Richard Jolly explores the difference between a successful collective and a simple collection of players after the first round of matches at the World Cup.
France's midfielder Paul Pogba (C) jokes with France's forward Kylian Mbappe at the end of a training session in Clairefontaine en Yvelines on May 30, 2018, as part of the team's preparation for the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia.
Attack versus defence. Possession football against a more direct approach. Old world or new, the established powers from Europe and South America or the countries from the game’s newer continents: the World Cup shows the contrasts in the global game. And yet the greatest divide may not be geographical or stylistic. It is between the teams who feel greater than the sum of their parts and those who are less than them. It is between the collective and the collection of 11 sometimes mismatched men, between the cohesive and the incoherent, between those who are everything England want to be and everything they have been too often this century.
It is between those who are teams, in the truest sense of the word, and those who merely happen to have a complement of players on the pitch. The opening round of fixtures has been notable for examples of the merits of solidarity, from Sweden and Switzerland, Iceland and Iran, Mexico and Senegal, and the failures of individualism.
International football has its version of the clichés about bumpy pitches or inclement weather being a great leveller. It comes in the form of collective commitment, organisation and spirit that has given sides a capacity to transcend personal limitations.
It has made Iceland the emblematic group so far. Some may tire about the now repetitive mentions of part-time dentists, Eurovision Song Contest film directors and a population of 330,000, but the fact remains that they held Argentina with a goalkeeper who plies his trade for the team that finished 13th in the Danish league and a back four from Valur, Vikingur, Rostov and Bristol City; half of the rearguard who kept Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria to a solitary goal play their club football in Iceland.
Iceland's players attend a training session at Olimp Stadium in Kabardinka on June 17, 2018, during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament.
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Iceland do not have the luxury of omitting Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala from the starting 11 or Mauro Icardi from the squad. Instead they, and others, have turned disadvantages into advantages. A lack of players has meant continuity is enforced. That has bred understanding and a greater cohesion than those confused by the luxury of choice, both in terms of selection and style of play: Iceland had 22 per cent of the ball against Argentina, but it was the only way they could play.
Which brings us to Didier Deschamps. France have too many hugely talented players. Not just in the sense it appears unfair to their rivals, but in the way it complicates the decision-making process. Experiments with system and personnel are understandable but time-consuming and wasteful; perhaps Mexico, given the number of games they play, can afford them, but European sides struggle to. A feature of the genuine teams is how many caps all of their regulars possess. They are won together. It is no coincidence that international football’s overachievers often tend to be its closest equivalent of club teams.
Antoine Griezmann (France)
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The World Cup’s first week highlights a trend from the 2010s: supposedly smaller nations can prevail. It has been a decade where, at times, Uruguay, Holland, Portugal, Cameroon, Chile, Costa Rica, Australia, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales have tasted success. Most have footballing traditions and enviably gifted players, but they do not have the depth of talent of more populous nations. Players cannot be cast aside; instead, bonds are forged.
It helps when the first among equals, like Iceland’s Gylfi Sigurdsson or Denmark’s Christian Eriksen, clearly conforms to the work ethic. Sweden show the merits of a star vehicle discarding the star: they were dismal with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Euro 2016 and made a winning start to the World Cup courtesy in part of an all-encompassing determination to run.
Arguably, only one side built around a solitary superstar prospered in the first round of fixtures, and that says something about how remarkable Cristiano Ronaldo remains. Egypt’s reliance on Mohamed Salah might have been justified if he were fully fit or Poland’s on Robert Lewandowski if they got him the ball, but neither was the case.
The reality of international football is that one light can obscure others. The outcome of the last two World Cups highlights the importance of buying into a shared ideal, whether Spain’s passing principles or Germany’s innate Germanness.
The ultimate tournament team were the outstanding side in the 2014 tournament. With the benefit of hindsight, they felt obvious winners. Yet it is worth noting none of their players even mustered 1 per cent of the vote in the 2013 Ballon d’Or. Others had more luminous stars but Germany had more cohesion and fewer flaws. Like the quintessential German sides, they were greater than the sum of their considerable parts.
Germany's forward Thomas Mueller reacts
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It is what made their disorganised, disjointed display against Mexico all the odder: Jogi Low seemed to select some of the wrong players, who produced the wrong performance. Germany stopped being German.
And at the same time, others have borrowed their traits with altogether inferior players and a far smaller talent pool, forging redoubtable, resourceful, resilient sides. By most objective criteria, some – Iceland, Panama, Peru – have overachieved even to be at the World Cup. Someone – perhaps Iceland – will over-perform to progress to the knockout stages. Their methods may not be pretty, but it will be the only way possible with the only players available. It will be an indictment of those who have squandered far greater resources, made less use of more coveted players and struggled with the kinds of decisions that they are spared, but it will come from clarity of thought and unity of purpose. It will rank as a triumph of teamwork.