By J Hutcherson (Jul 3, 2018) US Soccer Players - Just before Belgium decided to respond to Japan's two-goal lead in their round of 16 game, it looked like yet another World Cup upset in the making. Russia leads that list after knocking out mighty Spain. That unleashed a barrage of criticism the likes of which we hadn't seen since Germany crashed out of the group stage less than a week ago.
That's sort of the point of World Cup upsets. There's normally another one waiting. Otherwise, the tournament would be little more than waiting for the teams at the top of the FIFA Ranking to play each other. Only the draw would produce slight upsets in that scenario, a substantial waste of everybody's time. That's not the point of the World Cup. Instead, it's navigating the scenario where even the top teams need the luck of the draw.
Germany's exit is already the latest World Cup test case for a measured response. They may have it in not immediately firing their coach. Joachim Low is still in charge, with the vote of confidence at international level normally meaning actual confidence. It's not the same scenario as it is at club level where backing the embattled coach normally means lining up his replacement. Low is key to the long-term project that rebuilt German soccer, and even with World Cup wins it's ongoing. This is a transitional moment for Germany, one that in retrospect is easier to spot when the world #1 exits in the group stage.
That's the problem with the upset scenarios. They tend to focus on what didn't work rather than trying to build on what did or what might. Germany's leadership choosing not to throw its entire project into an ongoing crisis might fuel editorials and disappoint fans, but it's a real choice rather than a reaction.
Spain's media did all the overreaction that soccer power should need. Thrown into a potential crisis days before the World Cup, they swapped out coaches when Julen Lopetegui taking the Real Madrid job became public. It was a fair expectation that Lopetegui leaving for Real following the World Cup wouldn't be a problem, but Spain's Federation decided otherwise. In came Fernando Hierro and a World Cup that plenty of people have already decided is the end of tika-taka and Spain's era of success.
Pick a tabloid, and you can read stories of discontent in the Spain camp, even though they dominated Russia in their round of 16 game. Spain had 75 % of possession, completed 1031 of 1137 passes to Russia's 204 to 284 and let's stop there for a second. Spain finished with over a thousand completed passes. Sure, they had 120 minutes to do it, but over a thousand completed passes. They also outshot Russia 25 to 6 putting six on goal to Russia's three. Spain also lost on penalties, and that easily becomes the only metric that matters. From an organizational standpoint, it takes a lot to roll that back.
In most situations, what happens to Spain in the knockout round simply doesn't. Ala Belgium's comeback against Japan, the other team eventually breaks. A moment or two of brilliance helps, but may not be necessary. In a mismatch, the better team should expect what they normally do over 90 minutes to work. They should also be able to find an answer when it doesn't. Even as the frustration builds, quality eventually takes over. It's not a question of the better team always finding a way. That's not the point. It's that what the better team does well normally requires a direct response.
Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima frustrated Belgium by doing his job at the extreme of his abilities. No longer taking the obvious routes for granted, Belgium advanced by complicating things. Their goals weren't easy or obvious, with the layoffs on the stoppage time winner showing what they realized it would take to advance. Something special on the counterattack pulled off under intense pressure against a hot goalkeeper who was giving them very little. That a team like Belgium needed to work the counter in stoppage time against Japan to advance is the kind of scenario nobody expected. Had it not worked, would Belgium be in crisis today?
Leadership, focus, and vision normally crash into expectations at high speeds in major tournaments. It becomes a good enough excuse to rip apart teams and the work put in. Coaches move on, and things at least partially reset normally with a generational change. Breaking the institutional memory is almost the defacto response, the better to put immediate distance between disappointment and whatever comes next. The trick is not wiping away what could still work based on one scenario in one tournament.
That's the challenge for Germany and Spain right now. It's easy enough to look back at their successes and highlight game-changing performance. Why didn't that happen now? An absence of specific players and tactics in key moments. So let's reconsider everything, shake things up, and potentially stall a world-class team with an unnecessary rebuild.
Nobody is under the impression that this is a low stakes game. Most coaching contracts run out after the World Cup for a reason. National teams opt for directors of soccer or some equivalent position to try to maintain continuity. There's a realization that continuity has some value, even if it needs control to keep malaise and decline from ruining a once-successful program.
The 2018 World Cup shouldn't be the end of Low's version of Germany. It also shouldn't be the end of Spain's tiki-taka simply because completing a thousand passes doesn't necessarily mean winning. Neither of these disappointments should trigger transitional moments. Evolutionary, sure. There's that generational shift all teams go through. Given injuries and form, that doesn't normally match the ages of core players. That's different from forcing a new vision on a program when what once worked will work again.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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- Is FIFA overreaching?
Logo courtesy of the Real Federacion Espanola de Futbol