Coaches and players from around New England gathered around their selected devices and reveled in a fantastic World Cup this summer.
Drama and intrigue coursed through every game. The tournament offered a compelling mix of great goals, notable incidents and stunning results.
While locals did not have much in the way of New England ties to celebrate in this tournament, they did possess a series of instructive moments from the pinnacle of the game. Every World Cup creates an instructive snapshot of the game in its current form and highlights the trends present at the highest levels.
As local teams report back for their fall seasons and France finally winds down its celebrations, the takeaways from a compelling tournament are still fresh. Here are a few lessons worth implementing as a new campaign starts and the quest for success commences in earned.
Size doesn’t always matter …
The two most influential midfielders in the entire tournament cut striking and noticeably slight figures. Luka Modric careens around the Croatian midfielder effortlessly to link possession and pull the strings. N’Golo Kante adopts a more imposing approach in the heart of the French shape by harrying the opposing creative players and using his deft position sense to break up play time and time again.
Their importance in the tournament is there for all to see. Modric inspired a seasoned Croatia side — a good team benefiting from a kind draw and a willingness to grasp this tempting chance with both hands — to the final through his creativity and his industriousness. Kante propelled France to its second title by providing the solidity necessary for Paul Pogba to flourish and tempering the impact of the opposition.
Their successes — combined with the presence of Croatia (population 4 million, give or take a few) in the final — illustrate the importance of excellence, not physical attributes. Even at the highest levels, there is ample room for players and teams with ability, even if they do not fit into the prototypical mold of a commanding operator It is a lesson worth heeding for young players everywhere: Make the most of your own abilities, even if you do not necessarily match up with the opposition at the other end.
… but details always do
Set pieces played an outsized role in influencing games throughout the tournament. Cristiano Ronaldo’s stunning free kick against Spain in the group stages established the tone for a raft of goals from dead-ball situations. The competing teams in Russia scored 70 goals from set pieces during the tournament. That figure constituted 43 percent of the overall goals in the tournament, the highest mark since 1966.
Many of those goals arrived through preparation on one side and lapses on the other. England, in particular, impressed with its creativity from corner kicks and crossed free kicks — remember those straight lines, as if trying to play the ball inbounds on the basketball court? — and its diligence in preparations. Other sides continually faltered due to a lack of concentration, the persistent inability to track runners and the willingness to perpetually foul in poor areas.
Those reminders are particularly helpful heading into the fall season. Set pieces offer a route to close the gap and cover for any struggles from the run of play. They also pose a potential issue if players and teams slip. Their vital role — even in the top tournament in the world — warrants inspection with the fall season right around the corner.
It takes a team …
Most of the discussion prior to the tournament included the inevitable debate about the biggest stars in the world. Would Ronaldo or Lionel Messi finally claim that elusive title? Could Neymar lead in-form Brazil back to prominence after a recent revival?
All three stars fell short despite displaying their own abilities in flashes. Messi and Argentina nearly exited after the ground stage amid chaos and disorganization before finally departing in the quarterfinals. Uruguay — one of the more impressive sides in the entire tournament — subdued Ronaldo and Portugal at the same stage. Brazil exited against Belgium in the quarterfinals despite showing its collective strength along the way
Even with outstanding individual players, those potential contenders inevitably fell short. One or two stars is sometimes enough to carry a team through, particularly at the youth levels. But the presence of a talisman does not remove the responsibility from the other players to pull their weight and push the side forward. It is something worth bearing in mind as those seasons commence.
… and a plan
The best teams in this tournament identified how they wanted to play and implemented those tactics game after game. France operated on the counter, moved quickly through midfield and relied on the speed of Kylian Mbappe. Croatia trusted its midfield to dictate terms. Belgium toggled between systems while placing a premium on moving the ball forward quickly toward the intelligent runs of Romelu Lukaku. England waited for the counter and the set pieces. Sweden and Uruguay set out their stall and stymied the opposition.
All of those examples — plus the inverse issues encountered by Argentina and its complete dearth of cohesion — reinforce the necessity of a plan. How do you want to play? Can you maintain those principles and adjust them slightly to suit the specific challenge ahead? These are two fundamental questions coaches must keep in mind as they prepare for the new season.
Most of all, take nothing for granted
Expectations outline the potential outcomes without actually dictating them. Defending champion Germany crashed out in the group stage. Pre-tournament favorites Spain fired their manager on the eve of the tournament and somehow stumbled against a limited Russian side in the quarterfinals. And — not to put too painful of a point on it — the United States, Italy and the Netherlands failed to qualify entirely.
If this tournament — packed with a peculiar draw in bottom half of the knockout round and a weak host nation propelled all the way to the quarterfinals — reinforced anything at all, it is that destiny remains in the hands of people who cling to it. It is a theme worth revisiting time and again as players and teams set their own objectives this fall and strive to meet them day after day.