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The Impossibility of Being a Favorite at the World Cup

After the first week of the tournament, very few favorites have actually won, and of course, the defending champs have already lost. So, why has talent seemed like a burden so far in Russia?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Heading into the World Cup, one might imagine that having an abundance of players that compete for the best teams in the world and a competent manager supported by experienced technical coaches would give you the best possible chance at success. Well, it turns out one would be wrong.

While the above scenario is certainly a good idea on paper, it hasn’t been working out this summer. Germany, Argentina, and Brazil all came up short in their opening games against sides they were heavily favored to beat. Outside of the typical “they choked” or “they weren’t confident enough” rationale that still defines much of the “analysis” around the sport, there is a reason why we’re seeing some of the bigger teams struggle: It’s much harder to be a competent attacking team than it is to be a competent defensive one.

The managers of national sides are often forced into playing a particular style of football because of the quality of players available to them. Take South Korea for example. Outside of Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, there isn’t much to get excited about. Sides like that have to play more simplistic, defensive football and hope that their counterattacks end at the feet of their most talented player. So, with the rare team that has a plethora of options at different positions, there comes a hope that they can play a more exciting and successful style of football.

As Ryan O’Hanlon said on a recent episode of Ringer FC, “Germany wants to play like Manchester City. They want to play barely any midfielders and shove all these attacking players forward and press.” That’s demonstrably true. Manager Joachim Löw sees an opportunity in the immense talent at his disposal to play a more complex style of football. But since his team has so much attacking talent, including Arsenal’s Mesut Özil, Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos, Manchester City’s Ilkay Gündogan, and RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, they get pigeonholed into a specific style of play.

Mexico’s first-ever win against a united Germany is a direct result of this dynamic. El Tri entered the game as underdogs free of expectation in both possession and approach. Germany entered as the reigning World Cup champion whose B-team won the Confederations Cup last summer. If there was one team in the competition with lofty expectations for both results and style of play, it was the one who could afford to leave PFA Young Player of the Year Leroy Sané at home.

Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio’s plan exemplifies the difference in approach: He told his team to sit deep and not only deny Germany space in the final third, but also force Germany to push a significant portion of their players forward to break down the defense. Since Mexico enjoyed the stylistic advantage of being the team out of possession, their route to success demanded only defensive compactness and efficiency on the counterattack. Germany, on the other hand, were tasked with artfully manipulating Mexico’s compact defense through clever positioning, accurate passing, and positional overloads, all while holding a high defensive line and counterpressing to save keeper Manuel Neuer from going into a one-vs.-one every time they lost the ball.

Center back Mats Hummels candidly outlined the nature of how their approach differed from Mexico’s after the game. “When seven or eight players play offensively, then it’s obvious that the offensive force is greater than the defensive stability,” he said. “That’s what I often bring up internally. That apparently hasn’t come across yet. Our cover is not good; you have to admit it—often only Jérôme [Boateng] and I were at the back.”

In order to be basically proficient within the context of this match, Germany had to put five players across Mexico’s defense just to stretch the space enough for their midfielders to have the requisite time and space to influence the game. If they didn’t push numbers forward, they’d pose no threat of scoring but be just as susceptible to the counterattack by holding meaningless, exploitable possession in midfield areas. In practice, while they may have created some opportunities for their attackers, the pressure it put on their midfielders to stop Mexico in transition was far too great. Germany didn’t lose because they played poorly or because their approach was fundamentally flawed; they lost because the game demanded they perpetuate a style of play that only a handful of teams can manage.

Although the attack receives the majority of the credit for their record-breaking season, the way Manchester City defend is as essential as anything they do going forward. Through counterpressing, compacting space, and uniquely using keeper Ederson’s ability to come off his line, they became one of the best teams in Europe on both sides of the ball and scored 106 goals and allowed just 27 in 38 games. Germany’s attempt to recreate the potency of that attacking system, while admirable, fell flat on its face because they couldn’t defend in the same way as Manchester.

As Ted Knutson of StatsBomb put it on a podcast in May: “We’ve yet to find a team that executes the counterpress as efficiently as Guardiola teams do.” But an effective counterpress—winning possession back immediately after losing it —is key for any team trying to dominate the ball at the World Cup. In turn, it’s far too easy for any outfit with solid talent to expose the space behind a team that comes forward and attacks. And yet that’s what’s required from a successful team. The same dynamic defined Argentina’s opener against Iceland.

In the first half, Iceland sat deep, with a player or two allowed to shirk some defensive responsibility for the sake of the counterattack. Although Argentina scored first in a flukey run of play, Iceland eventually got their reward. After 45 minutes, they sat even deeper and compressed, and though they failed to create a single chance, their defensive strategy, much like that of Mexico’s, demanded more complexity of Argentina.

The narrative coming out of the game was one we’ve come to know all too well. Lionel Messi missed a penalty, so add another failure to a decade-long list. And yet, we know that it’s not solely about player talent at the World Cup. The stylistic advantage a team can enjoy by having the freedom to employ a variety of approaches is the ultimate power, and even for the team with the greatest player of all time, expectation can be too heavy a burden.

Despite plenty of early upsets, the top teams aren’t destined to fail because they’re “too good.” Instead, their approach can be tweaked to better suit the context of international competition. Germany pressed Mexico from the opening minute. They were always looking to have the ball and that allowed their opponents to play a successful style. A good example of a more balanced approach from a top team with plenty of talent is the one that, dare I say it, England seem to have taken. They were ready to press a team foolish enough to try and play out against them against Tunisia, but are clearly ready to sit in and defend if the game calls for it. After all, the Three Lions did put in the best performance we’ve seen from any of the “bigger teams,” registering 3.1 xG and conceding just 0.1 (outside of the penalty). It might seem counterintuitive, but letting the game be more balanced could be what tilts the odds further in Germany’s favor.