It seems like only yesterday that I was writing our first round review, but such is the nature of this shortened, heightened tournament.
Four games a day is a lot of football. Some of it hasn’t been great, admittedly, and more on that later, but the narratives swirl everywhere. Nowhere less than right here, with our Socceroos turning up big to defeat Tunisia 1-0 on Saturday night. Prime time viewing, pubs full, couldn’t have picked their moment better.
It’s no surprise that they lead off this edition of Good, Bad and Ugly from the FIFA World Cup.
Sokkah fans are a weird bunch. Our football public both understands that there’s a bit of nuance to football – tactically, in particular – but also that things like dig and spirit and battling matter.
As a new Australian who spent a lot of time prior to living here watching the Irish national team, let me assure you that this is not something that every nation has. Ireland would take Liam Brady, as cultured a player as it comes, and tell him to run more.
For what it’s worth, I also lived in the Netherlands, where they really don’t value dig at all. They’d think it was a stupid waste of energy, needless shuttling about. Nobody told Dennis Bergkamp to put more of a shift in.
I’m doing some cod anthropology here, but I’d say it’s a product of our unique football culture at play. This is Australia, of course, and we demand the bits of the national psyche that we carry across all sports and, y’know, life in general. Fair go, have a crack, aim up.
But we’re also the result of a pluralistic approach that comes from the bulk of our football being played by diverse migrant communities that bring their own philosophies on the game. Running about is nothing if you can’t keep the ball and play with it.
You might see this as Arnie and Ange for shorthand. There’s the non-negotiables of Australian sport allied to the imported knowledge that this winning thing might take a little bit more than just trying hard.
This side reflects that unique makeup. There’s Harry Souttar, Martin Boyle and Jason Cummings, who are Scottish, plus Jackson Irvine, Jamie Maclaren and Matt Leckie of Scottish descent, plus another five who currently play in Scotland. That’s going to influence your style of play.
The performance on Saturday night was indebted to that kind of football, and in truth, that’s the style that the broader, non-football people understand.
They’re not bothered about mid-blocks, transitional structures and xG – they want their lads to put themselves about. This is largely true in British culture too, and they’re inundated with football, so it isn’t to do with lack of exposure or understanding.
But the performance was built on smarts and skills as much as effort and enthusiasm. Mitch Duke scored a header off a cross and then Australia defended for their lives, sure, but they also kept the ball and did things with it.
Aaron Mooy was probably the best player on the field because he was able to create triangles, move the ball up the field in short passes and lift the pressure off his teammates.
When Australian football works, it’s largely because it harnesses the best bits of our football heritage. We saw that on Saturday.
Back to the forward
It turns out that having someone who stands around in front of the goal waiting to strike – a striker, if you will – is quite an effective way of playing football. I jest, but also sort of true, because the teams that have a guy who scores goals tend to be doing quite well.
I don’t mean a lumbering target man, a la Mitch Duke, but more what tactics types like to call a ‘box presence’, which is cleverspeak for ‘someone the defence actually thinks might score’.
To wit: Spain and Germany played an hour of technical, tactical, strikerless football and neither really looked like scoring at all. England and the USA played a whole 90 minutes of it, and if you tell me Harry Kane is that striker than a) you don’t watch much of him anymore and b) you certainly didn’t watch him against Iran or America.
Once Spain and Germany brought on strikers, they both scored. Robert Lewandowski scored a poacher’s goal, Senegal got goals out of both of theirs in a 4-4-2 (Jerusalem plays softly in background) and even big Aleksandar Mitrovic got in on the act.
Let’s not go all Sam Allardyce. There’s a lot to be said for false 9s, especially in a fluid, highly coherent system. The trouble is that international football is rarely that, and often, it’s just a lot better to have someone occupying the central defenders’ thoughts all of the time.
For what it’s worth, in a high possession side against a low block side – say, England against Iran, or Spain against Costa Rica – having a striker that vacates the central area is generally a good idea as it leaves ground for other, less easily tracked attackers to move in. Jude Bellingham arriving from deep or Dani Olmo drifting in off a wing do that well.
But when you face an even slightly competent opponent, you need the bloke who can lead the line, stretch the play and, crucially, provide verticality. Hurrah for Alvaro Morata is not what I expected to be writing at this World Cup, but here we are.
One of the joys of the World Cup is getting to see the myriad ways of showing love for your team, and we’ve got the best of that at this tournament.
We’ve had some outstanding displays of support that more than deserve recognition. The Tunisians, even in defeat to Australia, will likely never had backing like they had in Qatar, with a huge expat population. They never stopped.
Ditto the Moroccans, who turned up in numbers and in full voice, and were met with an outstanding performance from their lads to defeat Belgium. It’s hard to draw a line between Saudi Arabia, the nation, and Saudi Arabians, who streamed over the border to watch their team, but hard to ignore the obvious passion for football that was on show.
The spiel from Qatar has been that this is a World Cup for the entire Arab world, and while the bulk of that is the purest form of sportswashing, I doubt the Tunisians, Moroccans and Saudis care. They’re having the time of their lives at a tournament in their neck of the woods.
It isn’t just those three, too. Argentina v Mexico was defined by the unbelievable atmosphere created by both sets of supporters. At times, it was all that kept those watching at 6am awake given how bad the game itself was, and the scenes on Lionel Messi’s goal will live long in the memory.
