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World Cup: how teams should attack the knockouts

World Cup: how teams should attack the knockouts

World Cup: how teams should attack the knockouts
July 06
13:22 2018

Stats of the day

The knockout rounds so far have featured football at its most thrilling — and most tedious.

On one hand, Spain’s attempts to defeat Russia resembled death by a thousand cuts, as they managed well over that number of passes in their round-of-16 tie against the host nation. Mesmeric sequences of short passes rarely ended with chances, though. Spectators were left bored. Unable to break down an obdurate defence, the 2010 world champions went out on penalties. 

By contrast, France and Belgium can credit their knockout wins to rapid attacks triggered by their goalkeepers, and quick, vertical passes that moved the ball up the pitch in seconds to set up game-winning goals. 

At this World Cup, speed matters. To understand why, we analysed the “ball progression” of some of the highest-ranked teams at the tournament, including Belgium, Brazil, England, France, Germany and Spain. We looked at the pace with which these top teams pushed the ball forward, alongside how many of their attacks in open play ended in either a shot or the award of a penalty. 

More than one in four fast counter attacks in the tournament have resulted in goals or penalties, compared with just 8 per cent of slower moves. Favoured teams such as Germany and Argentina proved to be among the worst for conceding chances to such counters, helping to explain why both teams (finalists at the last World Cup) went out early this time round.

So which players are decisive in setting up attacks? Belgium’s Eden Hazard is the best counter-attacker in the competition so far, passing or dribbling the ball more than 40 metres up the pitch per game while launching six fast chance-creating counters. France’s Kylian Mbappé and Paul Pogba also rate highly by such measures, while the Brazilian trio of Willian, Neymar and Philippe Coutinho are crucial to their side’s attacking intent.

All this suggests Brazil against Belgium is the tie to watch during the quarter-finals. Both teams are stacked with players who bring the ball forward at high velocity. If they are true to their footballing styles, a wildly fluctuating and goal-laden match could be the result.

From our global network

Croatians are ‘relaxed and happy’ as their golden generation of players take one last shot at World Cup glory, writes Valerie Hopkins

Croatian fans in Zagreb celebrate victory in one of their World Cup games © AFP

In Zagreb’s Ban Jelacic square, tens of thousands of fans set off flares and partied into the night last weekend after Croatia’s goalkeeper Danijel Subasic blocked three of Denmark’s penalty kicks to earn the country a spot in the quarter-finals. Restaurants have begun serving special dishes named after players, and almost every neighbourhood of the capital has a designated “watching” area — including one on a hill that is usually more popular for sledding.

“This year, it is like never before,” says Kresimir Macan, an adviser to Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenkovic. During the penalties, he says, more than 80 per cent of Croatians were watching the national broadcaster, according to its statistics. “Everybody is just breathing football. People are so happy and relaxed.”

Croatia, a small Adriatic country with a population of just four million, has one of the oldest teams competing in the World Cup. For many of the players, it is their last chance to shine on the pitch. Dario Brentin, a scholar of football and nationalism at Austria’s University of Graz, says: “If you go by the individuals, Croatia are one of the best teams playing in World Cup, and this ‘golden generation’ is not something Croatia can replicate, even with its diaspora, on a yearly basis.” 

So far the team have lived up to expectations, despite two of their star players, Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren, being embroiled in a corruption scandal at their former club Dinamo Zagreb. Indeed, notes Brentin, as the team progress, critical reporting of the scandal has subsided as a “national frenzy” has taken hold.

This will be Croatia’s best showing at a World Cup since 1998, when they made their debut at the tournament after independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. That team finished third, marking one of the new state’s first triumphs. Today, the challenges Croatia faces are different: an outflow of talented young people and economic uncertainty – its biggest company, accounting for 15 per cent of GDP, is now almost 50 per cent owned by Russian banks. “Croatia needed optimism and a forward- looking perspective. This was a boost that we needed,” says Macan.

It is Russia that stand in the way of further Croatian progress on Saturday. One joke doing the rounds is that Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev will be attending the match instead of Vladimir Putin because the president cannot bear to see his nation lose to Croatia on home turf.

Stories you may have missed

Three of the first eight knockout matches have gone to penalty kicks, and yet more shootouts are likely. So FT columnist Simon Kuper spoke to Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, an expert on penalties at the London School of Economics, who has analysed the records of all the players and teams in the tournament.

Worryingly for England, this analysis suggests the best penalty stopper left in the competition is their next opponent, Sweden’s goalkeeper Robin Olsen, who saves nearly half of all spot-kicks. Simon writes: “Many in England believe Tuesday’s victory has freed their nation from its historic penalty jinx. Palacios-Huerta is sceptical. He thinks that an important explanation for England’s six defeats in seven previous shootouts — given the small sample size — is randomness.”

Hosts Russia started the tournament as the worst-ranked team. On Saturday night, they will play Croatia for a place in the semi-finals. Their performance has stunned and delighted Russian fans, according to Moscow correspondent Max Seddon. He writes: “The home nation still hopes its self-belief and raucous, if belated, support will see them through.”

World Cup Extra will be appearing each Wednesday and Friday morning. Find us on or follow World Cup 2018 on MyFT. Next edition: Wednesday July 11.

If you are a subscriber and would like to receive alerts when World Cup 2018 stories are published, just click the button “add to MyFT”, which appears at the top of this page. You can find World Cup Extra on or follow World Cup 2018 on MyFT

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