Cristiano Ronaldo (L) and Lionel Messi will look to inspire their teams to win the World Cup trophy this summer.

In Stats: Why The 2018 FIFA World Cup Promises to be a Goal Fest

What makes for a great footballing experience – from a viewer’s perspective? Is it a mazy dribble past defenders that leaves them in a heap? Is it a sequence of intricate one-touch passing? Is it a gravity-defying leap by a goalkeeper to keep out what looks like an unstoppable shot? Or is it perhaps a crunching sliding tackle, timed to perfection?

Sure, all of those can be great to watch. However, at the end of the day there’s only one statistic that wins matches, only one metric which decides the fate of the two teams on the pitch: Goals.

And let’s be honest, it’s goals that really set the heart racing, goals that we want to see, in truckloads if possible, at the FIFA World Cup 2018.

More Discipline, Less Goals?

Football is a very different sport these days as compared to what it used to be back in the day, when it was all blood and thunder. Unfortunately, that also led to a fair bit of thud and blunder, and the modern game is far more sophisticated and organised, with every aspect of preparation honed to a science, whether players’ diets or pre-planned drills and moves.

There is one drawback to these developments, which became more mainstream in the 1990s. With better organisation and discipline, teams are tougher to break down, defenders and midfielders are fitter and less prone to being beaten by good attackers. All of which means less goals.

Just take a look at the final scores of the World Cup finals from 1990 onwards: 1-0, 0-0, 3-0, 2-0, 1-1, 1-0, 1-0. Four of those games went to extra time, two had to go to penalties, and all bar one saw one side keeping clean sheet. That’s a total of 10 goals in 7 games.

Now look instead at the World Cup finals before 1990: 3-2, 3-1, 3-1, 2-1, 4-1, 4-2, 3-1, 5-2, 3-2, 2-1, 4-2, 2-1, 4-2. That’s a total of 61 goals in 13 games.

Less Goals, Less Excitement?

It’s no coincidence that those old World Cup campaigns are spoken of with a fervour bordering on the religious, whether rhapsodising about the Brazil team of 1970, Maradona’s exploits in 1986, or the Magical Magyars in 1954. The more recent editions, for all their high-spec planning, fail to evoke similar feelings.

The last tournament which did manage to generate something of this kind of feeling was France 1998, when a Ronaldo-inspired Brazil ripped teams apart, and a French team powered by Zidane scored 15 goals. The World Cup that year, with an expanded number of teams and games, saw 171 goals.
Andres Iniesta and Mario Gotze’s World Cup-winning goals both came in extra time, with scorelines of only 1-0.
Andres Iniesta and Mario Gotze’s World Cup-winning goals both came in extra time, with scorelines of only 1-0.

The 2014 World Cup had the same tally, but that was partially inflated by some batterings in the group stages (including Spain’s surprise thrashing by the Netherlands) and of course the 7-1 hammering of Brazil in the semi-final. In this way it was similar to the 2002 World Cup where Germany’s 8-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia inflated the goals scored to 161.

Both were still better as a spectacle, of course, than the meagre offerings at the previous tournaments, 143 in South Africa 2010 and 147 in Germany 2006, but there has been less of a spark in the last twenty years.

Will 2018 be any Different?

The good news, however, is that Russia 2018 should be an exciting goal fest, if the current goalscoring and tactical trends hold true.

You see, after several years where possession and defensive discipline have been the keys to success, the 2017-18 football season saw aggressive, attacking football make a comeback. More importantly, this front foot playing style has also led to success for teams this season.

Take the top six teams in each of Europe’s five major leagues (where the majority of the key players at the tournament ply their trade), for instance. The total number of goals scored by them in the league shows a consistent improvement over the last four seasons.

  • The Premier League and Ligue 1 saw the highest ever goals total by the top 6.
  • The Bundesliga saw the highest total since 2013-14 (which itself came at the end of an aberrant period of high-scoring when Jurgen Klopp managed Borussia Dortmund).
  • In the Italian Serie A, again, the trend has been upward for the last decade, let alone the last few seasons. The tally there was the second-highest ever, just after the 2016-17 season.

