NOVEMBER 14 — Let us hope this is not a sign of things to come next summer in Russia, because there is only one word to describe the European World Cup two-legged qualifying playoffs which have been staged over the last few days: boring.
With seven of the eight fixtures played, we have only seen seven goals—and five of them came in the same game as Croatia thrashed Greece in the first leg of their meeting.
Other than that, we’ve had Sweden triumph 1-0 against Italy and complete their surprise progression with a 0-0 draw yesterday night, Switzerland edge Northern Ireland 1-0 on aggregate thanks to a dodgy penalty, Denmark draw 0-0 with the Republic of Ireland and the second instalment of Greece against Croatia also fail to yield any goals.
Of course, none of these contests will have been particularly boring for the countries concerned — I’m sure that Swiss residents are delighted with their progression into next summer’s finals — but for neutrals there has been very little goalmouth action to enjoy with defences firmly on top and attacking creativity conspicuous by its absence, with four goalless draws in seven games telling its own story.
A significant part of the explanation for this unwelcome trend is pressure. With so much at stake it’s perfectly understandable that teams and coaches have followed a cautious, conservative approach rather than taking unnecessary risks.
But I believe there’s also a deeper explanation for the growing prevalence of dull defensive strategies in international games, rooted in the fact that national teams spend so little time together.
Although the World Cup itself is of course still very much a big deal, international football in general now comes a long way second to its equivalent at club level.
With the increasingly heavy dual demands of national leagues and the Champions League, It’s extremely common for players to pull out of international games at the drop of a hat, even competitive qualifiers, and ‘friendly’ matches have become almost completely meaningless considering the lack of seriousness with which they are taken.
This environment has created a revolving doors approach to most squads, with players coming in and out of the set-up all the time and line-ups changing drastically from one game to the next.
England, for example, have called up no less than 48 different players in the last 12 months alone, with the squad for this week’s friendly — against Brazil, no less — containing such young and inexperienced names as Harry Maguire, Angus Gunner and Lewis Cook, while several senior players such as Harry Kane, Phil Jones, Jordan Henderson and Dele Allí are all missing.
It’s a similar story for many other nations, but even when the managers are able to retain some consistency in their squad selection they still get together far too infrequently for any meaningful work on the training ground to take place.
After this week’s games, for instance, most international teams won’t play again until the end of March, a gap of nearly four months and only around ten weeks before the start of the World Cup Finals.
With so little time available on the training ground, this leaves national team coaches with little option but to focus on the basics. And in coaching terms, that means working on the team’s general shape, structure and positional play — trying to make sure they are well organised and disciplined.
Attacking creativity is a lot harder to practise and prepare for, and can only really be instilled through the intangible qualities of mutual understanding and familiarity, which over time can allow players to read each other’s thoughts and anticipate their teammates’ movements instinctively and immediately.
It’s no coincidence that the best international team in recent years was a Spain side built around a core of players from Barcelona. When Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas looked like they knew exactly who was going to run where and when, it was they did, after spending countless hours developing their team chemistry at club level.
Not many international teams are blessed with that luxury, and so we have a predominance of drab and defensive football with little opportunity for creative expression.
Of course, I could be wrong and tonight’s second leg between the Republic of Ireland and Denmark could turn out to be a five goal thriller packed with attacking brilliance. But I’m not holding my breath.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.