The 2022 World Cup had three times as many goalless draws as in 2018. In fact, yesterday we went three hours without seeing a goal net waving at all.
While anyone might claim you can have a mesmerizing 0-0 – and you certainly can – we want to see goals at the greatest show on Earth. The clean sheets have led some to argue that this won’t be a particularly fun tournament, although it’s just the start.
What is happening? Here are some theories.
1. Teams play with less intensity
Gareth Southgate was more than happy to bring out his star men against Iran in the second half, with England taking a 4-1 lead and playing again four days later. It’s a hectic schedule, we all understand that – and so we’ll see teams playing flurries rather than trying to go to hell for leather for a whole 90 minutes.
This would explain why Denmark and Tunisia played a draw, with both teams having their time to dominate but looking to manage the game as a whole and not strain too much. Likewise, that’s probably why Iran knocked out key players as they were beaten by England – because while we saw boring 0-0s, we also saw very unilateral.
Whether by accident or design, this tournament got off to a slower start – and that’s probably partly due to the lack of freshness.
2. VAR is more stable now – and there are fewer penalties
2018 was the tournament with video assistant referees. Halfway through the group stage, Cristiano Ronaldo was awarded a penalty against Iran, taking the tournament tally to 19 – for context, the record of a together The World Cup competition stood at 18 before that.
We’ve seen soft penalties so far in 2022, but four years ago the rules were still evolving. After years of VAR experience, referees may have a better idea of what constitutes a penalty. Or maybe they did it more correctly last time… who knows?
3. Teams are simply more conservative
Southgate has been very open about the model of this England team. Despite the riches the Three Lions have in attack, they are a side that are willing to bide their chances, favoring patient construction and defensive solidity over fluid forward fluidity.
And maybe we’re not alone. France were organised, boring and ultimately victorious in 2018, following Spain and Germany who had more intense reputations the previous two tournaments. Just as club level goes through cycles of style of play, we may be going through a more defensive era on the international stage.
To throw a positive punch on this cautious start to tournaments for many teams, the defenses have been on top.