The only aberration was Spain’s La Liga, which saw a drop in the number of goals by its top 6. There are mitigating factors for this, of course – the goal numbers in Spain have been inflated for the last several years because of the ridiculous figures posted by Real Madrid (read Ronaldo) and Barcelona (read Messi). Ronaldo scored fewer (by his own standards), Bale was injured for much of the season, and Neymar left Barcelona, all of which obviously led to lesser goals from them.

If you exclude these glut years, the goals per game stats from La Liga are still better than most of the twentieth century, showing again the resurgence of attacking football.

UEFA Champions League – The True Test?

A more accurate barometer of what kind of games we’ll see at the World Cup, however, is the UEFA Champions League. As mentioned earlier, the majority of the top players who will be key to this tournament all play in Europe, and the Champions League is the elite footballing competition here.

The way in which the top teams approach matches in the Champions League is therefore relevant to understanding how the top international teams will also approach big matches in the World Cup – the kind of tactics that work in crunch Champions League ties should work in deciding the big games at the World Cup.

And the 2017-18 Champions League was all about attack. The highest-ever number of goals (401), the highest goals-to-game ratio since 1971 (3.21), and incredibly high-scoring games even in the knockout phase.

Roma overcame a 3-goal deficit to knock Barcelona out and scored so many in the semi-final that Liverpool had to score 7 to beat them. Liverpool scored 41 goals in the Champions League proper (47 if you include the qualifiers), including 5 against Manchester City in the quarters.

Their opponents in the final, Real Madrid, outscored Juventus, PSG, and Bayern Munich (who each won their respective league) to get there, racking up 33 goals in the process – including 3 in the final.

Does that mean the FIFA World Cup 2018 will be similarly exciting? Past history would certainly make it look that way.

Over the years, World Cup scoring trends have quite closely followed those in the preceding Champions League season.

The 2010 and 2006 World Cups were played at a time when teams were being much more cautious, relying on compact defensive shapes to ensure they didn’t concede goals. In a sense this reflects the mindset and approach of the pre-eminent tactician of those times, Jose Mourinho. This was particularly the case in 2010, when every team appeared to be aping the gameplan of his Champions League-winning Inter Milan side, with its defensive-minded 4-2-3-1. The imitators even included the Netherlands, who had decided this was a safer bet than their Total Football 4-3-3.

In 2006, many teams had begun to adopt more defensive 4-5-1 formations so that they wouldn’t be vulnerable against sides with quality attackers – a big shift from the classic 4-4-2 that was more prevalent at the time. Ironically, the inspiration for this in the Champions League was Arsene Wenger, of all people. The Arsenal manager had eschewed his traditional attacking football for defensive solidity when facing European giants like Real Madrid and Juventus, and almost pulled off a remarkable win in the final against Barcelona, despite having only one superstar in his team at the time.

The 2013-14 season also saw more goals than seasons before it, as Real’s Bale-Benzema-Ronaldo trident swept them to the Champions League. By this time, possession football and the 4-3-3 had become fashionable again thanks to Guardiola’s Barcelona tenure, but while this was a formation and system which could yield some big scorelines, without someone like Messi in your team, it wouldn’t necessarily always create a lot of chances.

1997-98 had seen more open, attacking football in the major leagues, and there was a marked improvement in goalscoring in the Champions League that season as well. Juventus in particular scored a lot of great goals (Del Piero was in his prime), before eventually losing to Jupp Heynckes’ Real Madrid in the final, who were no slouches either. As pointed out above, the approach of many major teams in the 1998 World Cup was similarly positive, and yielded a record number of goals.

And so, given the big scorelines we’ve seen even among the best sides in the Champions League this season, we will hopefully see the same in Russia as well. It won’t require the usual suspects like Messi and Ronaldo to do the job (the latter of course doesn’t have a great World Cup scoring record), as a generally more attacking approach benefits even those who don’t normally score so much (see Raheem Sterling at Manchester City this season for instance).

(L-R) Edinson Cavani, Mohamad Salah, Neymar Jr and Antoine Griezmann
(L-R) Edinson Cavani, Mohamad Salah, Neymar Jr and Antoine Griezmann

There is a wealth of attacking talent at the disposal of the international managers –Neymar, Aguero, Cavani, Dybala, Kane, Salah, Griezmann, Gabriel Jesus, Mbappe, Diego Costa, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller and David Silva, to name a few. Hopefully they’ll be able to do what they do best and give us the goal fest we all crave.

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