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 Posted by Michael Cox
Jun 27, 2014

What we learned in the group stage

The Last Call crew analyse each matchup and look into several interesting scenarios that could take place in the knockout stage.

Footballers are known for spouting clichés whenever possible, and when Marcelo was asked to summarise Brazil's goalless draw against Mexico in the second round of group games, he immediately responded with a classic. "At the World Cup," he began, "there is no easy game."

Bingo! There are no easy games at the World Cup, despite the fact that some teams are drawing upon the best players in the world, and others are selecting footballers plying their trade in second divisions across Europe. The World Cup sees the greatest players on the greatest stage, but sometimes also features the greatest (apparent) mismatches too. Argentina against Iran? How will the scoreboard cope?

But wait a second; look through the 48 group stage results and you'll find the outsiders giving the favourites a proper game. Australia competed well against both Chile and the Netherlands, while Algeria threatened to cause an upset against Belgium and eventually secured qualification ahead of Russia.

Plus, most obviously, Iran kept Argentina out until stoppage time at the end of the game, and came close to scoring themselves before Lionel Messi's moment of magic. Costa Rica -- Costa Rica! -- are through to the knockout stage, despite the most difficult draw of any country. All 32 teams scored a goal; this is the tournament of the outsider.

Only a piece of genius from Lionel Messi denied Iran a deserved draw versus Argentina.

OK, there were three genuinely poor teams in this tournament: Cameroon, Honduras and South Korea. Every other side, though, posed a genuine threat, with Argentina's situation telling the story. They might have finished with three victories from what appeared to be an easy group, but none were comfortable: 2-1, 1-0 and 3-2 were slender margins.

This situation has changed significantly within a short period. Think back to 2002, for example, and in the group stage there were some distinctly one-sided contests. For example, Brazil thrashed China 4-0 and Costa Rica 5-2, an average Portuguese side thumped Poland 4-0 and, most memorably, Germany defeated Saudi Arabia 8-0.

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These days, you simply don't get teams as unprepared as Saudi Arabia. They arrived at the 2002 tournament with an incredible lack of experience: of the 23-man squad, only striker Sami Al-Jaber had experience outside the Saudi top flight, and that consisted of three substitute appearances for Wolverhampton Wanderers in the English Championship, hardly the best preparation for a World Cup campaign.

Amazingly, Al-Jaber considered that spell to be his pivotal footballing experience. "I learned everything at Wolves and was really happy to have had that time there," he later said. "I learned to play from the heart and how to prepare for a game like a professional. I learned how to cope with the physical side of the game." His words seem amazing considering his meagre impact.

This shows the importance of previous experience against (something approaching) top-level opponents. Al-Jaber had barely played for a second-tier side, yet suggests that transformed his game.

For the other 22 players, however, who did not have that experience, it's hardly surprising they looked completely lost at the World Cup. In the 8-0 thrashing by Germany, it wasn't so much a procession as an embarrassment.

Germany could have won 15-0 if they'd really wanted to, and Miroslav Klose, who scored a hat trick, would have surpassed Ronaldo's World Cup goal-scoring record long ago. The later Germany goals were barely celebrated, simply because it was so simple, so effortless and so easy. Twelve years ago, there was, quite obviously, an easy game.

Miroslav Klose helped himself to a hat trick versus Saudi Arabia, but 12 years on, lopsided World Cup scores are few and far between.

This time around, there's nothing close to that Saudi side. Even the weaker teams in this competition have considerable European experience. If you take the worst side to be Cameroon, who finished pointless with a goal difference of minus-8, there is Alex Song at Barcelona, Samuel Eto'o at Chelsea and Stephane Mba of Sevilla. The whole squad is accustomed to top-level football.

Every team has experienced European-based players. Everyone had a tough qualification group. Even the five African sides were coincidentally all at the World Cup four years ago. They know what this is about, and they're not going to turn up and be completely overawed.

Something similar applies to coaches. In 2002, Nasser Al-Johar took Saudi Arabia into the competition having never coached outside the country before. Look at the situation now, and the minnows are keen to avoid inexperienced managers.

Cameroon boss Volker Finke coached Freiburg for 16 years. Carlos Queiroz of Iran was in charge at Real Madrid and assistant at Manchester United. Honduras appointed Luis Fernando Suarez because he'd taken Ecuador to the knockout stage in 2006. All three will now leave their jobs, incidentally, but that's beside the point -- they brought experience of World Cups, or top-level European football. Or, in Queiroz's case, both.

(In fact, it's worth looking back and considering how Saudi Arabia got to the 2002 World Cup anyway. The truth is that they didn't have to overcome stiff opposition. Their first qualification group featured Vietnam, Bangladesh and Mongolia, and the second was against Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Thailand. Of course, 2002 was the first-ever Asian World Cup, with Japan and South Korea not involved in the qualification process, which made qualification even more straightforward.)

Today, there's experience from the coach and experience from the players but, most importantly, a combination of those two factors: intelligence and realism in terms of tactical approach. Sides like Iran and Algeria haven't turned up and attempted to play open games of football against superior opponents, then been shocked when they're overrun in midfield. Instead they're defensively solid, they're compact from back to front and they counterattack. They might not win, but they won't lose heavily.

This, more than anything else, is what we're learned from the 48 World Cup group matches. There are various good sides at this tournament, with mid-ranking teams boasting excellent footballers, and lesser squads who are disciplined and organised. For once, a football cliché is true: at this level, there are no easy games.

Sorry for interrupting, Marcelo. Do continue ...

Michael Cox

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He is based in London and writes the Zonal Marking blog about football tactics. He also writes postmatch analysis for the Guardian and contributes regularly for FourFourTwo. You can follow him on Twitter @zonal_marking.