Going into the quarterfinals at the World Cup at Qatar, Croatia and Morocco scored lowest on the ‘Expected Goals’ quotient that has come to dominate so much of modern football analysis. Expected Goals, or xG, is essentially a measure of the number of goals that a team is expected to score based on the quantity and quality of the chances that it creates in a match. With improving technology, xG has become a much-treasured tool both in predicting the score of a football match, and in allowing us to understand how, at times, the ultimate result of a match might be at odds with how the game, in fact, panned out.
In their Round of 16 match against Japan, which they eventually won on a penalty shoot-out, Croatia’s xG was — despite their starting position as favourites — lower than Japan’s at 0.61 to 0.74. Read with other allied statistics, this suggested an even contest, which justifiably was settled on spot-kicks. Morocco’s victory against Spain reflected a similar story, although Spain did create more chances, especially when the game went into extra time. The match ended goalless, but when we look at statistics beyond the xG, it hinted at a rather one-sided game. Spain dominated possession, holding on to the ball for nearly 77% of the match and had more than double the shots that Morocco took on. Yet their xG was only 1.55 to Morocco’s 0.82. Spain perhaps ought to have won, but the margin was slim all the same.
Consider now how the quarterfinals played out for these two teams. Croatia marginally controlled possession of the ball, against Brazil, holding on to it for 50.5% of the time. But on xG, the dominance was stark. Brazil outscored Croatia 2.80 to 0.65. Brazil also had 21 shots to 9 and worked the Croatian keeper Dominik Livakovic on no fewer than 11 occasions. Croatia’s equaliser in extra time (after Neymar had finally given Brazil the lead through an exquisitely taken goal) was a product of defensive naivety. With only minutes left on the clock to see out their 1-0 lead, Brazil, for some reason, piled players forward, leaving their defence exposed to a counterattack. This was inexplicable, given how otherwise solid Brazil had been up to the point. With the match going into penalties, and with Livakovic in terrifying form, Croatia ultimately came up trumps.
Morocco’s victory against Portugalwas a very different kind of match. Portugal shaved the xG 1.53 to 1.26 but held on to the ball for more than 70% of the time. Having taken the lead towards the end of the first half through a fine header from Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri, Morocco were content to sit back and absorb pressure. They did this admirably, restricting Portugal to just three shots on their target. Unlike Croatia’s win, Morocco’s was, despite their eschewal of the ball, more statistically merited.
There is a fundamental sameness to Morocco and Croatia’s approaches. The focus is on keeping a clean sheet and affording as few chances as possible to the opponent. But they go about trying to achieve this result in vastly different ways. Neither team is especially interested in attacking with numbers. This shows us just why their own xGs are low as they are. But their stylistic approaches couldn’t be more different. And this comes down to the kind of players that both teams have at their disposal.
Croatia possess two ball-playing centre-backs in Dejan Lovren and the excellent Josko Gvardiol and a midfield trio that is the envy of the world. Luka Modric may be 37, but his ability to control possession remains peerless. Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic are fine midfielders, capable of both keeping the ball moving, and pressing the opponent with furious vigour the moment possession is lost. What is also impressive about this midfield is their cohesion and synergy. The three of them are rarely far apart on the pitch and are constantly forming little triangles that allow them to keep the ball between themselves. This also makes the team itself especially hard to break down.
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If the quality of Croatia’s attacking depth was nearly as good as their midfield, it’s likely that their approach to the game would be substantially different. But given the weakness in forward areas, their midfield for all their talent rarely seeks to play penetrating passes. The emphasis instead is on keeping hold of the ball and recycling it backwards and sideways.
The Moroccan way
Morocco’s coach Walid Regragui has his team shaped up very differently. He is clearly cognizant of the fact that his midfielders do not have the same control over their passing that Croatia’s players do. So, his team’s emphasis can never be on possession of the ball. Instead, the players maintain a low block, allowing the opponent to come on to them, but they keep the door shuttered and as compact as possible. Sofyan Amrabat, the deepest of their midfielders, orchestrates much of this effort, but the whole team has clearly bought the plan. The wingers Sofiane Boufal and Hakim Ziyech both drop deep to help the full backs, and even their centre forward often falls behind the ball, helping them to park the bus, as Jose Mourinho once famously described the tactic.
But this approach does not mean that Morocco are incapable of playing with the ball. Ziyech and Boufal are both supremely talented technicians and their young number 8, Azzedine Ounahi has already proven to be one of the finds of the tournament — adept at beating players in tight areas at the centre of the pitch and boasting an engine that allows him to go box to box through the duration of a match. Yet, Morocco’s basic approach to the game demands that they concede as few chances as possible, even if this means that their own ability to score is often thwarted.
This philosophical difference between Croatia and Morocco in their respective approaches to a football match was best evident when the two teams met each other during the group stages. The match ended goalless. Croatia had the ball for nearly 65% of the time, had five corners to Morocco’s none, but only shaved the xG 0.90 to 0.54. What made the game a pleasure to watch was that neither team was especially interested in the darker arts of football. There were no rash tackles, no blatant effort at time-wasting, only a focus on their own well-drilled way at keeping a clean sheet. Perhaps this is what the great Italian journalist Gianni Brera had in mind when he said that the perfect game of football would finish 0-0.
( Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate practising in the Madras High Courts)