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?

Getty
Show Hide image

If there’s no booze or naked women, what’s the point of being a footballer?

Peter Crouch came out with one of the wittiest football lines. When asked what he thought he would have been but for football, he replied: “A virgin.”

At a professional league ground near you, the following conversation will be taking place. After an excellent morning training session, in which the players all worked hard, and didn’t wind up the assistant coach they all hate, or cut the crotch out of the new trousers belonging to the reserve goalie, the captain or some senior player will go into the manager’s office.

“Hi, gaffer. Just thought I’d let you know that we’ve booked the Salvation Hall. They’ll leave the table-tennis tables in place, so we’ll probably have a few games, as it’s the players’ Christmas party, OK?”

“FECKING CHRISTMAS PARTY!? I TOLD YOU NO CHRISTMAS PARTIES THIS YEAR. NOT AFTER LAST YEAR. GERROUT . . .”

So the captain has to cancel the booking – which was actually at the Salvation Go Go Gentlemen’s Club on the high street, plus the Saucy Sporty Strippers, who specialise in naked table tennis.

One of the attractions for youths, when they dream of being a footballer or a pop star, is not just imagining themselves number one in the Prem or number one in the hit parade, but all the girls who’ll be clambering for them. Young, thrusting politicians have similar fantasies. Alas, it doesn’t always work out.

Today, we have all these foreign managers and foreign players coming here, not pinching our women (they’re too busy for that), but bringing foreign customs about diet and drink and no sex at half-time. Rotters, ruining the simple pleasures of our brave British lads which they’ve enjoyed for over a century.

The tabloids recently went all pious when poor old Wayne Rooney was seen standing around drinking till the early hours at the England team hotel after their win over Scotland. He’d apparently been invited to a wedding that happened to be going on there. What I can’t understand is: why join a wedding party for total strangers? Nothing more boring than someone else’s wedding. Why didn’t he stay in the bar and get smashed?

Even odder was the behaviour of two other England stars, Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson. They made a 220-mile round trip from their hotel in Hertfordshire to visit a strip club, For Your Eyes Only, in Bournemouth. Bournemouth! Don’t they have naked women in Herts? I thought one of the points of having all these millions – and a vast office staff employed by your agent – is that anything you want gets fixed for you. Why couldn’t dancing girls have been shuttled into another hotel down the road? Or even to the lads’ own hotel, dressed as French maids?

In the years when I travelled with the Spurs team, it was quite common in provincial towns, after a Saturday game, for players to pick up girls at a local club and share them out.

Like top pop stars, top clubs have fixers who can sort out most problems, and pleasures, as well as smart solicitors and willing police superintendents to clear up the mess afterwards.

The England players had a night off, so they weren’t breaking any rules, even though they were going to play Spain 48 hours later. It sounds like off-the-cuff, spontaneous, home-made fun. In Wayne’s case, he probably thought he was doing good, being approachable, as England captain.

Quite why the other two went to Bournemouth was eventually revealed by one of the tabloids. It is Lallana’s home town. He obviously said to Jordan Henderson, “Hey Hendo, I know a cool club. They always look after me. Quick, jump into my Bentley . . .”

They spent only two hours at the club. Henderson drank water. Lallana had a beer. Don’t call that much of a night out.

In the days of Jimmy Greaves, Tony Adams, Roy Keane, or Gazza in his pomp, they’d have been paralytic. It was common for players to arrive for training still drunk, not having been to bed.

Peter Crouch, the former England player, 6ft 7in, now on the fringes at Stoke, came out with one of the wittiest football lines. When asked what he thought he would have been but for football, he replied: “A virgin.”

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage