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FIFA World Cup 2018: From building attacks around defences to mastering set-plays, a tactical overview of tournament

At the end, France spoiled the Disneyland edition that his 21st World Cup has been: expectations around the tournament had been subdued, shaped by Russia’s antagonistic relationship with the self-acclaimed democratic West and its baying media corps. The World Cup, the sporting mega-event par excellence, never offered Russia a chance to fundamentally reshape the political narrative, but allowed to alter — or manipulate, depending on one’s point of view — the negative image Russia has endured around the globe. The charming universalism of the World Cup was the perfect vehicle for an exercise in ‘sportswashing,’ proffering a sanitised and loveable version of new, modern Russia.

Even the football was surmised to be meddling and mediocre, with the death of international football announced on in February 2017 when FIFA and its big boss, Gianni Infantino, expanded the World Cup to 48 teams, and with the strain of the demanding and exhausting club season weighing on the star clubbers. Spain, Germany and Argentina all seemed laboured, but their difficulties were far more deep-rooted. They simply fell apart: Spain inflicted their own cruel demise in the most torturous of ways, ‘death by passing;’ Germany’s camp was fractious and relying on the old guard on the field proved to be their downfall and the Leo Messi cult wrecked Argentina.

 FIFA World Cup 2018: From building attacks around defences to mastering set-plays, a tactical overview of tournament

Samuel Umtiti celebrating his winner against Belgium in the semi-final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. AP

Brazil slipped up against Belgium and so France were the last powerhouse left. They didn’t play enthralling football, but strangely enough, even as they seemingly competed in a different tournament, France’s blueprint embodied plenty of the tactics in vogue at the World Cup. This tournament wasn’t about the celestial duopoly of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who both exited on the same Saturday, or Neymar. It wasn’t about strikers either. Harry Kane won the golden boot, the award for the tournament’s top scorer, with six goals, scoring half of his tally from the penalty spot. This World Cup had 169 goals over 64 matches, at an average of 2.64 per game, marginally lesser than at the previous World Cup in Brazil, 2.67.

It was about attacks built around defense, the way for England, Belgium and France to reach the last four. It’s a feature of the modern game that those at the back initiate forward movement. They must also excel in decision-making and pass it out of the back. It’s what England’s John Stones, Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld, and France’s Samuel Umtiti for example all did. Andy Roxburgh of FIFA’s technical study group called it the ‘Pep effect,’ the pronounced idea of play it out of the back in a constructivist approach to the game. It’s not possession for the sake of possession, but purpose-made.

Umtiti’s team didn’t simply rely on his passing. As Didier Deschamps failed to squeeze the maximum out of his potent forward line, with the exception of Kylian Mbappe whose World Cup was seminal, France’s defense became ever more important and ultimately starred. Deschamps substantially changed his rearguard and went with a back four of Benjamin Pavard, Samuel Umtiti, Raphaël Varane and Lucas Hernández at the World Cup. They all showed versatility and defensive intelligence. Pavard offered offensive threat, though never drifting inside as Brazil’s full-backs and other teams did.

The bullish and frugal France defense needed enablers. N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi were just that. They protected France’s back line with much steeliness and discipline, the motoring Kante key to France’s balance. In the semi-finals, Belgium failed to penetrate France’s double wall. Not even resorting to cross into the box and set pieces rescued the Red Devils. France were masterly in defending set pieces. Umiti also scored the winner from a corner.

This was a set piece World Cup. Of the 38 goals scored in the first round of in the group stages, seven came from the penalty spot, six from corner kicks and seven from free kicks. In the quarter-finals five out of eleven goals were scored from set pieces. In total, 72 goals out of 169 goals were scored in this fashion, a figure of 42%, beating the previous record of 36% from the 1998 France World Cup. England excelled, courtesy of the minute analysis from coach Gareth Southgate to become the set piece kings, scoring nine goals out of twelve from set pieces. The introduction of Video Assistant Referees contributed to the rise of the set piece — 24 penalties were awarded in the group stage, six more than there has ever been at an entire tournament before.

The set pieces became ever so important as plenty of smaller teams sat back and defended very deep, the Irans and Panamas of the tournament. They had their own merits, but for France the defensive mindset remained baffling throughout the tournament, pestering all those who longed to see more ambitious football from Les Bleus, but ultimately Didier Deschamps was right as history always remembers the winners. In the final, France won through some resilient defending and by registering two set piece goals, not unlike much of the World Cup has unfolded.

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Updated Date: Jul 17, 2018 10:28:24 IST