Short World Cup build-up poses challenges, tests coaches
Soccer’s top players have followed a well-trodden path in the lead-up to previous World Cup tournaments.
Finish your club season. Take a break with friends and family. Join up with your national team. Spend two or three weeks familiarizing yourself with teammates, working on practice drills and playing a few warmup games before the big kickoff.
Not this time.
Adding to the novelty of this unique World Cup in Qatar — the first in the Middle East, the first to be played in the middle of the traditional European soccer season — is the unusually truncated build-up to the tournament.
For some players, even less than that.
“We fly to Qatar on the 15th, arrive on the 16th, then we have five days to prepare for the first game,” said Tony Strudwick, head of performance for Wales’ national team. “It’s a challenge how we bring that all together.”
Strudwick has the crucial job of getting Wales’ players in prime shape — physically, but also mentally — for the nation’s first World Cup game in 64 years, which will be against the United States on Nov. 21.
On one hand, he is excited about welcoming players who are in what he describes as a “good rhythm” midway through a season.
On the other, he and the rest of Wales’ backroom staff have no control over what shape the squad will arrive for the tournament. Some players have been playing virtually three games a week for the past two months; others might have been struggling for game time at their clubs.
“We can’t phone up the clubs and say, ’We need X, Y and Z players to be playing these minutes,’” Strudwick told The Associated Press. “We can’t dictate that, so we have to be agile in our planning.
“It’s going to come right down to the last league game before the World Cup and we’ll need contingency plans.”
World Cup-bound players had to be freed from club duties from Monday. The first game of the tournament is between host Qatar and Ecuador on Sunday.
How a team prepares during those few days before group play begins largely depends on when its first game takes place, with the first set of matches spread over five days.
The squads of Brazil and Serbia have the longest preparation time, for example, given the countries meet in the last of the four games on Nov. 24.
Lars Lagerback has coached at three World Cups for two nations — with his native Sweden in 2002 and 2006 and with Nigeria in 2010 — and said his priority would be “rehab” in the few days the squad is together before its opening game.
“You can’t do much training,” Lagerback told the AP in a telephone interview. “I think it’s going to benefit the national teams with coaches who have organized the team for a long time and where everybody knows how to play.
“If you have been with a team for at least one or two years, they have an idea and a philosophy of how they want to play. I don’t think having a friendly match or not is really important.”
Some countries simply have no time for a friendly, with FIFA saying teams must arrive in the host country at least five days before their first game and cannot organize a warmup match in that time.
The countries starting later have a choice. While World Cup champion France has no friendly planned before its opener against Australia on Nov. 22, Argentina — also in group action that day — is scheduled to play the United Arab Emirates in a warmup match on Wednesday. Spain has a friendly arranged against Jordan on Thursday, when Portugal has one against Nigeria.
Wales is one of the teams who will not play a friendly and Strudwick doesn’t see that as a disadvantage.
“We can build fitness and match rhythm and tempo in in-house games, where we can control what players do,” he said. “You can’t have that control in a friendly. And if we were to put a friendly game in there, while only having a week’s preparation, it means you lose training days.”
What’s clear is that teams, whether they play a warmup or not, are unlikely to be up to full speed for their first games, given the shortened buildup compared to a typical June-July World Cup. That might play into the hands of the weaker nations, and perhaps lead to some shocks early in the tournament.
Soccer author Jonathan Wilson noted there were only nine goals in the first eight group games of the African Cup of Nations this year, after the majority of teams only met up a week before the tournament started.
“A lot of teams will go into their first game thinking, ‘We’re not really prepared, so let’s play safety-first and keep it tight, not lose and be under pressure straightaway,‘” said Wilson, who wrote “Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics.”
“Once teams have been together a bit longer, the attacking mechanisms begin to click to an extent — with the caveat that with international football, they are never as slick as they are at club level.”
Before that, coaches simply have to cross their fingers and hope their players have come through their final club games before the World Cup unscathed.
They will be nervous times.
“You are hoping your stronger players, the ones you want available, are in that ‘moment,’ as Pep Guardiola says,” Strudwick said. “And we can’t manufacture that. We are heavily reliant on the clubs.”
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
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