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FIFA World Cup

Defensive focus in finals football

Angel Di Maria felt something in his thigh during training on Saturday, making him a game-time decision for the World Cup final.

During the group stage of the 2014 World Cup, it practically rained goals in Brazil.

In fact, the average of 2.8 goals per game was the highest in the group stage since 1958, when 3.4 goals per game flew into the net.

But once the elimination rounds began, the goals dried up. Through the semifinals, the 14 matches played in the knockout stages have seen an average of just 2.2 goals per game. That includes the massive outlier that is Germany's 7-1 hammering of Brazil. When that match is excluded from the calculations, the mark goes down to 1.8 goals per game.

The impulse is to think that cautious, defense-first thinking takes over once the group stage is done. It's a school of thought to which former U.S. national team manager Bora Milutinovic subscribes.

"You have to defend in the competition," he said. "If you don't win, you go home. This is the deal. How you think is so important. It's psychological."

It was not always this way. Starting in 1954 and going through 1986, there was only one tournament -- 1974 -- that didn't see the average goals per game increase after the first round.

These calculations -- provided by ESPN Stats & Information -- don't include the third-place game, which tends to see plenty of goals scored. It's also important to note that from 1974 until 1982 there was a second group stage, rather than elimination games that began immediately after the first round, thus delaying the start of make-or-break games in the tournament.

Guillermo Ochoa has excelled for Mexico between the posts, one of a few goalkeeping discoveries.
Goalkeepers -- like Guillermo Ochoa -- were kept extremely busy in the group stage.

Regardless, the average goals per game still went up in tournaments that had knockout stages starting after the first round.

The 1990 edition serves as the demarcation line for many, the time when cautious soccer began to take over, especially in the knockout rounds. But that trend was reversed at both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups.

It was in the 2000s that one began to see more instances of defenses taking over as the tournament progressed. Given the onset of one-striker alignments and greater fitness levels, this isn't a surprise. In 2002, the average goals per game was 2.7 in the group stage and dropped to 1.7 in elimination games. In 2006, the group stage mark was 2.4 and then dropped to 1.7.

South Africa was an odd tournament in that goals were scarce in the first round -- a mere 2.1 per game -- before perking up to 2.6 in elimination games.

The latter instance points to the fact that sometimes tournaments assume a unique identity. But it's also true that, as Milutinovic pointed out, it is the best defensive teams that survive a tournament like the World Cup, and even some presumed smaller countries can get that part of the game right.

In this instance, highly organized, disciplined teams like Argentina, the Netherlands and Germany took center stage, while Costa Rica reached the quarterfinals riding its defense as well.

"That's simply coming from the idea that, 'We're going to defend first, and once we defend and if we happen to win possession where we have players ahead of the ball, then we'll commit forward and take our chances," said ESPN television analyst Alejandro Moreno.

It also points to another factor. The end of the group stage is a time for making adjustments. Three games are in the books, which is enough of a sample size to determine what is working and what isn't.

"If you want to advance, you're going to have to sacrifice something," said Moreno. "More often than not, coaches are going to err on the side of sacrificing their production offensively and making sure defensively things are taken care of."

Clearly, Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari didn't make those adjustments, especially after losing Neymar to injury and Thiago Silva to suspension.

Meanwhile, Germany's Joachim Low moved Philipp Lahm to right back and paired Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira in midfield to add more defensive solidity.

Argentine manager Alejandro Sabella tweaked things as well, especially in the wake of injuries to Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria.

"In the case of Sabella, he recognizes that Federico Fernandez was struggling defensively, that defensively Argentina was stretched all over the place," said Moreno. "So he made the team more compact, not as stretched. The gaps are tighter, and he makes it harder to play against.

"Now instead of talking about Lionel Messi, we're talking about Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia, next to each other, covering all sorts of holes in the middle of midfield. Then all of a sudden, Martin Demichelis gets in and he looks like a world-beater. It has to do with the team shape."

That said, a plan whereby teams focus on neutralizing the opposition may be effective, but it can also be hard to watch, especially if both sides take the same approach. One can only hope that on Sunday the more creative elements from Germany and Argentina can find that precious sliver of space to open the game up.

Perhaps then the goals will flow once again.

Jeff Carlisle

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. He has covered the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups for ESPN in Germany, South Africa and Brazil, respectively. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreycarlisle.