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#FIFA World Cup

Technical and tactical overview

FIFA, 19 May 2023

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Six months after the tournament came to an end, FIFA have now been able to identify the technical, tactical and physical hallmarks of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. The keen eyes and experience of FIFA's bone fide football experts have combined with unrivalled and extensive performance analysis data to highlight some of the latest trends in the modern game.

On 18 December 2022, Lionel Messi raised the World Cup aloft in Doha's Lusail Stadium. After a scintillating game that finished 3-3 after extra time, Argentina beat defending world champions France 4-2 on penalties to become World Champions for the third time. For many, the final was one of the best FIFA World Cup final matches ever witnessed. For some, it was the greatest of all time. 

The head-to-head battle between Argentina captain Lionel Messi and France forward Kylian Mbappé for the adidas Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards could not have played out more perfectly. At 35 years of age, the mesmeric Messi scored two goals in the final before converting his penalty in the shootout to secure the Golden Ball, becoming the first player ever to win it twice. 

While the Golden Ball went to Messi, the explosive 23-year-old Mbappé scored a hat-trick and successfully dispatched his shootout spot kick to win the Golden Boot and claim the Silver Ball. They were joined on the winners' podium by Croatia's masterful, 37-year-old captain Luka Modrić, who took a bronze medal and the Bronze Ball home from what could be his last World Cup.

FIFA's Technical Study Group (TSG), led by FIFA's Chief of Global Football Development Arsène Wenger, attended every match at the World Cup to analyse the tactical, technical, physical and psychological trends that emerged during the tournament. The role of his team was to observe and investigate the themes that influenced, inspired and/or affected performances on the pitch during the competition, and this article summarises some of their key findings.

Young talents and experienced masters

For Wenger, the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ was defined by the performances of young talents and experienced masters. 

"I feel in the modern game, the young players are ready earlier to perform on the biggest stage. Their football education starts earlier, they are better prepared, they get more chances in some leagues so, in this World Cup, we have seen some very promising young players."

"For example, [Jamal] Musiala, [Jude] Bellingham [and Bukayo] Saka, these players are not only physically able to play but they are mentally ready too and not afraid to turn up in a big tournament," explained Wenger. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Wenger points out that other players are achieving greater longevity in their careers and are maintaining the ability to perform at the highest level of the game.  

"Lionel Messi won the adidas Golden Ball at the tournament that took place in December 2022, and he was born in 1987. He is the best player in the world at 35, and this extension in [his] career was evident with other players too."  

"Karim Benzema won the Ballon d'Or in 2022 and he was born in 1987 also. We had Olivier Giroud playing for France in this tournament and he was 36. Luka Modrić captained Croatia and won the adidas Bronze Ball at this World Cup at the age of 37. Both he and Cristiano Ronaldo were born in 1985."

According to Wenger, "This did not happen 20 years ago, so it looks like there is an extension of the career at the highest level."  

Traditionally, it has not been unusual to see goalkeepers enjoying greater longevity at the highest levels of the game, but this has not been true of outfield players. So, why are more outfield players able to continue playing at the highest level into their mid and late 30s?

Wenger believes there are a number of potential reasons for this development, noting that "Players get greater medical care, greater physical preparation, and they have a better lifestyle, and all these factors accumulate to extend their careers."  

One unique aspect of the FIFA World Cup 2022 was the fact that the whole tournament took place in one city. With the stadiums and most of the teams located in close proximity around Doha, travel demands were significantly reduced compared with previous World Cups. 

This reduction in travel time also meant that recovery times also improved significantly, because players could be back in their hotel rooms just two hours after their games had finished.

Differences between winning and losing teams

In addition to the key themes from FIFA World Cup 2022 (detailed below) and the insights gleaned from the additional data now available to analysts, comparing the metrics of winning and losing teams during the competition yielded some striking statistics.


1. Winning teams consistently outperformed losing teams when it came to successfully converting ball progressions into attempts at goal.
 

As can be seen in the table below, winning teams enjoyed more receptions after offers in behind, completed more ball progressions and broke the defensive unit more often than teams that lost. This also led to more attempts at goal and greater attacking efficiency.

Post-tournament analysis also showed that winning teams outperformed their opponents in take-ons and step-ins. On average, winners completed 4.15 more take-ons and 7.66 more step-ins per game than losers, suggesting a more progressive style of play.


2. Centre-forwards and left-wingers in winning teams received the ball after an offer in behind significantly more often than those in losing teams

In relation to the impact of players in certain positions for teams that won versus teams that lost, some interesting data has emerged.

As discussed in the analysis on the role of Number 9s, the impact of centre forwards in the 2022 tournament changed in comparison to the 2018 World Cup. The significance of this change is underlined by the difference in the impact that centre forwards made for teams that won compared to the impact had they had for teams that lost. Centre forwards in winning teams completed 123 receptions after an offer to receive in behind compared to 85 for those in teams that lost. They also completed 32 defensive unit line breaks compared to 12 for those that lost. 

