The exception came four years ago when the Netherlands and Uruguay shared five of them but usually, the semifinals of a World Cup are short on goals. However, that 3-2 Dutch win in Cape Town did maintain a different trend. Ever since the tournament expanded to 32 teams 20 years ago, only one semifinal has been decided by more than one goal. That was Italy’s 2-0 victory over Germany in 2006 and even that finished scoreless after 90 minutes. On average, from the 10 semifinals since 1994, each game featured just two goals. But, adding a further layer of intrigue, only one of them ever finished in a draw after extra time: Brazil’s shootout win over the Netherlands in 1998.
So, what can we expect in the coming days? Many have been critical of the drop in excitement and a lack of openness that had prompted so many goals through the group stage and into the second round. But it’s unlikely that will return. Instead, we should anticipate hard-fought battles with teams erring on the side of caution. It’s been a tournament for the pragmatists, the romaticism and idealism properly washed away in the round of 16 as a litany of underdogs/fan-favourites like Chile, Mexico, Algeria and the United States were all eliminated by a more ruthless and seasoned opponent (though Chile came within an inch of beating the Brazilians when Mauricio Pinilla saw his last-gasp extra-time shot come back off the crossbar).
Is there a pattern? Well, defence. Over the last two decades, clean sheets have ensured victory. Let’s look at the champions. Four years ago, Spain conceded two goals during the group stage but in the knockout rounds (four games), they didn’t leak any. In 2006, Italy conceded one goal during the initial phase and didn’t ship another until Zinedine Zidane’s seventh-minute penalty in the final. In 2002, Brazil allowed three goals in the group stage. But, once they qualified for the next round, they tightened up. The only goal they subsequently conceded was against England in the quarter-finals. In 1998, France relied on a meagre defensive unit. They conceded once during their three group assignments while only Croatia’s Davor Suker could find the net against them in the knockout stage.
Keeping that logic, history leads us to believe that the group stage performance by teams is irrelevant. From the round of 16 onwards, there are patterns. The meanest defence usually reaps the eventual rewards. From the remaining four sides left in this year’s tournament, Brazil has conceded twice from their two knockout games so far, Germany and the Netherlands once while Argentina have kept a couple of clean sheets. But, many would argue that Brazil and Argentina had contrasting fixtures to deal with: the hosts had to play the ebullient Chile and an impressive Colombia while Alejandro Sabella’s side had to contend with an uninspiring Switzerland and a tepid Belgium. So, is it unfair to judge teams based solely on clean sheets? Maybe it is. So, who have been the teams put under the most defensive pressure?
Taking three different criteria gives an indication. Using the official FIFA statistics that note how many clearances a team has made, how many shots they’ve allowed and how many saves their goalkeeper has racked up allows a better overall impression. Looking at the opening semifinal game between Brazil and Germany, the comparisons are fascinating. Both have conceded 24 attempts on goal from their two knockout round games. And although Brazil have been forced into 56 clearances compared to Germany’s 37, Julio Cesar has had it pretty easy so far, having to make just one save. Manuel Neuer meanwhile has had to make eight. But, there’s some added data to throw into the mix with Thiago Silva missing for the Brazilians and a new central defensive partnership between Dante and David Luiz expected.
The other semifinal between Argentina and the Dutch is a little easier to draw greater conclusions from, based on the numbers. The Dutch have conceded six fewer shots on goal (24-18) while the South Americans have completed 20 more clearances (40-20). Between the goalkeepers, there’s minimal difference. The Argentine defence has been under much more pressure than Holland’s since the knockout stage began. They’re yet to concede but by allowing more shots on average and preparing to face a better standard of opposition, that’s likely to change. Coupled with Holland’s much better scoring rate (12-7) and a more eye-catching shots on target percentage (70-60), it looks like the Netherlands’ game to lose. Like Brazil’s current predicament, there’s the relatively immeasurable (but certainly greatly significant) loss of Angel di Maria for the Argentines to deal with, too. Having four traditional heavyweights in the semifinals hints at somewhat expected and regular patterns playing out at this tournament. The numbers and history would probably indicate the Dutch seem a good bet to reach the decider. But, Tuesday’s fixture is intriguing. Another penalty shootout for Brazil to navigate? It’s unlikely. But not impossible.