The Senegalese fans, too, were having a ball at their victory, as were the Ghanaians and even on the other side of the globe, the footage from Fed Square in Melbourne was the same. When they say ‘The World Game’ – which, to be honest, nobody outside of Australia does – this is what they mean.
The first hour of games
There’s a brewing debate, a mere rumble at this stage, that this tournament might be a bit rubbish. Me, I don’t see it: I love the group stages and appreciate that sometimes it can get a bit attack v defence at times, which can manifest as low-scoring and uneventful until later in the match.
But it is undeniable that some of the fixtures have been stinkers. At the halfway stage in terms of total matches, we’re averaging 2.4 goals per game at this tournament, which is towards the lower end since the expansion to 32 teams in 1998, but when you factor in that 15 of the 78 goals have been in just two games, both of which were mega-blowouts, it looks a lot worse.
We’re in the territory of 2010, where FIFA decided it would be a lot more fun to play at altitude with an Adidas-approved beach ball, and 1990, widely regarded as the most defensive World Cup ever. Over half of the games so far have been goalless at half time.
Certainly, if you get up for 6am kick off here in Australia, you’ll have noticed this. Germany-Spain, England-USA, Argentina-Mexico and Portugal-Uruguay have been real slow burners, with both sides more than willing to accept draws, stand off and wait to win it late.
This is partly a function of the tournament, because in the Germany, England and Portugal games, other results elsewhere meant that the draw suited all parties, but also because of lack of cohesion from the short lead-in time, plus better defending than attacking units.
Either way, if you get up at 5.55am and turn on, you need a rip-roarer to kick start your day before that first coffee kicks in. It’s not happened too often.
Perhaps the most underwhelming side so far has been Belgium. Due credit to Morocco, who were great, but the Belgians were useless and their performance totally belied the talent available to them.
Roberto Martinez has often been criticised for not getting the most out of the Golden Generation of talent available to him.
I don’t really buy that, because he got them to third place in the last World Cup, defeated by eventual champions France, and, though they lost in the quarter-finals of the Euros, it was again to the eventual champions, Italy. Compare to England’s draw on both occasions for what might have been.
This time though, they are genuinely bad. They look old and slow and playing well within themselves. Morocco and Canada both outplayed the Red Devils, and while they got away with it against the debutants thanks to the nous that comes with their older players, they failed to do the same in their second game and were ruthlessly punished.
Maybe expectations are the problem more than the team. We don’t expect Croatia to do as well, for example, despite them also having a lot of aging, formerly brilliant players. Kevin de Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois aside, who are the properly elite names here? Eden Hazard hasn’t played well in years, Romelu Lukaku is playing hurt and Axel Witsel is slower than a week in the jail.
They haven’t become rubbish overnight, but it has been coming. It’s possible that Belgium will improve because their talent pool is still deep, but it’s unlikely based on what we have seen so far.
Eden Hazard and ‘keep politics out of football’
Let’s stick the boot into Belgium further, because Eden Hazard’s hubris is a little too much to leave alone. If you missed it, the part-time Real Madrid man had some sage words for the Germans after their ‘gagged’ gesture last week, when, ironically enough, he might have done better just to keep his mouth shut. Certainly, piling into people for not playing well does somewhat hoist the petard for your own performances.
While we’re doing a round tour of the dumbness of ‘keep politics out of football’, we had the farce of the Saudi dictator, Mohamad bin Salman, sat with Qatar’s Emir, sitting with Gianni Infantino, FIFA President, and Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar at the opening game, a moment seen to be symbolic in the thawing of the cold war that has been going on for a good few years now.
A major facet in that war was the weaponization of Premier League rights, when the Saudis set up a pirate station to counteract BeIN Sports, the Qatar-based rights holder.
That was the dispute, since you’re asking, that led to the Premier League refusing to allow the Saudi investment vehicle to buy Newcastle. They eventually sorted it out and, hey presto, the Emir of Qatar was draped in a Saudi flag at the opening fixture.
Heartening to know, then, that mere days after the coming-together of the great regional rivals, the Saudi public was again denied the right to actually watch the World Cup as their government blocked the official broadcast partner because, you guessed it, it was owned by BeIN Sports. As ever, your average punter loses out.
The ‘real fans’ aspect that the World Cup brings does have a downside. Banners in the Croatian end that taunted Canadian keeper Milan Borjan’s status as a refugee from the Balkan Wars were horrendous, and doubly dumb given how many Croatians also left their homes because of that conflict.
Triply dumb will be the reception of Serbian fans to Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, both of Kosovan descent, later this week. It’s absolutely nailed on because people don’t learn.
For England, the fewer of their fans that attend the better. The images of blokes in full Crusader outfits getting punted from stadiums in the Middle East was a damning indictment of the failings of history curriculums in English schools, which clearly go no further than watching a VHS of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
It also spoke to the way that European fans often like to turn up like they own the place and expect everyone else to tolerate that. It’s rare that you’ll hear me stick up for Qatari security guards, but there’s a first time for everything.
He’s really good. Not sure about the other ten blokes with him, but then you could have said that at every World Cup since 2006.
Tried to claim a goal that wasn’t his, which is very on brand.
In the battle of geriatric central midfielders, he proved a lot better than Canada’s Atiba Hutchinson. Warming in nicely.
Picked up his now-traditional injury so sat out this round.
He scored! Hard not to love Lewa getting his moment given the player he’s been for Poland for a million years.