This discrepancy was not confined to centre-forwards. For instance, left-sided centre-backs in victorious teams were able to complete more ball progressions than their counterparts in losing sides, registering 76 progressions compared to just 45 in teams that lost. Similarly, right-sided central midfielders in winning teams completed 77 ball progressions compared to 46 by those in losing teams. It may also be significant that left-wingers in winning teams completed more than double the number of receptions after an offer to receive in behind the opposition defensive line than their opposite numbers in losing teams, registering 152 receptions compared to just 68 for left-wingers in teams that lost. This total exceeds the same count for centre forwards by 29.


3. Winning teams in 2022 demonstrated a stronger ability to activate quality, vertical threats on the counter-attack and in attacking transition compared to teams that lost.

In the counter-attacking phase, victorious teams completed 130 receptions of the ball after an offer to receive in behind the opposition's defensive line, compared to just 53 completed by teams that lost. 

Moreover, while defeated teams completed more ball progressions in build-up phases (opposed and unopposed), winning teams completed significantly more ball progressions in counter-attack phases (73 vs 27) and in attacking transition phases (237 vs 165). 

The numbers for defensive unit line breaks in counter-attack phases show a similar trend, with 45 for winning teams versus 20 for teams that lost. The same is also true of breaks in attacking transition phases (68 for winning teams as against 35 for losing teams). 

Interestingly, winning teams registered a total of 430 counter-attacks, as opposed to 274 for losing teams; the average duration of victors' counter-attacks were slightly longer than the that of losing times (4.25 seconds versus 3.81). Teams that lost also tended to counter-attack at slightly faster speeds than winning teams did, at an average of 31.73km/h compared to 30.6km/h for teams that won.

However, the quality of counter-attacks by victorious teams was significantly higher. Winning sides registered 42 counter-attacks resulting in attempts at goal, leading to 11 goals, while losing teams only produced 12 counter-attacks culminating in attempts at goal, none of which resulted in a goal being scored.

KEY THEMES FROM FIFA WORLD CUP QATAR 2022

After sieving through the vast amounts of football played in Qatar, the TSG determined four technical and tactical elements as key themes that defined the tournament. The remainder of the analysis centres around these themes, and the main findings of each are provided below.

Mid-blocks and compactness
  • The best teams at the tournament demonstrated an ability to control the game when they did not have possession. 

  • Defending in a mid block proved to be a popular out-of-possession strategy for teams that made it through to the latter rounds of the competition with all four semi-finalists preferring the mid block as their dominant out-of-possession game phase. 

  • When teams employed a mid-block, it was crucial for them to remain disciplined, communicate clearly and respond to triggers when opponents attempted to play through or break their lines. All these attributes were even more important when the defending side was trying to maintain compactness.

  • Breaking down or playing through an effective, compact mid-block is difficult, and this tactic can therefore force attacking teams to focus on exploiting wider areas of the pitch or spaces in behind the defensive line to progress the ball forward.

The use of wide areas
  • With the use of mid-blocks becoming ever more common as the preferred out-of-possession phase in 2022, there was more space to exploit in wide areas, and some teams proved very effective at exploiting this space to create chances. 

  • A total of 20 more goals were scored from crosses in 2022 (45) than in 2018 (25), while there was also an increase of 12% in attempts at goal from crosses.  

  • Goal-scoring efficiency from crosses increased to 20% in 2022, meaning one in five attempts at goal from crosses resulted in a goal, while teams were also proactive at getting at least three players into the penalty area to attack deliveries from wide areas.

The role of the Number 9
  • The role of the Number 9 changed during FIFA World Cup Qatar, reverting to something more akin to a traditional centre-forward than the 'false 9' that has become increasingly common in recent years. 

  • The frequent use by defending teams of compact blocks, and particularly mid-blocks, squeezed the space in between the lines where false 9s had previously thrived. As a result, attacking teams often used the wide areas either side of the defensive blocks to progress the ball and access the final third, resulting in Number 9s scoring more goals from crosses. 

  • Between them, Number 9s scored 12% more goals compared with 2018 despite having 56 fewer attempts at goal. Their goal-scoring efficiency increased because they tended to remain in central positions, creating higher value chances a result of being an average of two metres closer to goal when making attempts at goal than they were in the 2018 tournament.

  • In short, 2022 saw Number 9s revert to being finishers as opposed to creators.

Goalkeeper line height
  • There was a shift in the positional profile of the goalkeeper at the 2022 World Cup.

  • On average, goalkeepers took up positions 1.3m higher up the pitch than in 2018, and played an average of 1.0m closer to their defensive line.

  • Goalkeepers were also found to be playing an average of 3.6m higher than in 2018 when their team was in possession in the final third, and they were an average of 1.4m higher up the field when their team was losing than they did in 2018. When their teams were winning, goalkeepers played closer to the defensive line than they were in 2018: the average distance between the goalkeeper and the defensive line decreased by an average of 1.5m.

  • Effective decision-making is crucial for the modern goalkeeper, particularly when assessing whether to defend a zone or defend the goal. The relationship between goalkeeper, the defenders and the attacker with the ball is fundamental in big moments of the game and must be actively coached and practiced collectively.

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