World Cup 2022: Why are there fewer goals at this tournament?

Christian Eriksen #10 of Denmark reacts during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group D match between Denmark and Tunisia at Education City Stadium on November 22, 2022 in Al Rayyan, Qatar.
(Image credit: Wu Zhizhao/VCG via Getty Images)

World Cup 2022 has had three times the number of goalless draws as in 2018. In fact, yesterday, we went three hours without seeing a goal net ripple at all.

As much as anyone might claim that you can have a fascinating 0-0 – and you definitely can – we want to see goals at the greatest show on Earth. The clean sheets have led to a few claiming that this won't be a particularly fun tournament, though it is early days.

What's happening? Here are a few theories.

1. Teams are playing with less intensity

Bukayo Saka of England scores their team's second goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between England and IR Iran at Khalifa International Stadium on November 21, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.

Bukayo Saka scores the Three Lions' second goal during the World Cup 2022 Group B match between England and Iran (Image credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Gareth Southgate was more than happy to bring off his star men against Iran in the second half, with England racing into a 4-1 lead and playing again just four days later. It's a congested schedule, we all understand that – and so we'll see teams playing bursts rather than trying to go hell for leather across a whole 90 minutes.

This would explain why Denmark and Tunisia played out a bore draw, with both sides having their times to dominate but looking to manage the game as a whole and not tire themselves out too much. Equally, that's probably why Iran took off key players while they were being thrashed by England – because while we've seen some dull 0-0s, we've also seen some very one-sided fixtures, too. 

Whether by accident or design, this tournament has started slower – and it's probably in part down to the lack of freshness. 

2. VAR is more settled now – and there are fewer penalties

Robert Lewandowski prepares to shoot from the penalty spot during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C football match between Mexico and Poland at Stadium 974 in Doha on November 22, 2022.

Robert Lewandowski prepares to shoot from the penalty spot during the 2022 World Cup Group C match between Mexico and Poland (Image credit: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)

2018 was the tournament with video assistant referees. Halfway through the group stage, Cristiano Ronaldo was awarded a penalty against Iran, bringing the tournament tally up to 19 – for context, the record for a whole World Cup competition stood at 18 prior to that. 

We've seen some soft penalties so far in 2022 but four years ago, the rules were still in flux. After years of VAR experience, perhaps the referees have a better idea of what constitutes a penalty. Or maybe they got it more correct last time… who knows?

3. Teams are simply being more conservative 

Declan Rice England

Declan Rice races with the ball for England against Iran (Image credit: Getty Images)

Southgate has been very open about the template of this England team. Despite the riches that the Three Lions have in attack, this is a team that is prepared to wait for their chances, favouring patient build-up and defensive solidity over free-flowing forward fluidity.

And maybe we're not alone. France were organised, boring and ultimately victorious in 2018, following the likes of Spain and Germany who had more of a high-intensity reputation the two tournaments before. Just as club level goes through cycles of play style, perhaps we're enduring a more defensive era on the international stage. 

To throw a positive on this cautious start to many teams' tournaments, the defences have been on top. 

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