The first round of games is over so I thought I would write about some defensive trends I have noticed at this World Cup. This analysis is based on my own statistics and I welcome any corrections. As usual, I focus only on the defensive side of things.
Excellent team defense – The weaker teams have chosen to concede possession, defend deep and stay compact, perhaps learning a thing or two from Inter Milan this year. There have been master classes in pressure-cover-balance from the North Korean’s, the Swiss, the Ivory Coast and to a lesser extent Paraguay and the Denmark. The obvious way to break down these narrow defenses is to stretch the play and attack down the flanks, something Brazil and Holland were eventually able to do. The media love to hype games as “attacking player 1 vs defensive player 1” but this has not been the case at this World Cup. There is now a clear recognition that defending is the whole team’s responsibility and its very rare to see a player exposed in a one on one situation. The level of defensive organization seen at this tournament is amazing given how little time an international manager spends with his players. Of course these performances have been under-appreciated and are seen as a failing on the attacking team’s part. If the weaker team played a more open style, they would get destroyed and be criticized for it (e.g. Australia).
Poor defending of set pieces.- Of the 22 goals scored in the first round, 8 have come from set pieces. None of these have been direct free-kicks so the blame should go to the defensive organization at set pieces. Players have switched off at crucial moments and blown their marking assignments. Some teams look like they have not practiced set piece defending at all, with the guilty parties including Nigeria, South Africa, Paraguay and Italy. Honduras are also terrible at defending set pieces and should have been punished by Chile. Given how tight most games have been, expect set pieces to continue to be a big source of goals. The teams that continue to work on their set piece routines are set to benefit.
Good defending of transitions- In the opening round only 2 goals have come from transitions(Tshabalala against Mexico and Park against Greece). The danger of transitions has been identified and most teams keep 4 players behind the ball at all times to prevent the counter-attack. These same teams also play on the counter- attack themselves so when two such teams come up against each other, the game will obviously be very tight and low scoring. As teams become more desperate in the later stages, look for the games to open up more as players push forward in search of goals.
Dodgy Keepers – There have been attempts to blame the poor goalkeeping displays on the new ball but the blame should be going to the poor technique and positioning of the goalkeepers. A team with a poor goalkeeper tends to defend badly because their lack of confidence in the keeper causes the defense to over-react to basic situations. It could be that the tight nature of games leads to the goalkeepers losing concentration but that should never be an excuse. The dodgy goalkeeping is a contributing factor to the poor defending of set pieces. The good managers should pick up on the weaknesses of these keepers and exploit them for all they are worth.
Attacking fullbacks– Against teams defending deep and narrow, the attacking team’s fullbacks are likely to see a lot of the ball. The team that uses it fullbacks well (e.g. Brazil, Chile, Germany) will have a good chance of breaking down these defenses. The runs of the fullback are very difficult to track and they can also deliver crosses from deep to exploit defenses that are poor in the air. These fullbacks are only confident of going forward if they have good cover behind them, something England is finding out with the absence of Gareth Barry. So against ultra-defensive opponents, the team that manages to release its fullbacks will have the best chance of success.