On Friday evening, Zlatko Dalic said tiki-taka was a “thing of the past”. Spain had 900 touches of the ball against Morocco and still lost, the Croatia coach pointed out. “The future lies in the speed of counter-attacks and fast transitions.” Sat alongside, Matteo Kovavic didn’t agree. “I like the tiki-taka style,” he said. But speed mattered and it was “compactness, toughness and counter-attacks that won trophies,” said the Croatia midfielder.
Spain went home 11 days ago, coach Luis Enrique has stepped down but conversations on the idea of their football continues here. In the vast media centre at the Qatar National Convention Centre and in its auditoriums where Arsene Wenger and Juergen Klinsmann held forth on the tournament and the trends they saw from 62 of the 64 games.
Both felt Spain have enough quality to come back. “But they will need players who can finish off the sequence,” said Klinsmann, captain of the FIFA Technical Study Group (TSG). Teams that can in a few seconds break and complete a move have done well here, he said citing the example of France, Argentina and Brazil. If his possession game was working so well why would Pep Guardiola get Erling Haaland to Manchester City, asked Klinsmann. “You need somebody in the box to score.”
International football needs strikers with the quality to finish chances, said Klinsmann, a World Cup winner in 1990 and Germany and USA coach in 2006 and 2014 respectively. “From the top league through the youth development systems, players with No 9 characteristics need to be developed. For a long time, because of the Spanish way of playing there was a lot of emphasis on passing after one or two touches. Going by what we saw here that needs to change. There needs to be players who are efficient in front of goal, who can take risks and be courageous in one on ones.”
And players who can make runs from behind. There has been more of that, Wenger said explaining the contradiction between fewer crosses (13.5 per game, down from 14.3 in 2018) but more goals from crosses (45 here and 24 in Russia). “The quality of crosses has gone up. There have been more runs from behind, often without the ball, and that has helped centre forwards who are efficient in one on one situations.”
Goals from corner-kicks and indirect free-kicks have been fewer than Russia but the competition has already seen 163 goals, two more than in 2018. There has also been a 34% increase in balls played behind the defence, data presented by TSG on Saturday showed. With most teams preferring to keep a compact centre, there has been 21% less front third incursions down the middle and receiving the ball in the middle has gone down 14%. Teams that could shut down passing channels from the middle ensured that the tournament never took off for players such as Robert Lewandowski, said Klinsmann.
In football what happens in one part of the pitch often influences other areas. As teams have blocked the centre, the wing backs’ role became more important here, said Klinsmann. Achraf Hakimi was barely going forward in the group stages as was Kyle Walker against Mbappe, he said. “And we know how influential they can be doing that.”
Along with Hakim Ziyach, the duo was a constant threat against France exploiting space behind Mbappe till France brought on Marcus Thurram to plug that and moved Mbappe into a more central position.
Like with every edition – Mbappe was one in Russia – there have been a few young stars such as Jamal Musiala, Jude Bellingham and Cody Gakpo. “Mbappe’s age means he should have a good World Cup future, said Klinsmann of the French forward who is not yet 24.
World Cup debuts getting younger will lead not to burnouts but longer careers, said Wenger. “I first played Messi in 2006 and even now, 16 years later he has been giving us pleasure. We should be grateful for that. Players like Olivier Giroud, Luka Modric and Messi have made a great impact on this tournament and it shows despite the negative impact of health and wealth on the life of a modern player, their careers have got longer. They begin early and end late,” he said.