The 2018 World Cup: Gaming The System
It feels difficult to believe this morning, but there was a time not so long ago when last night’s group match between England and Belgium was one of the most eagerly-awaited of the entire first round of the competition. In a draw that saw precious few of the more established names drawn together, those of an England bent might have seen this match as an opportunity for the team to test their mettle and prove that they deserved a place in the next round of the competition, whilst those who would rather England lose probably assumed that a meeting with the stars of the current Belgian team would probably put them in their place a little, should there be any of that familiar England hubris building.
By the time that last night’s match in Kaliningrad came about, though, it rather felt like the very last match of the group stage was a game too far for just about everybody. The managers, who both made such vast swathes of changes to their teams that they were practically unrecognisable from those which had played the first two matches, certainly didn’t seem to. The players, who strolled about for an hour and a half at a pace more familiar to seasoned marathon watchers, certainly didn’t seem to. Even the television audience, which had spent most of the day looking at the various permutations for who might play who, started to drift away as it started to become as torpid as the pre-match teamsheets had suggested it might be.
So, to the tiresome debate, then. Where do England want to play? Who do they want to avoid? So many questions, few of which will matter a jot, should they lose to Colombia in the next round of the competition on Tuesday night. All of this discussion – and there has been so much discussion on the subject – seems to ignore something quit fundamental about this competition. To win the World Cup is to be the best in the world and, whilst we all understand that yes, sections of the draw in the World Cup can become lopsided, especially when teams don’t perform as the seeding system had intended, any team that wishes to win the competition will have to beat whoever they’re put up against, whenever they have to play them. And wanting to put off playing against Brazil until the last possible moment doesn’t exactly send out a message to the rest of thee world that Gareth’s Lions Are Bringing It Home, now, does it?
Having said that, though, it’s understandable that Southgate should have wanted to rest players. It’s been a tiring season and some of the players have looked as though they were just about fit to drop with twenty minutes of a match left to play. That extra bit of refreshment could make a difference, too. It’s not difficult to imagine their next match slipping into extra-time, where these thin margins come to really matter, and any advantage that can be taken should be grasped with both hands. Still further, for all of our talk of having to beat anybody to get to win this tournament there is little question that a draw that sees England play Colombia – who haven’t looked especially impressive thus far – and then, in the event of winning that match, playing Sweden or Switzerland – two middle-ranking European teams at a similar level to England – for a place in a World Cup semi-final is a once in a lifetime opportunity, if we’re completely honest with ourselves.
But England lost their momentum in Kaliningrad last night, if nothing else. There were eight changes made to the team from that which hit Panama for six on Sunday, but this unfamiliarity felt familiar in its own way. This match felt like nothing more than an England friendly, played at a snail’s pace, with two teams made up of players seeking to “impress the manager” whilst doing everything they could not to get themselves injured and ruled out of future plans altogether. The game was settled by a goal six minutes into the second half, a beauty from Adnan Januzaj, but even this felt like something of an irrelevance. At least three quarters of the players on the pitch will barely feature in this tournament again. There’s nothing to draw from their performances, because these are not the same human beings that will take to the pitch in the next round, for either of these teams. It was, in this sense, the ultimate meaningless match.
But that is only a partial reading of what this match meant. Tournament football is weird. Preparation followed by periods of intense involvement, which thins out over time as it progresses. Rest is important, but winning teams rarely come from nowhere. We don’t know what momentum counts for, in a broad sense. Its importance may well differ from squad to squad, for all we know. Is it more important than rest? We may find out, when England play Colombia on Tuesday night. We can say with a degree of confidence that Gareth Southgate saw few hidden gems amongst his back-up players, and we can say for certain that most people who watched the match last night (and who care about them) are a little more jittery over England”s prospects than they were this time yesterday. Beyond that, we learned very little from this match. In the other match in this group, Tunisia’s win against Panama was their first in the World Cup finals since 1978 – under only slightly different circumstances, they might have made England’s job against Belgium last night considerably more difficult than it actually turned out to be.
It has long been believed by many that it is only a matter of time before an African team launches a serious bid to win this tournament, but this feels further away than it has for a long time after Senegal completed the elimination of all sides from that particular continent before the knockout stage has even begun for the first time since 1986. There are two conflicting arguments over yesterday’s events in their group, though. On the one hand, they were sloppy in losing the lead twice against Japan in their second match, and as it became increasingly apparent yesterday that they needed a goal to continue in the competition it became equally apparent that they didn’t quite have the chops to pull something out of somewhere.
On the other, though, we need to consider this entire situation in which the total number of yellow and red cards have an influence upon whether a team finishes above or below another team in a final group table. It was required in one of the eight groups at these finals, and it came very close in another, which can only lead to the question of whether it should be lower down the sequential list of how these matters are decided. There has been evidence provided in the past which suggests that darker-skinned players are more likely to be booked or sent off than lighter-skinned players (though this, inevitably, has been disputed by some), and if there is any possibility whatsoever that this could be the case, it would seem reasonable to drop disciplinary records altogether from this particular decision-making process. It is certainly worthy of further investigation, at least.
Japan’s relative weakness was best demonstrated by their defeat against Poland, who’d already been eliminated from the competition before a ball was kicked yesterday. They opted to play keep-ball for the last ten minutes, which felt like a high risk strategy because it took matters out of their own hands. A goal for Senegal would have put them out, and they certainly made few friends with this Shame of Gijon-esque performance. But they’re through and Senegal are out, and it’s surprising and somewhat disappointing to see an otherwise thrilling group stage to this competition ending with such a whimper. Hopefully this retreating back into oneself won’t become too much of a feature for the next phase of the competition. It may do one or two coaches at this tournament a favour to remember that they are – or at the very least should be – ultimately here for the entertainment of a paying audience. It remains surprising, the extent to which this is routinely forgotten by so many.