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The Curse of Possession?

One of the most exciting FIFA World Cups of recent history came to a close on the 15th of July with an enthralling, slightly bizarre final between Croatia and France. The final was just as unpredictable as the rest of the tournament, ending with a score of 4-2 in France’s favour. While it may be argued that Croatia played better for most of the game, they weren’t as clinical in front of goal as the French. There were also various swings in fortune for both teams. The final featured everything from classy finishes to perfectly co-ordinated plays to a VAR penalty and even an own-goal and a comedy goal. I suppose that it was only fitting since these were all prominent throughout the World Cup, contributing to its unpredictability and excitement. But the most remarkable feature of the World Cup was the performance of the less-favoured teams, which was at times so scintillating that many labelled this edition ‘the World Cup of the underdogs.’


The underdogs of the World Cup certainly performed leagues better than many would have foreseen. We needn't look further than the final for evidence of this. Croatia, who had to come through playoffs to qualify, who weren’t allowed to play peacefully by their own fans 2 years ago at the Euro, who were ranked 20th before the tournament, were the World Cup runners-up. Croatia, who played brilliantly, weren’t alone in surpassing expectations and there were many upsets that exemplify the performance of underdogs, including Argentina’s defeat to Croatia, Spain’s draw to Morocco and their defeat to Russia, Germany’s defeats to Mexico and South Korea, and Japan’s near triumph over Belgium, amongst others. While this is excellent for the development of the sport, and is extremely entertaining, it is still quite startling. How did this happen? Why were some of the overwhelming favourites overwhelmed by much smaller teams? There may be many possible explanations, and maybe there isn't really any underlying reason, but I think the answer lies in counter-attacking football.


Photo from: www.kremlin.ru


When there is a match which has a clear favourite, the underdog naturally usually plays with a more defensive mindset and the favourites would play more offensively. This usually manifests itself in a game played largely on one side of the pitch, where the attacking team controls most of the possession and presses high, with most of their players on the opposing half. The other team sits deep, with almost all their players behind the ball, perhaps only one in front for a potential counterattack. This is the shape that most of the upsets of the World Cup took as well. I think the key to the performance of the underdogs is that, at least at this World Cup, the counter-attacking approach was a lot more effective than the possession approach. I decided to look into the possession statistics of the World Cup to see what can be derived from them.


Out of the 64 matches, there were 24 where one team dominated possession (which I defined as having at least 60% possession). I looked into some of the results and statistics of the 24 matches where the possession difference was at least 20%. When one team holds so much possession and almost camps out in the opposition half, one would expect them to emerge victorious from most encounters. However, out of these 24 games, the side with more possession only won 7 times within the 90 minutes (an 8th went to penalties), they drew 6 times and lost 10. They lost more than they won, which really is surprising. In fact, the teams with more possession in these matches scored a total of 29 goals, while conceding 35. This suggests that the counter-attacking teams have been more effective and, despite enjoying less of the ball, created better chances for themselves. In fact, the two teams that had the most possession in the tournament were Spain (68.5%) and Germany (67%), neither of whom went very far, despite having the ball for two-thirds of their games. On the other hand, France, the eventual champions, averaged only 47.8% possession through the tournament. Less than half! In fact, even in the final, they had the ball for only 39% of the time. It wasn't that the counter-attacking teams created the most chances. Germany averaged 22.4 attempts on goal per match, Brazil 20.6 and Spain 17.5. In contrast, the French averaged under 12. Even Belgium, the tournament highest scorers, averaged fewer attempts than the 3 aforementioned teams. So, the possession-heavy teams were able to fire at goal several times. What made their success rate so low?


There’s always a good chance that a well-executed counter-attack resulting in a clear goal-scoring opportunity, which we saw at this World Cup. This is because, during a counterattack, the game is stretched and players are sparse, so there is plenty of space for the attackers to work with. Space to dribble, run, pass, or shoot. On the other hand, when the possession-heavy team is attacking, they have to break through a far more condensed, organised defensive force. A large number of defenders populate a relatively limited region, there isn't much space to work with. This effect is accentuated at football’s highest level because the teams will be very well organised and will have detailed plans and tactics to ensure their defence can’t be beaten. In the modern game, while some players and teams are much better than others, the skill difference in no longer so disparate at the highest level that one player can go through 3-4 defenders with ease (though there are exceptions), so space is hard to come by. The lack of space means it’s difficult to make piercing passes, get close to goal, and get a clear shot at goal. So, although many of the teams in the aforementioned 24 matches had upside of fifteen attempts, most shots were either from distance, or from difficult shooting positions, often closed down. As a result, a lot of the shots were blocked or off target. As a matter of fact, over a third of Germany’s shots were blocked without threatening the goal.


The scenario is somewhat analogous to trying to penetrate a defensive line in rugby. The main difference, here, if you get tackled, you lose the ball and become vulnerable to a lethal counter-attack. The only way to make a clean break through the line is to make an elaborate play, using twinkletoes footwork, quick zig-zag passing, diagonal overlap, decoy runs, kick-throughs, or a combination of multiple. It’s similar in football. Excellent dribbling, quick passing, sudden runs, and creative through-balls can get you where you want to be, but these aren't safe plays. You need to take a chance to make a chance, I guess. The bottomline is that risks are necessary. To create goal-scoring opportunities, the plays required do not guarantee retention of the ball, and the alternative could result in a counter-attack with potentially disastrous consequences. Therefore, it’s understandable that many players might be reluctant to initiate these plays. After all, no one wants to make a mistake that leads to a goal against them at the World Cup now, do they? However, it is the teams that took these risks that performed best.


The likes of France and Belgium played as masters of quick breaks, but when they held possession, they didn't hesitate to make risky plays to get in to goal scoring positions. Croatia falls into the same vein. And, for me, this is what set them apart from teams like Spain and Germany. The hunger to win has to be greater than the fear to lose. In that sense, I suppose this World Cup exemplifies that. Teams like Germany, who didn't seem to want to win as much as the rest, fell terribly short. France and Belgium were definitely amongst the best performers of the tournament. They had the right mindset, the desire to win, and showed great creativity and strategic awareness, allowing their skill and flair to blossom. And the determined Croatians demonstrated, through their effort, attitudes, courage, mental and physical resilience, and sportsmanship, that where there is a will, there is a way, truly making this World Cup something of a fairy tale.