The emphasis on a systematic approach to football has made club teams more attacking but World Cup ones more defensive • Interactive: a history of the Golden Boot at the World Cup
After the 1990 World Cup had yielded only 2.21 goals per game, Fifa was so concerned that it brought in three points for a win, outlawed the tackle from behind and began the process of liberalising the offside law. The last World Cup produced fewer goals per game than any tournament since 1990, with just 2.27. In terms of tinkering with the laws, though, Fifa has done nothing – although, as the Sunday papers remind us every week, it has not been entirely inactive in the four years since.
It is not just the endless fight against corruption allegations that has prevented Fifa from taking action, though: there is also the fact that club football suggests there is no need for any tinkering with the laws. The Premier League last season brought an average of 2.76 goals per game, lower than the previous season’s average of 2.80, which in turn was lower than the 2.81 of 2011-12, but the fifth season in a row in which more than 2.7 goals have been scored.
In the Bundesliga there were 3.16 goals per game, in La Liga 2.75, in Serie A 2.72 and in Ligue 1 2.45. The Champions League brought 2.90. High-level club football, in other words, produces roughly half a goal per game more than top-level international football. Nor was 2010 an outlier: since the 2.71 achieved in 1994, there has been a decline in goals per game in every tournament.
The reasons for that are probably twofold. The major issue is that international teams have less time to prepare than club sides. While a club manager will have his players every day for perhaps 40 weeks of the year, a national manager will work with his players for perhaps two or three days half a dozen times a year, plus two to three weeks before major tournaments. “The level of detail that goes into games still, to this day, amazes me,” said the Secret Footballer in the Guardian of top-level club football. “Every player has his own script, what to do, when to do it, information on the player he’s up against … We memorise every single set piece, where we have to stand, run and end up. We even memorise this for the other players so we know where everyone else will be at any given time.
“You know that pass when you say to yourself: ‘How did he spot that?’ Often he didn’t need to; he knew the player would be there because the night before in the hotel, he read about the runs he would be making. It’s exactly the same pass after which sometimes you might find yourself saying: ‘Who was that to?’ The receiving player either forgot to be there or was taken out of the game by a tactical manoeuvre by his opposite number. Football at this level is very chess-like, maybe not to those outside of football but certainly to those inside.”
There simply is not time at international level to achieve that level of mutual understanding. Defences, of course, are also less sophisticated at national level but as José Mourinho and Brendan Rodgers have both pointed out this season, it is far easier to achieve a basic level of defensive soundness than the attacking fluidity needed to overwhelm it. Defence is about structure: there are minor variations, but one back four is much the same as another. Attacks, though, are anti-structure, about creativity and establishing a pattern in which self-expression can best be deployed – and that is far more dependent on the individual characteristics of players.
That relates to the second factor, which is the attitude of coaches, many of whom, at international level, prefer to focus on their defence. That is understandable: it is the factor they can more easily control and also the thing they will be blamed for if it goes wrong. If a defence is disorganised it is manifestly the coach’s fault; if an attack fails to spark, the players share the blame.
This is the paradox of the systematisation of football that has been going on since the 1960s and has accelerated over the past 20 years: it makes club football more attacking and international football more defensive. There are exceptions, of course. Chile, under Jorge Sampaoli, have a highly systematised approach, rooted in hard pressing high up the pitch. But their six friendlies since the end of qualifying have produced 17 goals – which would be standard for a club side. Germany’s qualifiers averaged 4.6 goals per game, an indication both of their attacking prowess and their lack of defensive solidity. A recent 2-2 draw against Cameroon and a 6-1 win over Armenia suggest that nothing much has changed.
Holland were second-highest scorers in European qualifying with 34 goals in 10 games, but they are unlikely to find many opponents as accommodating as Hungary, whom they beat 8-1 in one qualifier. Bosnia scored 30 in 10 matches with an attacking 4-4-2, but all their preparations seem to have been focused on switching to a 4-2-3-1 and looking to control a game through midfield.
Argentina top-scored in South America, bagging 35 and conceding 15 in 16 matches, but their last five friendlies suggest a tightening up: seven goals scored and none conceded.
This, perhaps, is just the way of things. Come a tournament, caution takes over. Weaker sides look to avoid embarrassment and see honour in a narrow defeat, while stronger sides become wary in the knowledge that one slip can lead to elimination.