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Why the marked increase in World Cup goals after a 16 year downward trend?

Michael Dalder / REUTERS

Sokratis Papastathopoulos’s late equalizer for Greece against Costa Rica in their round of 16 tie represented an important milestone—it was the 145th goal scored in the 2014 World Cup. That’s the same number of goals scored in the entire 2010 tournament, with 12 matches still left to play.

This might be an entirely random event, though the current World Cup seems to be bucking a general trend. The 2006 tournament featured 147 goals, down from 2002’s 161 goals, which was ten goals less than the 171 in 1998.

Could there be a cause for this sudden uptick?

The easy answer would be to blame ‘poor defenses.’ Perhaps there have been a poor crop of defenders this year, or the heat in Brazil is affecting them.

I don’t have the time or space to evaluate the global state of defending this year compared to four years ago, but a quick glance at the 2010 rosters reveals that many of the same central defenders in the current round of 16 also featured for their nations in South Africa. Godin and Lugano for Uruguay, Carlos Salcido and Rafa Marquez for Mexico, Matts Hummels and Per Mertesacker for Germany. In some cases the defenses have arguably improved, with David Luiz now manning the back line for Brazil and Belgium arriving with Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany.

As for the heat, not all games have been scorchers. Even if they were, presumably the humid conditions would affect the forwards as well.

The problem however with focusing solely on defenses to explain goals is that not all goals are scored in a defensive vacuum.

Too often, there is a temptation to see alls goals entirely through the lens of “defensive errors,” even if it’s a turnover more than five moves ahead of the play, or a player who didn’t close down quickly enough on the flank, rather than an obvious defensive breakdown.

This doesn’t make much sense in a fluid, high turnover game like soccer. For every lost possession leading to a goal, there is a shot that went over the bar, a cross that went too far, a final through ball that goes into the hands of the keeper. If we focus only on goals scored from defensive errors, we ignore those goals which weren’t scored because of offensive errors. Football is a game of mistakes, period, much as it is a sport of skill. And that skill—both in defense and offense—also has a positive quality.  

This is the same reason why you can’t also reliably say there are more goals because the quality of forwards has improved. Forwards tend to score, but attacking football is a total team effort. Centreback plays to a full back, moves the ball to the winger who cuts inside, loses possession but the defensive midfielder wins it back, plays it out wide, winger goes to the by line, whips in a cross, shot is saved, rushing in midfielder hits the follow up, goal.

Perhaps then there is a tactical cause for the increase in goals? The jury’s still out on this one, though I find a Jonathan Wilson column from November 2012 on the general increase in goals in Europe interesting:

“Football, in the past couple of years, has gone through a process of Bielsafication. At the highest level, virtually everybody now tries to win the ball back high up the pitch, tries to score with quick transitions. That means that the ability for a central defender not to give the ball away, not to panic when two or three forwards close him down, becomes paramount – and that in turn means that ability on the ball comes to be prized almost as much as the ability to win a tackle or a header. At the same time, thanks to Spain, it's now accepted that the safest way not to concede goals is not to concede possession.”

Wilson argues this effect has changed European club football, but interestingly concludes that “Only international football remains aloof, the lack of time available for coaches to drill their players in the organised pressing required for Bielsista football leading to a more cautious, deeper-lying approach.” Perhaps a few years’ experience in the possession-based, quick transition approach, coupled with a better understanding of the advantages of counterattacking football (fewer defenders to get in the way), have led to the current goal fest.

Or perhaps the increase in goals has no “cause” and is random noise, a natural adjustment in shot conversion rates, very much a statistical possibility. Anyway, let’s not jinx it, shall we?

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