Europe's superb showing at the FIFA World Cup in Russia - this continent provided all four semi-finalists and winners France - was a key talking point at a FIFA conference reviewing the tournament.
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The trend for attacking football and the success of European teams featured high on the agenda, as coaches from across the world gathered at the FIFA Football Conference in London to discuss the summer’s FIFA World Cup finals.
Russia 2018 was the fourth successive FIFA World Cup that concluded with a European winner, with France’s success following on from the feats of Italy (2006), Spain (2010) and Germany (2014). Moreover, there were ten European teams in the round of 16, and six in the quarter-finalists, with Belgium, Croatia and England joining France in the semi-finals.
Both coaches and technical experts from of all of FIFA’s member associations were invited to Sunday’s conference, which offered an opportunity to reflect on the tactical tendencies witnessed at Russia 2018 – notably the desire to “reach the opposition goal as quickly as you can”, as Carlos Alberto Parreira, the former Brazilian World Cup-winning coach and a FIFA technical study group member, put it.
The statistics highlighted in a presentation by FIFA’s chief technical development officer, Marco van Basten, and Parreira included a fall in goalless games – down to one from seven at South Africa 2010 – and a rise in penalties, with 29 taken and 22 scored in Russia (compared with 15 taken and nine scored in 2010). Increased preparation on the training pitch meant there was also a goal for every 29 corners taken – compared with 61 in 2010. It was also a cleaner World Cup, with no red cards for violent conduct.
The morning presentation included an analysis of the four European semi-finalists, including winners France, who benefited from a coach, Didier Deschamps, who “has seen it all” and who adopted a policy of “keeping it simple”, according to former Netherlands striker Van Basten. Parreira cited the strength right through their side, starting with “one of the best goalkeepers” in Hugo Lloris, and ending with Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann.
Deschamps appeared on the stage to add his reflections, discussing the positive contributions of full-backs Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández, as well as N’Golo Kanté, Olivier Giroud and Pogba. “There was very good defensive organisation and on winning the ball back, we had to push forward very quickly, and we had players who were able to do that,” added Deschamps.
Semi-finalists England received praise, meanwhile, for their use of set-plays, with Van Basten suggesting a bright future lies ahead as he cited their additional success on the world stage at U17 and U20 levels. “They have a coach who wants to play from the back, and I think it was a success,” he said, “but they still can improve. They’re all pretty young and will have a good future.”
The other beaten semi-finalists, Belgium, were described by Parreira as “the most entertaining team in the competition” – and earned praise for the tactical flexibility showed by coach Roberto Martínez when switching to 4-3-3 with Romelu Lukaku on the right of their attack for the quarter-final against Brazil. “Every game was a spectacle,” added Van Basten.
As for runners-up Croatia, Parreira applauded the Balkan side for retaining the identity found previously in the former Yugoslavia’s days as “the Brazilians of Europe”. For Van Basten, this identity was embodied by Luka Modrić, the tournament’s outstanding playmaker. “If you have players like this in your team, you always have the feeling he’ll understand you and whatever you want, he does – he gives the ball at the right time and at the right speed. Modrić is a player who reads the game.”
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić suggested the quartet of European semi-finalists had succeeded because of their team-first approach. “All four teams looked like a compact team together and played as a group,” he argued. Martínez, for his part, suggested that “the [UEFA] Champions League and the competition that brings” was a factor.
Gareth Southgate, the England manager, reflected that youth development investment had paid handsome dividends for Europe - "along with the level of the domestic and European competitions in terms of the quality of the matches and playing matches under pressure. Players in those teams in the semi-finals were used to playing in really big knock-out matches and international matches as well.”
Frank Ludolph, the head of football education at UEFA, cited another significant reason when noting: “The success of the European teams goes down to the quality of the coaches and, of course, to the quality of coach education.”