Goals are coming fast
It almost seems wrong to break it down into numbers. You would not seek to calculate the milligrams of adrenaline being released while sitting on a roller-coaster, just as you would not try to quantify what it's like to be in love.
The first week of the 2014 World Cup has been a breathtaking, jaw-dropping, visceral experience, a spontaneous explosion of adventure and euphoria and joy. It has blown away the cobwebs of a long, draining season; it has made the world, the football world, seem fresh and new. To try to express that in mere figures -- grey, lifeless statistics -- feels a little bleak, somehow.
But just so you know your eyes are not deceiving you, just so you know all this talk of the most exciting World Cup to date is not urgent, forgetful hyperbole, here they are: Heading into Friday's games, there had been 66 goals scored to date, at an average of 2.9 per match.
To put that in context, that is almost twice as many goals in the same period as in South Africa, and way ahead of the average number of goals per game at a finals over history's course. Only the 1954 tournament -- an exception, and an irrelevant one, too; football was a very different sport then -- has ever averaged more than that.
That statistic has to come with a caveat, of course: we are just a week into the tournament, and the figure is already dropping. That pattern should continue, especially once the natural caution of the knockout rounds sets in: when the stakes are higher, teams are far less likely to take risks. If there is any time to play with a degree of abandon, it is in the first week.
What such a stark number cannot quite capture, though, is quite how those goals have been scored, or rather, the approach that has been adopted -- almost across the board; no team has looked like they are here solely to shut up shop just yet, with the possible exception of Iran -- in seeking them. Rarely can a tournament have been quite so attack-minded.
Mexico and Brazil, for example, produced the third goalless draw of the tournament on Tuesday night, but even then, neither could rightly be accused of cynicism, of negativity. By the end, the Mexicans looked about as likely to score as the hosts did. Japan's late-night encounter with the Ivory Coast was not a game that many would have penciled in as a nailed-on classic, but it was a frenetic, frenzied sort of affair.
Everyone, in short, is here to attack. Even the Greeks have promised to stick with their new, offensive mindset, according to Georgios Samaras. The teams that have impressed most -- Holland, Chile, Colombia, Germany -- have done so by going for their opponents' throats.
There have been several theories advanced for this. The romantic would have you believe the players are inspired by being in Brazil. The pragmatist may tell you that the temperature is just right, that the hotter it gets, the more players tire, so the more mistakes are made.
The tactician might point out that there are more teams playing more different systems; that tension tends to be easier on the eye than when two teams' setups simply serve to cancel each other out. The starry-eyed might say that we are in a golden age of attacking talent, that this is the era of Messi and Ronaldo and Neymar and Van Persie, that this is simply the stage and the occasion on which they were destined to shine.
These are all relevant. The likely answer is bound to be multifaceted, a combination of some or all of the above. But there are two that seem to stand out more than any other.
One is that football has, over the course of the last 20 years, contorted itself to give a considerable advantage to attacking players. The process started with the removal of the godforsaken back-pass rule, continued with the automatic red card for a professional foul, and has now reached its apogee in what might be termed Champions League Football.
In this football, two-footed challenges are outlawed. That was not always the case. In this football, if you get the man at any point in making a tackle, then you are likely to concede a free kick. In this football, anything deemed overly zealous -- no matter how successful it is -- will be punished. It has taken place over the course of several years, but it has left a profound effect on the game.
Attackers have adapted, of course, by learning to maximize contact, or at least maximize the appearance of contact. Never before has simulation been so likely to succeed as now. But teams have changed the way they defend, too: intense pressing has replaced deep-lying defense, because if you sit back, when the opposition approach you, it is now much harder to stop them within the bounds of the law.
It is not yet a decade since every team had a player in what was termed the Makelele role, a ball-winner, an enforcer. There is an irony, of course, in the fact that Makelele was far more than a mere hatchet-man, but that is the way the position was interpreted by those teams who could not afford such an elegant, intelligent player as the Frenchman. Now, that position is all but obsolete. There is no point deploying someone who would struggle to make it to half-time and still be on the pitch.
The second is rather more ephemeral, but it is crucial. There was a time when it was at the World Cup that new tactics were displayed to the world. Hungary's deep-lying center forward, England's wingless wonders, Holland's Total Football machine: it was at the World Cup that they first caught the imagination in far-off lands. That was the only time you had chance to see these teams, after all. That gave the World Cup a tremendous significance. Every four years, it would shape and influence what football would become.
That has changed irrevocably. The world is much smaller now. Most of the elite players from most major nations are employed in Europe; it is much easier to get to know an individual. There is no mystery. It is the same with systems: Chile's 3-3-1-3 may not be popular in Europe, but those in the game are aware of how it works, and any observer who wishes to learn more can do so at the click of a button.
The World Cup's role, now, is not to change football but to represent a change that has already been wrought. It serves, every four years, as a sort of state of the union address: it is in the World Cup that we see not what football will be, but what it has become.
The tournaments in the first decade of the 21st century showcased a game that was cautious, negative, obsessed by system. It was a football that had its roots in the intense, impressive, well-oiled teams of Jose Mourinho and Fabio Capello and Marcello Lippi. It was a football that had been altered beyond recognition by vast improvements in conditioning. It was a football that prioritized the athlete.
You can tell a lot about an era by its lexicon. The buzz phrase for much of the first decade of the 21st century was "game management." It was a football that wanted no surprises. It was a football that was concerned with control. Midway through the second decade, though, and the key word has changed. It is transition. Or more accurately, moment of transition. The game has moved on. What we have seen in the first week of Brazil 2014 is a football designed by Marcelo Bielsa, by Louis van Gaal, by Jurgen Klopp. It is a football that does not want control. It is a football designed by a flash of chaos.
In Germany, a host of teams perform an exercise in training called the "Seven Second Game." In it, two teams have seven seconds after they gain the ball to get to the other end of the pitch and have a shot. If they do not, the whistle blows, and the ball is turned over.
The purpose of the game is clear. The reasoning, perhaps, is not. Studies have shown that it is in the first seven seconds after a team loses the ball that they are in a state of the most disarray. The football of control had systematized the game so much that it was strangling it. Teams could, all too easily, set up to keep a clean sheet and -- provided nobody made a mistake -- keep their opponents at bay.
The football of chaos had to find the weak point. It is there, in the first seven seconds after you lose the ball. It is the precept that Klopp built his Borussia Dortmund side on. It is the principle that made Bayern Munich European champions. It is a doctrine accepted by Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid and by Van Gaal and by Liverpool. Even Barcelona, at their very best, before they, too, became obsessed with control, deployed it: that was the logic behind their high pressing. Counterattacking has always existed. This is just a more specific version. It is counterattacking 2.0.
That is the game we are watching play out at the 2014 World Cup. It is not something new, something different, a radical shift in football's direction. It has been coming for a long time; the signs have been there for four or five years. The World Cup is not showing us where we are going. It is telling us where we have gone.