One of the challenges facing teams that want to win the World Cup is the need to be able to change their strategy at this point in the competition. In the previous 48 games, winning and scoring was important. One doesn’t know how goal difference will effect one’s chances of advancement, so you see teams like Portugal pour it on North Korea when they have the chance. You see teams that have won early take more chances to improve goal difference when a draw won’t hurt as much. You see discussions of tiebreakers and strategies for how to get into the top of the group.
No more. You don’t get to take extra goals forward to the next match, you don’t get credit for style points. Win, or go home.
This often results in defensive, or “negative” strategies. Argentina in 1990 was a master of this, Sergio Goycochea was one of the world’s best goalkeepers at saving penalty kicks, so Argentina played an extremely defensive game. Their quarterfinal was a 0-0 match won on penalties, and the semifinal was a 1-1 match won on penalties. Germany won the final when they were awarded a late penalty after a dive in the box; the result was that Argentina was the runner-up in the World Cup, having scored 2 goals in the last 4 matches. They did what they needed to do to survive and advance.
So, does this mean we are about to face a torrent of boring football? That’s not a guarantee. 1990 also saw the exciting Cameroon vs England quarterfinal, won by England in extra time, 3-2. Teams with quick counter attacks can turn their opponent’s desperation into heartbreak.
For the United States, it should be interesting. We’ve got a good attack, and we’ve shown we can score when we’re behind. We’re fit (which may matter if a game goes to extra time) and should we go to penalties, Tim Howard is solid. Although we have reached the second round, we’ve only led a couple minutes so far this tournament, so we don’t know how well we’ll play with a lead. The Confederations Cup was a mixed bag, we survived the Spanish attack, but the Brazilians overcame our two goal lead.
Master the knockout phase tactics, and you’re the world champion.