The German team celebrate their fourth goal against Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semi-final. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

It has been the World Cup of the individual, but Germany showed us the power of the team game

Germany, superbly well drilled, provided the perfect example of the superiority of the team game with their 7-1 evisceration of Brazil’s emotionally overcharged individuals in the semi-final.

This has been the World Cup of the individual. More than in any World Cup since the 1980s, teams in Brazil have been carried by one creative talent. Argentina have relied on Lionel Messi, Colombia have relied on James Rodríguez, Brazil relied, until his injury, on Neymar and even the Netherlands have been reliant on the pace of Arjen Robben. More than anything else, that explains why this has felt like such a strange, old-fashioned World Cup.

The 1970 competition in Mexico was heralded as the beginning of a bold new age. It was the first World Cup broadcast live by satellite and in those indistinct images from Mexico there was something revolutionary. Here were Brazil, golden shirts shimmering in the sunshine, playing a brand of football barely imaginable to British eyes. It was slick, skilful and joyous and was assumed to be the future. It turned out it was the past.

The football that had been seen in England in 1966 was the football of the future. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the sport became increasingly systematised: sides would play less as collections of individuals than as a unit. This mechanisation was no less beautiful than the previous style but it was a different kind of beauty – the collective play of the Dutch or the Dynamo Kyiv of Valeriy Lobanovskyi, rather than the dribbling and flair of a Garrincha or a Pelé. As the Swedish academic Tomas Peterson put it, football took in a second order of complexity. It began to be played with a knowledge of its workings: modern football was to old football as Picasso was to Gainsborough.

The most significant change was pressing, the systematised hunting of the man in possession in packs. It was something made possible by better nutrition (and drugs) in the late 1960s and 1970s and by improved understanding of structures on the pitch – the realisation that a properly organised side could use the offside trap to squeeze the play in such a way that opponents could be left, in effect, unmarked, and so more men could be committed to ball-winning.

At club level, that has made the game more tactically sophisticated but since the coming of systematisation, international football has lagged behind. A club coach can work with his players every day for ten months of the year, building the mutual understanding necessary for the integration this approach demands. At national level, a coach has his players for perhaps three or four days, five or six times a year, plus a couple of weeks before major tournaments. Inevitably, most choose a lowest-common-denominator approach, packing men behind the ball and getting the defence right – since a coach will always be blamed far more for defensive than for attacking failings.

The result is that recent World Cups have yielded roughly half a goal per game fewer than the Champions League. That’s why the group stages of this World Cup, which yielded an average of 2.83 goals per game, were such a surprise. With occasional exceptions – Iran, Russia – teams attacked relentlessly. It was as if sides were caught up in a sense of collective freedom with the defenestration of Spain and their controlled passing approach in their 5-1 defeat to the Dutch.

Some were rapt in the romantic fervour of those early games and suggested that this was the spirit of Brazil at work – that everybody had caught the jogo bonito attitude. More likely, not least because few sides have played less beautifully than Brazil in this tournament with their tactical fouling and unnerving desperation for victory at any cost, this was a familiar pattern: trends in the club game usually take five years or so to filter through to the national game.

Over the past five years, it has become increasingly common for teams to try to win the ball back high up the pitch, to initiate transitions as quickly as possible, taking pressing to a new level. Quick transitions mean players breaking at pace against defences that aren’t set, and that leads to more chances and more goals. It’s no coincidence that the Premier League has averaged over 2.7 goals per game in each of the past four seasons, the first time those levels have been reached since the 1980s.

When two high-pressing teams meet, the result can be stalemate, the game squeezed into a narrow sliver either side of halfway. In this World Cup, though, the result has often been glorious anarchy and, with defences less rigid than usual, skilful individuals have been able to exert a powerful influence. The great creators have become celebrities, supported by hysterical fans who act in a way more associated with Justin Bieber devotees. Perhaps that is the result of the globalisation of the game and the emergence of a new wave of fans with few geographical or cultural reasons to support a particular club, and who prefer to attach themselves to individuals. Or perhaps it is to do with the way the game is presented and the growing demand for soap opera with easily identifiable heroes and villains. Either way, from a tactical point of view, it feels regressive. Germany, superbly well drilled, provided the perfect example of the superiority of the team game with their 7-1 evisceration of Brazil’s emotionally overcharged individuals in the semi-final.

In the last 16 and quarter-final, goals per game were down to 1.33 in normal time, which, beyond regression to the mean, is probably indicative of two things. First, that coaches have had longer to organise their defences but also that the better national teams are closer to assimilating the most intriguing recent development in the club game: the counter-counter, stymying the transitions that have become a key feature of so many sides’ attacking, even if, in the less sophisticated world of the international game, that translates to little more than sitting deeper to keep men behind the ball. Even in the individuals’ World Cup, a system has come to assert itself.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496