The group stage may have barely ended, but the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ has certainly not been short of storylines in its 48 games so far. A few clear trends have already emerged and there have been plenty of notable developments too, not least the failure of holders Spain to reach the knockout phase.
La Roja's early exit mirrored Italy's fall at the first hurdle four years ago, when the reigning champions were sunk in a section containing Slovakia, Paraguay and New Zealand. Their draw against the Kiwis was particularly memorable, with the minnows coached by Ricki Herbert also finishing as the only unbeaten team at South Africa 2010.
New Zealand just missed out on qualifying this time, losing an intercontinental play-off against Mexico, but Herbert is back in the thick of the action in Brazil. The former defender, who represented his country at Spain 1982, has been watching the competition unfold as a member of FIFA's Technical Study Group (TSG), taking on the role of analysing the tournament's various tactical and technical dimensions.
"What happens from here will give us more evidence on how play is evolving, but I've noticed already that while teams capable of controlling the ball all over the pitch always have more possession, it's a possession which has caused their opponents less harm," Herbert told FIFA.com.
"The possession statistics might read 65 per cent to 35 per cent, but the team with 35 per cent can create the most danger. Spain are a side who enjoy a lot of possession, but the pressure put on them by their opponents had increased and happened higher up the pitch. If they lost the ball, the vulnerability of their goalkeeper was suddenly closer to being exposed. By adopting that philosophy, despite not having ball possession, the other teams were able to put Spain in trouble easier than before."
Counter-attacks higher up the pitch
That does not mean, however, that mastery of the ball has gone out of fashion. Instead, Herbert believes that it is being brought to bear in more advanced areas of the pitch. "What we saw before – teams sitting deep waiting to win the ball and attack on the break from positions further back – has changed," he explained.
"In this World Cup, lots of teams are very good in terms of organisation and have the capacity to press higher up the pitch, and to start counter-attacks closer to their opponents' goal. Colombia did it against Côte d'Ivoire, the Netherlands did it against Spain and Germany did it against Portugal."
Naturally enough, that type of approach requires players who can implement it effectively. "The desire to win back the ball higher up the pitch goes hand in hand with a blend of different types of forwards. You have to be able to give the ball to players who can turn and quickly make something happen offensively – like Wesley Sneijder, who can win back the ball, turn and find Arjen Robben or Robin van Persie," said Herbert.
"This type of player – and the best example is Lionel Messi – can drop deeper, where they're under less pressure from defenders, then turn and head back towards goal to score. We saw Neymar do the same thing in the opening game against Croatia: collect the ball in midfield and move forward under no pressure from defenders, with an ability to score from a distance further out than the penalty area."
Despite that development, Herbert is not ready to write an obituary for the traditional No9 – quite the contrary, in fact. "Several teams still have one prominent striker," he said. "But it's the variety of attacking players that makes the difference. Van Persie has two creative forwards on either side in Sneijder and Robben, while Messi has [Angel] Di Maria and [Sergio] Aguero.
"What's interesting for the style of play in that system is that there's always variety in how teams use the ball in attacking areas, and that means difficult situations for defences to predict. That's perhaps the direction the game will continue to evolve in – unlike the Spanish style where there's no true forward, attacks start deeper and the players are less attacking. Statistically, maybe at the end of the World Cup – and I'm only saying maybe – we'll be left with teams that have a main striker and two other players with a very attacking mindset."
Perfecting that approach requires planning and resources, of course, and Herbert has been doing his bit in his native New Zealand via his own football academy, where youngsters are given a grounding in the game's current trends. Since 2005, several players who have benefited from his expertise have gone on to earn a spot in the national team, all the while helping to improve football in the region.
Indeed, having coached New Zealand from 2005 to 2013, Herbert is an expert on the state of the sport in Oceania, and he kept a close eye on the performances of Australia – even though the Kiwis' neighbours now play in the AFC.
Encouragement for Australia
The Socceroos slipped to defeat in all three outings, but many sides would have suffered a similar fate up against Chile, the Netherlands and Spain. Tim Cahill and Co could also take plenty of encouragement from their first two displays, a 3-1 loss to the South Americans and a narrow 3-2 reverse at the hands of the Dutch. "The team gave a very good account of themselves," said Herbert, who played both in and against Australia before hanging up his boots.
"At the World Cup, traditionally there are big disappointments, like the 4-0 loss to Germany in their first game in 2010. This year, they were very competitive in their first two matches. There are good signs, more mobility and maybe a new type of football will begin to be put in place after this experience. It's true that they conceded two goals in 20 minutes against Chile, and when you're trailing it's always difficult. But overall they played a good game, before another very interesting one against the Netherlands. They can feel very positive about that match."
Herbert believes the future looks promising for Australia, given the accent they put on youth in Brazil. Appointed towards the end of last year, Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou set out with the intention of giving emerging talents a taste of the highest level. "The decision to come to the World Cup with one eye on the next four-year cycle was a calculated gamble, which risked bad results now in order to produce something for the future," said Herbert, proud and honoured to be using his experience to help the TSG analyse the tournament.
"Despite the results, they showed they can be competitive already. So I'm pretty happy with the policy adopted by Postecoglou and the players he selected. You have to take responsibility for your decisions if they're based on a precise objective. The intention to change the style of play is there, and the investment has been there for a few years as well," added Herbert.
"They now have to make it work on the international stage. You can have the will and desire to change things, but you need quality for those changes to be effective. Perhaps at the next World Cup, if they have a good enough group of players, Australia's ambition right from the start will be to qualify for the second round."