Surprises galore!

To an extent, the World Cup has emphasised the argument that the gap between international sides is narrower than imagined.

Positive attitude: A team gathering of the Swedish side after the quarterfinal defeat to England. Sweden reached the World Cup quarterfinal after 24 years when few gave Janne Andersson’s team a chance of even getting out of its group.   -  AP

At the time of writing this article, the World Cup of surprises already had an unexpected semifinal on its hands. Before the tournament began, it would have been outrageous to suggest Croatia will play England in one of the semifinals. And yet, it was difficult to argue that either team did not deserve to have reached this far.

The tie symbolised the dramatic table-turning that the World Cup had witnessed. Two of the semifinalists had never won the tournament while England was looking to repeat its success of 52 years. And the surprises did not stop there.

Sweden reached the World Cup quarterfinals after 24 years when few gave Janne Andersson’s team a chance of even getting out of its group. Japan was the leading Asian side as it nearly knocked out Belgium in the round of 16; the defeat only partially shadowed a great tournament for the continent, which saw teams from Asia grab a record combined tally of 15 points in the group stage. To emphasise what changed, this is the first World Cup without Argentina, Brazil or Germany in the semifinals.

Host Russia, of course, was another side gallivanting in the garden of unpredictability. The team and its manager, Stanislav Cherchesov, were ridiculed before the start of the World Cup, with many suggesting this was the worst Russian side in history.

But perceptions changed as Russia’s initial success in the group stage arrived on the back of intensity and maximum effort — no side had covered more ground than the host at the halfway point of the competition.

The victory over Spain in the last 16, though, was a testament to Cherchesov’s defensive organisation and his players’ utmost patience, who did not let the absence of possession fluster them. Against Croatia, a still inferior group changed tact to reveal a more attacking visage. The prospect of defeat did not faze the home side and the dream crashed only on penalties.

The variety on display in Russia’s performance was reflective of the manners in which unexpected developments arrived in the World Cup. There was little to link the surprise outfits with breakthroughs being made in myriad hues.

Mexico, for instance, sought to displace opponents with pace. It became obvious early in El Tri’s shock win over Germany that its front line could run past the opposition defence. Time and again, Hirving Lozano cut through the left flank — in part owing to the Germans’ lack of tactical rigour. But it was also made possible by Carlos Vela’s intelligent running that had the defenders confused.

Mexico used its pace to limit other teams as well. In the round of 16 encounter against Brazil, even though Juan Carlos Osorio’s team eventually lost, it was worth noting the players’ positions while defending a corner. Three attackers were placed on the halfway line to keep Brazil wary of a counterattack, thereby ensuring that Tite could not have too many players in the Mexican box. The gap in quality between the sides eventually told but not before interesting tactical posers were negotiated.

For tangible results, one had to turn towards England which scored eight of its 11 goals, until the semis, from or following set pieces (including penalties).

It was a measure of the work accomplished on the training ground by Gareth Southgate and his coaching staff that the players had a tactical advantage — something not associated with England over the years.

Southgate discussed other breakthroughs made by the Three Lions after their quarterfinal victory over Sweden in Samara. “We are not the finished article. We don’t have renowned world-class players yet. But we do have mental resilience… I don’t think that we would have seen players like (John) Stones, (Harry) Maguire in past English sides, defenders who can play out from the back. Former English centrebacks were not like that.”

Super show: Russia head coach Stanislav Cherchesov (middle) has a chat with his players during the break in the quarterfinal against Croatia. The prospect of defeat did not faze the home side and the dream crashed only on penalties.   -  AP


Choosing the right players

Despite having only a third of the Premier League to select from, Southgate has stuck to his vision and chosen players who can adapt to it. While English football’s ills have not disappeared overnight, the manager has shown that much can be gained in spite of the drawbacks.

England’s displays only battered conventional wisdom, which has had a terrible time at the World Cup. Sweden’s charge to the quarterfinal was exceptional not only for the team’s resolute displays, but also because of the giants who were felled on the way.

The Netherlands, Italy and Germany suffered as the Swedes punched above their weight. Unlike England and Mexico, their ascent was built on compact defensive organisation. Little space was afforded to opponents as Sweden finished with clean sheets in three of its five matches.

Although the Swedish run did not culminate in a repeat of the 2015 under-21 EUROs triumph — some of the members of that squad, Victor Lindelof and Ludwig Augustinsson for example, were part of the senior side in Russia too — it contributed to the feeling of unpredictability that swarmed this World Cup.

If Japan had joined Sweden in the quarters, the sentiment would have risen by more than a few notches. Not just because of the lowly standard of Asian football or the fact that Belgium would have been knocked out to make way.

The more staggering aspect was Japan’s shambolic preparation for the tournament, which had seen the sacking of manager Vahid Halilhodzic in April. The late decision did not keep his successor Akira Nishino away from experiments, once appointed.

Going into the World Cup, nobody was sure how the Samurai Blue would line up in Russia; as it turned out, the unpredictability flummoxed opponents too. Although it must be stated that Japan relied on massive slices of luck in two of its group matches, against Colombia and Poland.

But fortune alone did not determine the success of the underdog. In fact, with better luck, Peru, Morocco and Iran would have achieved more than they did. Even so, their displays showed that there is still plenty unknown about international football.

The pre-tournament anticipation for the group stage was remarkably low; the extreme surprise that followed was its consequent function.

To an extent, the World Cup has emphasised the argument that the gap between international sides is narrower than imagined. Even though more prosperous European nations are likely to perform better, the strongest teams struggle to produce the kind of performance that would be expected due to limited time for preparation. This creates the possibility for a team like Croatia to go far. The knockout stage wobbles notwithstanding, Zlatko Dalic’s side has shown that a bunch of talented midfielders alone can be the bedrock for success.

As other sides found out too, international football allows a unidimensional approach to flourish. It is not always a test of quality; rather, the most skilled can be tested, and beaten, through various experiments of the mind and will.

Football is certainly made richer by these table-toppling adventures.