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FIFA World Cup 2018: From Iceland's low defensive blocks to Mexico's counter-attack, tactical trends so far

International tournaments are usually short on tactical innovations. That said, having witnessed a week of World Cup 2018, certain tactical trends have shown up as all 32 teams kicked into action, producing 16 high quality clashes in the first round of group stage matches.

No goalless draw so far has been a breath of fresh air, but the pre-tournament favourites have found it difficult to force through well-organised and disciplined opposition. With the tournament now having already moved onto the second round of group stage fixtures, here’s a look at a few tactical trends from the first week of action:

Low defensive blocks

 FIFA World Cup 2018: From Icelands low defensive blocks to Mexicos counter-attack, tactical trends so far

Iceland's Gylfi Sigurdsson and Argentina's Ever Banega compete for the ball during the Group D match. AP

Iceland managed to stifle the attacking prowess of Argentina well by sitting in a compact, deep defensive formation and came away with a 1-1 draw. Australia weren’t as lucky as the Icelanders but the Socceroos gave a good account of themselves against France, whose attacking trio of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele were found bereft of ideas despite winning 2-1.
Mexico’s 1-0 win over Germany had all and sundry purring over El Tri’s counterattacks but it was their 5-4-1 low-block defensive setup towards the end of the game that prevented the world champions from creating clear cut opportunities when they needed them the most.

Counter attacks

Mexico’s win over Germany was greatly helped by the quick counter-attacks from El Tri’s jet-heeled forwards. With Germany all over the place with their midfield shape and suffering from a sub-optimal defensive transition management, Mexico hit the defending champions on the break with Chicharito Hernandez, Hirving Lozano, Carlos Vela and Miguel Layun. It proved to be quite a spectacle.

Portugal, too, came up with a masterful counter-attacking plan against Spain that saw Cristiano Ronaldo and Goncalo Guedes sprinting forward on quick breaks from a medium block 4-4-2 shape. Although Portugal didn’t score from counters, they certainly had Spain on the ropes on multiple occasions when the 2010 champions overloaded a particular side of the pitch.

Focus on one, superior flank

Spain’s 3-3 draw with Portugal saw them heavily favouring their left flank with Andres Iniesta, Isco, Jordi Alba, Diego Costa and even Sergio Ramos overloading it. As a result, there emerged a number of promising situations for La Roja throughout the game although it also allowed Portugal to initiate counterattacks on the underloaded side.

Denmark, who played a game of fine margins against Peru, continually utilised the aerial superiority of Yussuf Poulsen over Peru’s Miguel Trauco on the right wing as an outlet during buildup phase. Denmark’s playmaker Christian Eriksen and right-back Henrik Dalsgaard provided support structures for Poulsen, who ended up scoring the match-winner.

Attacking combinations

Combination play in the attacking third is difficult to perfect for national teams at a World Cup, but Spain showed their technical superiority against Portugal by splitting the Portuguese mid-low defensive block at will during certain phases of that 3-3 draw. Elsewhere, England were also breathtakingly good with their attacking third combinations. Captain Harry Kane dropped to play a #10 role and feed the runners beyond him – Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard – admirably despite the physical nature of their opponents Tunisia.

France, meanwhile, failed to get the most of what looked like the most attack-minded lineup of the tournament. Their front three of Griezmann, Mbappe and Dembele failed to find space in between Australia’s low defensive block, thereby drifting to the wings often and leaving large distances between themselves to play fluid combinations. Peru, despite their loss, were delightful to watch because of the speed of their attacking third combinations and were let down only by their finishing.

Set plays

Needless to say, the first week of action was dominated by set-piece goals. 21 of the 38 goals in the first 16 matches came from standard situations, including ten penalties. Certain teams have been far clinical with their set-pieces like England, while Spain also proved they aren’t a one-trick pony as seen from David Silva’s freekick that led to Diego Costa’s second goal.

England did well to counter Tunisia’s zonal marking outside the six-yard box at corner kicks to score twice from them, while Spain took advantage of Sergio Busquets’ aerial superiority over Guedes by targeting the wide zone from a central freekick from which Costa scored from a knockdown. Such inventiveness at set plays could help both England and Spain make deep runs into the tournament, where set-pieces seem to be taking the cake.

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Updated Date: Jun 20, 2018 19:03:40 IST