Can defence win a Championship in this World Cup?
There's an old adage in American sports, particularly U.S. football, that defence wins championships. In recent years, the NFL has become a pass-heavy league, with quarterbacks posting better numbers than ever before. During February's Superbowl, when the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots were involved in a high scoring affair, the game was decided by a big defensive play. It meant the Vince Lombardi trophy went to Philadelphia for the first time in history.
While it's primarily an American football saying, it equates to many other sports. At the very highest level, poor defensive play will be punished. This is the case in football. Managers such as Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone have perfected the art of coaching defence. Each has had much success, proving that defensive performance can rule the game.
In this World Cup, the vast majority of matches have had a team which is content to sit back and defend. Most sides have at the very least made things difficult for their more illustrious opponents. Iceland gained a point against Argentina with a great defensive display. Iran beat Morocco with a solid rearguard effort. Several others were also unlucky not to pick up points after backs-to-the-wall performances.
It's hard to blame the smaller nations for having a negative approach. Ultimately all 32 teams are playing for themselves. If progression can be achieved by setting up in a defensive manner, then they will do so.
Unfortunately, from a neutral perspective, too much defence is unpleasing on the eye. Although it should be appreciated as an art form, it is easier to prevent a side from playing than matching them for effort and triumphing with technique and skill.
Over the past 32 years, defending has proven vital in the World Cup. The days of teams trying to score as many goals as possible are long gone. Games have become more like chess, with sides prioritising stopping the opposition above playing to their own strengths. It was back in 1986 when a team last conceded more than two goals in the knockout round. Once the latter stages arrive, clean sheets become critical.
In 2010, Spain won the World Cup with four consecutive clean sheets in the knockouts. Brazil, France and Italy have all claimed the title by conceding just once after the group stage. There's no doubt defending is now the most important attribute to lifting the trophy. Possessing world-class players is less important. Teams are capable of putting together a defensive strategy, one which often makes the opposition's game changers redundant in the big contests.
At this stage of the competition in Russia, it's difficult to know which side's strong defence will lead them to glory. Uruguay has been tight at the back, keeping three clean sheets to top Group A. Spain and France both have Barcelona, Real Madrid partnerships in their back lines. Other contenders include Brazil, Germany and Belgium. If teams not mentioned can tighten up defensively, then they, too, will challenge for the World Cup.
Regardless of the eventual tournament winners, plaudits will go to the goalscorers. In actual fact, when it comes to deciding top honours, the most important players are those tasked with keeping shutouts.