Looking at the struggle of the favourites at the World Cup in Russia

The big teams have left a questionable impression in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup. Why has this tournament been so difficult for them?

It has been less than two weeks since the World Cup started, and we are already past the halfway mark of the tournament. Indeed, the group stage makes for the larger portion of matches even before the third matchday. As you might expect from a competition that comes every four years, there are myriad talking points to discuss. In this World Cup, one reigns supreme.

The favourites, the big teams, are struggling.

More than one cloud overhead

As you would expect, there is more than one factor involved in making this the hardest World Cup for the usual suspects in recent memory. Naturally, some of these are internal and some are external. The catch here is that nearly all the big-name teams have seen some sort of struggle, in some cases regardless of the results they have accrued. This means that there can hardly be a coincidence.

The shadow of transition

If international football is to be regarded as a sort of “geological epoch” equivalent, you could say World Cups usually come in cycles of three, perhaps four. Only a handful of players have featured in five editions of the tournament. Rafael Márquez of México is the only active player to achieve this feat, the previous being Lothar Matthäus between 1982 and 1998. Appearing in four World Cups is also a rare, yet increasingly common, achievement. For most players, three is the most they can get. Take Philipp Lahm as an example of that.

Now, transitions are usually gradual processes. As older players retire or stop receiving call-ups, new blood comes in and freshens things up. However, we know how hard it is for managers to time these replacements appropriately. Examples abound, but the most blatant proof this year lies with Joachim Löw.

After putting together a young, alternative squad for last year’s Confederations Cup and winning it, many of us were inclined to think that he had pulled a masterstroke. Names like Julian Brandt, Timo Werner, and Niklas Süle left good impressions last summer. They continued their upward trend during the club season. And yet, save for Werner, they have failed to crack into the Nationalelf thus far in the World Cup. Löw stuck to more or less the same foundation he used in Brazil. Two of those players, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil, offered terrible performances and were axed against Sweden.

By contrast, England turned things around dramatically after their horror show in Brazil and later in France at the Euros. Of the 23 men that Roy Hodgson selected for 2014, only two survived in Gareth Southgate’s list: Phil Jones and Raheem Sterling. It marked the end of the generation of Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, et al. And so far, it has yielded results. But it took two massive disappointments for the FA to take decisive action.

Shaky foundations

We can also point the finger at the suits and technical staff. Spain caused a minor earthquake when it emerged that Real Madrid had signed national manager Julen Lopetegui. The man who replaced Vicente del Bosque was supposed to guide Spain through the World Cup and then take over Florentino Pérez FC. That was the plan, anyway.

Madrid announced Lopetegui three days before the tournament started. Unsurprisingly, Spanish Federation president Luis Rubiales took exception to the timing of the announcement. Spain called a press conference the following day, saying that Rubiales and Lopetegui would appear together to offer an explanation. Instead, Rubiales appeared on his own, almost two hours later, and made an announcement of his own. He had fired Lopetegui. There was no problem, he said, with the fact that his manager had accepted Real Madrid’s job offer. The issue was in negotiating without the RFEF’s knowledge or consent, and announcing ad portas of football’s biggest event.

The minor earthquake became a magnitude 10 tremor.

Now, you can argue for both sides here. Was Rubiales justified in firing Lopetegui? Should the manager have waited until after the World Cup to sign for Madrid? Whatever you think, the fact remains that it is not ideal for a team to lose its manager when Spain did. Fernando Hierro bravely took charge of the can of worms and Spain managed to progress through to the knockout stage, albeit with more than a few question marks over their performances, and having won only one of their games.

Argentina are also the victims of poor management at the sporting and administrative levels. Not even Lionel Messi’s class has been enough to keep them from offering two trainwrecks for displays against Iceland and Croatia. I argued in Bayern Central’s Twitter account that it is on the Argentine Federation to have squandered the talent of Messi. Had they built a solid youth setup to keep the talent pool fresh, had they trusted a sporting project in the long term, a solid team would have assembled around Messi. Instead, they have one that is solely dependent on him. A recipe for disaster.

The know-how to destroy

The final, and perhaps most crucial factor involved in the struggle of the greats is the fact that traditionally smaller teams are doing a better job of nullifying the favourites. Now, to illustrate this in depth, I have picked Germany’s defeat against México. I chose this game for two reasons. First, it is the most solid tactical display thus far in the World Cup. Second, this is, after all, a site dedicated to FC Bayern and the German national team. Now, a fair bit of this defeat was self-inflicted. Still, Juan Carlos Osorio got a few things spot-on to force die Mannschaft into submission. Since this isn’t a tactical analysis piece, I won’t discuss them at depth and I’ll simply point out a few:

  1. Carlos Vela’s marking of Toni Kroos: Osorio, like anyone with eyes and basic knowledge of football, knew Kroos sets the tempo for Germany. He correctly assumed that Sami Khedira would not provide a passing lane for Kroos in the middle third. The manager tasked Carlos Vela with a man-marking of number 8 on and off the ball. Needless to say, it worked.
  2. Letting Germany cross in: Instead of flooding the wings to prevent Joshua Kimmich and Marvin Plattenhardt from overlapping, Osorio fortified the middle. He knew Timo Werner isn’t particularly good on the air, and neither was anyone behind him. “Let them cross as much as they like”.
  3. Keeping men committed to the break: Yes, México played defensively. However, they kept Hirving Lozano, Javier Hernández and Miguel Layún committed to the centre of the pitch. Osorio spotted the gap between Germany’s centre-backs and the rest of the team and ordered these players to stay up instead of defending. In doing that, he took the risk of giving away spaces, but with the trade-off that México would be one man the better in each and every counter-attack. As we know, it worked as well.

There are other examples of this refusal to be beaten on paper. Iran gave Spain loads of trouble. Morocco almost kept Portugal to a draw. Iceland surprised Argentina. The list goes on. Only England and Belgium had a reasonably fun time in the group stage. Everyone else started scrambling for points almost immediately.

Expect more

Yes. Expect more trouble. Expect big teams to clash and give each other a handful. Don’t be surprised if the odd underdog slips through. Portugal and Spain went through, but not unscathed. Others might not. This World Cup, at least, is that much more interesting than your average tournament.