Qatar no playground for playmakers as defenders clamp down
A high number of 0-0 draws in the group stage of the Qatar World Cup has seen playmakers squeezed out by defensive solidity and organisation, closing down the spaces that the world's most creative players usually thrive in.
The four scoreless draws in the first 16 games in Qatar quickly eclipsed the one such stalemate in the group stage in Russia in 2018, as teams string five men across the back to protect themselves from the likes of Argentina's Leo Messi, Croatia's Luka Modric and Denmark's Christian Eriksen.
"There's a lot of teams out there who are saying, 'We're not going to lose this game, we're going to have to put in a very solid defensive structure'. Those playmakers generally need that space," former Australia international Alex Tobin told Reuters.
"They need those sort of areas to play into, and they haven't had a lot of space here."
Tobin has plenty of experience in facing down the world's best number 10s. He faced off against Diego Maradonna in the OFC-CONMEBOL playoff for the 1994 World Cup, which the Argentinians won 2-1 on aggregate.
"Maradonna was the one where you could just say, 'I just can't take anything for granted', because the guy will do something that you just can't predict," the former centre-back who won 87 caps for the Socceroos recalled.
"There were moments where I thought like a regular defender, 'Well, that player can't do that'. And then I actually visually thought, no, that's Maradonna, so I have to defend in a different way."
That Australia side almost upset one of the world's soccer superpowers using exactly the kind of tactics that the underdogs in Qatar have been deploying to great effect.
"I think it would be fair to say that the vast majority of teams have set up their stall with a very strong defensive structure," Tobin explained.
"Yes, they want to score goals, they want to go forward and so on, but they don't want to take too many risks to bring in the ball-players, the creative players, attacking midfielders and strikers who can do the damage down the other end."
Asked if he feared skill more than speed in his playing days, Tobin was unequivocal.
"Definitely speed... If I thought somebody was one metre faster than me, I was always defending from 1.1 metre away, just so that I knew that the ball over the top was something I could deal with."
Australia got a taste of the combination of speed and skill when they met Kylian Mbappe in their opening 4-1 loss to France, and Tobin says that defending against him is a team affair.
"The physical attributes of Mbappe are incredible. The skill that he has, of course, he's quality. He's a cultured, quality player, as well as a ridiculous athlete. He's hard to deal with so defensively you just have to have support," the 57-year old explained.
"If there's space in behind me, I'm going to wait for support. The worst thing you can do with Mbappe is to close him and say yeah, I'm going to be the tough guy who's goes in quickly. He sees you coming, and then he moves the ball, and then you're stuck."
Despite his past as a teak-tough defender, Tobin would like to see the creative players shine in the knockout stage of the tournament.
"I would hope it's the team with the best players that wins it, because I think in any World Cup, you want those Maradonna moments. Maybe Messi can do that with the current Argentina squad," he said.