The Clash of Styles That Will Define the World Cup Knockout Rounds
After years of conformity, international soccer is going through an unflattening. The 16 remaining teams fall into five distinct categories.
From left to right, Japan’s Hidemasa Morita, England’s Marcus Rashford and Spain’s Pedri JEAN CATUFFE/LPS/ZUMA PRESS, CARL RECINE/REUTERS, MARCIO MACHADO/SPORT PRESS PHOTO/ZUMA PRESS
By Jonathan Clegg and Joshua Robinson
Dec. 2, 2022 5:05 pm ET
DOHA, Qatar—When the dust settled on the first two weeks of the World Cup on Friday night, after 48 matches across eight groups, only half of the 32 teams at the tournament were left standing.
There were heavyweights such as France and Brazil and upstarts such as Morocco and Japan. But what makes the last 16 of the Qatar World Cup so fascinating is that no two teams seem to play the same way. As the knockout rounds kick off on Saturday, the final two weeks seem to have distilled the soccer trends of the past four years into their most essential and recognizable forms. From those who love to keep possession of the ball to the specialists in defensive pressing, the final on Dec. 18 could become a soccer referendum on the best approach for winning tournaments.
“The trends are usually given by the top teams in the Champions League,” former U.S. and Germany manager Jurgen Klinsmann said before the tournament. “Then international managers follow those trends.”
Or at least they used to. For a decade, soccer was defined by Spain’s death-by-a-thousand-passes magic, its imitators, and the teams trying to cook up antidotes. The game was converging on just a couple of styles exemplified by the top clubs in Europe.
But this World Cup has seen more diversity of play than any major tournament in years. International soccer is finally going through an unflattening. With 23 of the 32 teams coached by managers from their own country—as opposed to 20 four years ago and 18 eight years ago—national squads are less and less shaped by a handful of European and South American coaches exporting the same types of soccer to the entire world.
Here is a breakdown of the World Cup’s last 16 and how they play.
KEEP-AWAY: Spain, Argentina
Gavi of Spain controls the ball.PHOTO: CLIVE MASON/GETTY IMAGES
Spain won three consecutive major tournaments from 2008 to 2012 with a style of possession soccer that was so suffocating and effective that it bordered on dull. Ten years later, having seen the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta retire, Spain is back to its possession-heavy approach, only with a more cutting edge. Led by the Barcelona pair of Pedri and Gavi, who are just 38 years old combined, the team had a dizzying 77% of the ball in its three group-stage matches.
Argentina, for all the psychodrama that has followed it at this World Cup, is second in that category, controlling the ball for 67% of its games. The problem for both teams is that possession is no longer king.
“Sometimes you’re so much technically better that you have so much possession without going anywhere,” said the head of FIFA’s Technical Study Group, the former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
Both Spain and Argentina have learned that the hard way. Spain only took one win from its three matches so far and lost 2-1 to Japan on Thursday night despite completing more than 1,000 passes to Japan’s 234. Argentina, meanwhile, contrived to lose its opening match against Saudi Arabia.
THE PRESSERS: Netherlands, England, Croatia, South Korea
Cody Gakpo of the Netherlands puts pressure on the opposition.PHOTO: LI GANG/ZUMA PRESS
Pretty much every team at the World Cup uses some type of pressing—quickly closing the space around the opposition to deny them time on the ball and to force a turnover. But no team has pressed more effectively than the Netherlands, which swarms the ball carrier like a pack of hungry hyenas.
Yet what separates the best pressing teams from everyone else isn’t how often they do it, but where they do it. Pressing opponents deep in their own half and immediately after losing possession—a tactic known as counter-pressing—is a risky strategy, but one that rewards teams by giving them the ball in dangerous areas.
“The big advantage of getting the ball high up the pitch is that you then have a shorter route to goal,” said Alberto Zaccheroni, a former coach of Japan’s national team.
England has been the most effective counter-pressing team, with 31 high turnovers, including Rashford’s dispossession of Wales defender Ben Davies, which led directly to England’s second goal.
STRAIGHT TO THE POINT: USA, Portugal, Senegal, Switzerland
Weston McKennie plays a crucial role in the U.S. attack.PHOTO: SEBASTIAN EL-SAQQA/ZUMA PRESS
The U.S. has struggled to score at the World Cup, but the issue isn’t knowing where the goal is. When the Americans win the ball, their first instinct is often to get it forward as quickly as possible.
The U.S. leads the tournament in the number of direct attacks, or passing sequences that start in their own half of the field and quickly advance the ball to the opposition goal. Next highest is Portugal, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. For the best part of 15 years, the Portuguese team’s sole objective on the pitch has been to get the ball and give it to Cristiano Ronaldo.
There was a time when teams could construct their entire approach around direct attacks like these. In the 1990s, Norway climbed to No. 2 in the FIFA rankings, reached two successive World Cups and recorded back-to-back wins over Brazil thanks to a policy of crashing the box at every available opportunity.
These days, national teams are more technically accomplished and don’t need to play direct all the time—both the U.S. and Portugal out-possessed their opponents in at least two of their group-stage games. But as an element of surprise, the most direct route can sometimes be the most effective: In their opening game against Wales, the Americans split the defense wide open on a charge through the middle by Chrsitian Pulisic before Timothy Weah slotted home.
THE PARKED BUSES: Japan, Poland, Australia, Morocco
Japan has ’parked the bus’ to devastating effect.PHOTO: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Coined by Portugal’s Jose Mourinho in the mid-2000s during his first spell as coach of Chelsea, the expression “parking the bus” means playing so deep and packing the defense with so many bodies that the team may as well have driven its bus right up to its own goal and left it there. It isn’t exciting to watch—and it certainly isn’t pretty—but teams do it because it often works if you are overmatched.
But in the past decade, as Spain’s passing-oriented possession game took hold, parking the bus—or defending in a “low block” as it’s sometimes known—went from a rudimentary tactic to something altogether more sophisticated. Teams got better at using the ball when they won it back and countered more intelligently. Though he initially used the term to denigrate opposing coaches for their lack of ambition, Mourinho himself went on to become one of the most celebrated bus-parkers in world soccer.
Here in Qatar, Japan has shown how the tactic can be used to devastating effect. The Samurai Blue basically parked the bus all tournament, save for a 10-minute spell every game in which they took it out for a spin and raced it like a stock car. Japan had just 17.7% possession against Spain, the lowest figure ever for a winning team at the World Cup, but scored twice in the space of four minutes in a second-half blitz to win the group.
THE CHAMELEONS: Brazil, France
Kylian Mbappe of France celebrates after scoring a goal.PHOTO: ELSA/GETTY IMAGES
Unsurprisingly, the teams that adapt the best also happen to be the tournament favorites. Their distinct style is that they don’t have one. They can do everything.
Brazil combines sporadic pressing up the field with long sequences of buildup and its historic fondness for simply carrying the ball and blowing past defenders with dazzling skill. The Selecao showed off its attacking versatility in the opening game, though things were a little less fluid after it lost Neymar for two games.
France, meanwhile, combines a low average starting position—its moves begin from even further back than the U.S.—yet has nearly as many sequences of intricate build-up play as Spain or Argentina, and it presses as much as England. The approach might seem inconsistent with the names on its roster. A team as talented as France could control matches higher up the field if it wanted to. But coach Didier Deschamps prefers to start with a low foundation and build complexity from there. And at this point, he no longer needs to convince anyone that the strategy works.
Four years ago, France used it to win the World Cup.
Write to Jonathan Clegg at Jonathan.Clegg@wsj.com and Joshua Robinson at Joshua.Robinson@wsj.com