By Paul Gardner
Those (myself among them) who feared that caution, with its depressant effect on goalscoring, would rule the early games of the World Cup, evidently got it wrong. Where the opening games of the previous tournament, in 2010, produced a measly average of only 1.6 goals per game, the figure for what’s going on in Brazil stands at a robust 3.5 halfway through the first round.
In 2010 only one team scored more than two goals in the 16 opening games. After eight games in Brazil, fiveteams had already scored three or more. (That should really be six teams because Mexico, during its 1-0 win over Cameroon, had two good goals disallowed by incorrect offside calls).
An increase of two goals per game -- and what a difference those goals make. All of the eight games have been worth watching. Because goals make a huge difference to the pattern of a game. Of course they mean immediate joy to one team, the near-delirious celebrations are not going to let you forget that. But they also shake things up in ways that no other event on the field can. However things may look, a game is never the same after a goal has been scored.
And the changes frequently contradict appearances. The idea that an early goal can set a team on its way to victory has taken a battering in Brazil. Croatia got on the board after only 11 minutes against Brazil and ended up losing 1-3. Uruguay was 1-0 up after 24 minutes -- who would have expected Costa Rica to fight back with three goals? Ivory Coast gave up a goal to Japan after only 16 minutes, but won the game with two second-half goals. And what did that 27th minute Spanish goal against the Dutch do for that game? Cause the Spanish to relax with the feeling they were on the way to an expected win? Or galvanize the Dutch into super-action that created five goals and the utter humiliation of Spain? Did the early Spanish goal really cause that? What if the Dutch had scored first? Might that have reversed things?
All those possibilities circling around the scoring of an early goal. No team is going to belittle the scoring of a goal, but the early ones do have the drawback of allowing the opponents plenty of time to do something about it.
OK. You would expect Brazil and the Dutch to turn up the heat. But Costa Rica? What they did, against a supposedly much stronger team, was remarkable. By the time the game was over, Uruguay -- or Uruguay without Suarez -- had been exposed as a very ordinary team while Costa Rica had played some excellent soccer, really better than anything Uruguay could muster.
The one game that was least affected by the atmosphere of goalscoring was the England-Italy meeting. A more traditional game on the face of it. But certainly not lacking excitement -- and actually not all that traditional. Past England-Italy clashes had a habit of degenerating into on-field chippiness and off-field recriminations about the English being too physical and the Italians employing too many dubious skills -- like using the arms to fend off tacklers, diving, and so on.
What the English believed to be legal red-blooded tackling, the Italians deplored as provocative roughing up, while the more subtle tricks and flourishes and defensive tactics that the Italians delighted in greatly upset the English as nothing better than cheating.
That looked like an irresolvable soccer culture-clash. But things have been changing. This was a game that featured only 20 fouls, an average total, none of them reckless. And in a tournament in which, we are told, the referees have been instructed to “protect players”, England had only 8 of those fouls.
Certainly, the notorious English “get stuck in” mentality was not evident in this game. In particular, the one player who might have been expected to display it, Steven Gerrard, had a quiet, at times almost anonymous, game. And for many, that will be why England lost this game -- because it didn’t play to its long-ball strengths, because it didn’t rattle the Italians with clattering tackles.
England coach Roy Hodgson -- at 66, one of the oldest coaches in Brazil -- can hardly be seen as a modernizer, but he has chosen to field younger players, and they bring a different, fresher approach to the game. The long-balls are still there, but they don’t dominate. The FIFA stats tell us that England played 71 long balls. But Italy played 60. And the least successful part of England’s game was the long-ball part. England was well behind Italy in short passes (133 to 207) and medium passes (340 to 412). But then, the Italians had more possession.
The unexpected stats are that Italy made more tackles (12 to 8) and coughed up the ball more frequently (60 to 53).
But there is one stat that reveals the way that English soccer hangs on to its traditional style. Crosses. England 25, Italy 9. This seems almost an automatic part of the English game, along with cross-field passes (they account for many of the long-balls) which accomplish little.
You could argue that England’s goal -- a real beauty from Daniel Sturridge -- came from a cross, but that would be stretching the definition of cross. Most crosses, in the traditional English sense, are high balls played -- more in hope than confidence -- into the opposing goalmouth. The up-for-grabs nature of such balls -- they can hardly be called passes -- is acknowledged by the English when they talk about putting the ball “into the mixer.”
Rooney’s ball to Sturridge was not a cross. It was a pass, a gem of a pass, putting the ball exactly into the path of Sturridge, who half-volleyed it, first time, into the net.
Alongside the mulish devotion to crosses, there is one other area in which English soccer remains mired in an unproductive past. That is a conviction that England always has good goalkeepers.
On Italy’s winning goal, a cross from Antonio Candreva on the right, a careful, measured cross aimed at Mario Balotelli, who was lurking near the far post. Balotelli did get on the end of it, easily out jumping Gary Cahill, to head in from about three yards.
And where was goalkeeper Joe Hart during all this? A couple of yards off his line, scuttling quickly across the goal as the cross swung over. So far so good. But ... a header from three yards away, passing betweenthe keeper and the post? Hart was so late even attempting to get to the ball that by the time he waved his arm at it both ball and arm were a yard or more inside the goal. Is that good enough?
Incredibly, it seems so. We now live in a soccer era when criticizing goalkeepers is a rarity. The TV commentators -- Ian Darke and Steve McManaman, both Brits -- had no harsh words for Hart. McManaman actually absolved him with “Nothing Joe Hart could do about it.” Which seems to me highly questionable.
It is far from my intention to excoriate goalkeepers for their errors. If anything, I rather like the errors -- especially when they lead to goals. Because it is goals, not saves, that inject life into games. We are getting a wonderful demonstration of that in Brazil. How right that it should be happening in the sunshine and the colorful exuberance of the country that has for so long carried the flag for creative, attacking soccer.