World Cup 2010: Negative tactics and caution are causing goal drought

The propensity for 4-5-1, allied to the natural caution of teams under pressure to avoid defeat, has led to tentative games

Uruguay v France:
The France defence, in white, come under pressure from Uruguay in their World Cup group game. The match ended 0-0. Photograph: Jurie Senekal/Getty Images

To misquote the singer of the official World Cup song, the stats don't lie. Every day, Fifa compiles an avalanche of data to compare this World Cup with previous ones. The most telling after the first round of games is the number of goals that have been scored. At the end of Spain's shock defeat to Switzerland, which may actually prove to be the moment at which the tournament caught fire, there had been a total of 1.56 goals per game.

The Fifa representative asked daily for his thoughts on the goal drought may be right to say it is too early to make a definitive judgment. But even he is finding it hard to deny that the first round has been even more cagey and defensively minded than usual.

Opta's statistics, which measure the opening round of games against the same stage at the last three World Cups, show that the goal per game ratio compares poorly. In Germany in 2006, it was 2.44, in Japan-South Korea in 2002 it was 2.88 and at France 98 it was 2.31.

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When David Pleat bumped into Uefa's technical director, Andy Roxburgh, in an airport lounge today, the former Scotland manager, who is a member of the Fifa Technical Study Group of experts who are touring South Africa to analyse tactics and preparations, summed up the first round of games in one word: "Cautious".

"Teams are playing very deep and getting lots of bodies in front, so when you get to the last 30 yards there are very few times when you get someone free in space," said Pleat. The propensity for 4-5-1, allied to the natural caution of teams under huge pressure to avoid defeat, has led to tentative games with teams cancelling one another out.

Clarence Seedorf, the former Dutch international working at the World Cup as a BBC pundit, said that negative tactics were largely to blame. "I think the coaches are responsible. They have opted for very cautious tactics, all of them. The handful that didn't have scored the goals. It is a bit boring at the moment," he said.

"I would like to see the teams that have the quality to attack to do that and not sit back so much. I would like to see them play higher up the pitch."

Pleat believes there has been a levelling out, with less-fancied teams organising themselves well, packing their defence and hoping for a break. "There is a little bit of damage limitation by nervous teams, hoping they are going to get a break. It is understandable, you've seen that with Honduras and North Korea." It is a strategy that worked for Switzerland today, who played rope-a-dope with a dominant Spain in the first half before hitting them with a sucker punch.

Seedorf agrees: "The technical level of the players is such that everyone respects all the teams. They know it's the first game and it's very important not to lose. But I grew up with Dutch football and if you want to go further in the competition, you need goals."

The extent to which the much-maligned Jabulani ball can be blamed depends on who you are talking to but the statistics would tend to suggest that a lack of confidence in how it will behave is affecting the number of shots on target.

Opta's figures show that the number of shots in each game is about 10% down on 2006. They also show that the goals-to-shots ratio, at 7.9%, is also well down. In the past three tournaments, it never went below 10.8% in the opening round of matches.

And while both Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso have come close, and Siphiwe Tshabalala and Maicon have delivered from inside, there has been a distinct lack of spectacular goals from outside the box. Nor was there a single goal direct from a free-kick in the opening 16 matches.

That reluctance to shoot was apparent during Spain's match with Switzerland today. Their mesmeric passing patterns resulted in almost complete domination of possession in the first half but the World Cup favourites were reluctant to shoot from any distance. "The players have not attuned their accuracy with the free-kicks. There has been a lack of confidence in shooting," said Pleat.

Again, the statistics appear to bear out the anecdotes. Shooting accuracy – the ratio of shots to efforts on target – is 33% at this World Cup so far, compared with 40% at the same stage in Germany, 43% in Japan-South Korea and 41% in France.

Players themselves have lined up to criticise the ball. Goalkeepers including David James, Iker Casillas, Júlio César and Gianluigi Buffon have all hit out at its unpredictability, strikers have claimed it is impossible to control their shots while midfielders say they have struggled to find their passing range.

When combined with the altitude – which makes the ball fly through the air up to 5% faster – it has prompted players to repeatedly reflect on the way it has played on their mind and affected the flow of their passing. Denmark's Thomas Sorensen said he had to check himself before kicking the ball for fear of sending it flying into touch.

Of those players expected to light up the tournament, only Lionel Messi and Ronaldo have impressed so far. Mental and physical fatigue could be a factor but as they move further into the tournament it is to be hoped that the size of the prize on offer will inspire them to play through the effects of a long European season.

Seedorf said the quality of the play would improve as coaches were forced to encourage their teams to play higher up the pitch to secure qualification, and as the players got used to the ball and the conditions.

"The players will get used to it soon. In the second round of matches, we won't see all the errors we have seen in the first because they will have had 20 days with the ball to understand how it behaves and how it moves. It's coming. It takes time. The problem is that it is the one thing they don't have."

But Carlos Alberto Parreira, the South Africa coach, who has managed in six World Cups, said the debate was a familiar one and would soon be forgotten once the tournament got into its stride.

"It's too early to make any judgments. I have never seen a World Cup start at the top in the first round. For every team there is a lot of tension – the big ones, the small ones, the middle ones," he said. "We used to say the World Cup starts after the first round. It starts in the round of 16. The best 16 teams in the world. That's when the World Cup really starts."


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