactically versatile and as such, they’ve been able to tailor their game-plans to cause problems for various opponents. They were sensational in their vibrant counter-attacking forays against Germany in the last-16, and had it not been for a goalkeeping master class from Manuel Neuer, they would have been in the next round.
The United States also benefitted hugely from the strategical acumen of Jurgen Klinsmann before they were knocked out in heartbreaking fashion by Belgium. The German boss got the USMNT regularly producing performances greater than the sum of their individual parts, and his wonderful man management abilities and motivational skills have been lauded by plenty throughout the tournament.
Mexico’s manager Miguel Herrera also did a superb job with his group of players, having turning round what was a squad in disarray since his appointment in October 2013. El Tri outplayed Brazil for long spells during their group stage stalemate before coming within two minutes of dumping out the Dutch. In the end, they simply didn’t have enough withstand the Oranje’s attacking intensity.
There are other examples too. Let’s not forget that Jorge Sampaoli’s effervescent Chile team were the width of the crossbar away from knocking out Brazil, while the experienced Ottmar Hitzfeld and his Switzerland side were the same margin away from taking Argentina to a penalty shootout.
Of course, these are teams that are no longer in this World Cup, but for the all of aforementioned nations, getting out of the group stage represented an achievement in itself. Subsequently, once overcoming the initially raw despair at being eliminated, there will eventually be a hugely positive vibe around the respective camps of each of those nations as they look ahead to the next challenge.
And for the future, it certainly bodes well for the kind of football we might see at World Cups and other major international tournaments. The ingenuity and ambition demonstrated by these teams throughout the competition will surely galvanise others into playing in a comparably enterprising fashion, and as neutrals, that can only make for more competitions that are just as enthralling as this one.
But looking at things a little more short-term, the decision making of the eight remaining managers will play a vital role in determining who wins the ultimate prize in Brazil; just as it has done in their advancement to the last-eight.
Belgian boss Marc Wilmots has already used his substitutes with distinction—they’ve scored four goals in four games—while the tactical tweaks made by Louis van Gaal in the Netherlands’ late victories over Chile and Mexico have also been vital to the Oranje’s progression.
Even with eight games remaining, this World Cup has seen more goals from substitutes than any in history. The matches will inevitably get tighter with the final now just touching distance away. But given the precedent set by these teams so far, perhaps it will be the manager that can marry ambition and acumen most effectively that will reign supreme on July 13.