Defences on top in the first round

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The most defensive World Cup ever? It’s certainly the lowest-scoring one, after the first round of matches. A lack of goals doesn’t always equate to defensive football, but in this tournament it’s hard to deny that the football has been slightly more reserved than normal.

What is to blame? The determination to avoid defeat is certainly key, but then there’s no reason why this should be a factor at this World Cup rather than any other. Altitude could have been a factor, but then there’s no obvious difference in the style of play we’ve seen in the games at altitude from the games at sea level.

The Jabulani ball may have been crucial in the lack of goals (we’ve seen few long-range goals, and the one notable exception – Diego Forlan’s – took a crucial deflection on the way) but it’s hard to make a case that it is breeding defensive football.

The perceived negative football has generally been down to the underdogs so far. Whilst France, Italy, Brazil, Spain and Holland have all failed to impress with their attacking flair, there’s been a distinct lack of attacking ambition from their opponents.

In France’s opening game against Uruguay, for example, the South Americans deployed a 3-4-1-2 system against France’s 4-3-3. The French wingers, Franck Ribery and Sidney Govou, pushed back the Uruguayan full-backs to the point where they were effectively fielding a flat back five. A flat back five was literally the case for North Korea against Spain, whilst Paraguay switched to that system for the final 15 minutes of their clash with Italy.

Deep, narrow and effective
Defending deep and narrow has become the defining tactic of the tournament for the underdogs, perhaps partially inspired by Jose Mourinho’s tactics at the Nou Camp in the Champions League semi-final. There was nothing new or novel about that performance, but it was a tremendous example of how that strategy can defeat a technically superior side who will dominate possession – and that was with 10 men.

The tendency to defend deep and narrow has emerged because so many top sides are intent on playing on the counter-attack. The importance of pace and movement has become more obvious in the last 10 years, and with players possessing those attributes, it’s simply a lot easier to attack when you have 60 rather than 20 yards of space in behind the defence.

Even considering the popularity of counter-attacking in modern football as a whole, there are a great number of favourites at this World Cup who depend on that style of football even more than usual.

Brazil are the classic example – they sit deep in numbers, then use the pace of Robinho and Kaka to run directly at defenders, and their unique formation means opposition midfielders are often drawn to Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva, leaving Kaka and Elano unattended. It was no coincidence that their opening goal finally came seconds after North Korea had the ball in the Brazilian penalty area.

It’s also no coincidence that the goal came from a full-back, because these are consistently the players who have the most space on the pitch against teams defending deep, and the most time on the ball. They also have the ability to make late, unchecked runs in behind the defence.

A disappointing feature of France’s performance was how rarely Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna actually got into the final 20 yards of the pitch, especially considering they were playing against a side with no wingers to cause them a threat at the other end. Sergio Ramos could have moved 20 yards higher up the pitch to stretch the Swiss defence, whilst Portugal's left-back Fabio Coentrao was disappointingly muted.

Making it work
But the most disappointing thing for those hoping for goalfests is that the defensive tactics from the underdogs have actually worked rather well. Switzerland beating Spain and Uruguay and Paraguay picking up a point against France and Italy respectively are clearly good results, pure and simple, but even the occasions where the underdogs were defeated showed how the deep and narrow approach can work well.

Denmark ran the Netherlands close and only went behind through a crazy own goal, North Korea almost caused Brazil a fright, Nigeria held Argentina to one goal from a set-piece.

The exception that proves the rule is Australia, the only side to use aggressive defensive tactics against one of the favourites. They tried to press right from the front of the pitch (fielding two midfielders upfront to help them close down effectively), but Germany were able to play around them, and take advantage of Australia’s crazily high defensive line to constantly get in behind.

It’s no coincidence that the standout player of the tournament so far, Mesut Ozil, was playing against a side that were defending high up the pitch, and that game served as a warning for other weaker teams not to replicate Pim Verbeek’s tactics.

You can blame sides defending deep for creating defensive football, but you can’t blame the managers for maximising their chances of getting a result.

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