It is becoming apparent that fitness and athleticism are becoming as much of a deciding factor in matches at this World Cup as technical ability.
This is one of the main reasons why we saw so many shocks in the group stage, although of course the teams that caused upsets also had a very good tactical plan.
For example, the physical performance we saw from Japan when they beat Spain and Germany, from Saudi Arabia when they beat Argentina, and also from Morocco when they beat Belgium , helped them defeat teams that, on paper, had much better players.
You would normally expect to see the more technical team wear down the opposition late in games, with more spaces appearing when they tire late.
In the Premier League you see Manchester City do this all the time – they scored more goals in the last 15 minutes of games than anyone else last season.
Here in Qatar, it’s different. The defining moments for the underdogs have largely come in the second half of matches.
They are the ones who finish games strong, and the new rule allowing teams to make five substitutions instead of three definitely helps.
Football is now a team game – not just during tournaments but also in the middle of matches.
South Korea’s incredible late success over Portugal was another totally unexpected result, but it was no surprise that it was a substitute who scored their winner in injury time.
The most important World Cup of all time for substitutes
I like the new rule of five substitutions, and I think it’s the right thing to do with the current number of games and the intensity of modern football.
Usually when people talk about it, they see it from the perspective that it only helps the bigger team in that scenario; how it benefits them because they have better quality players to bring in – like, say, England do with all of their attacking options.
I think there’s more to it, because if you bring in these good players, you also have to bring in good people, and the best players are usually on the pitch early on.
I understand you always bring in new legs, but the destructive side of football is much easier than creating – and being able to make five changes helps the team do more defending and running too. In fact, it suits them better.
If your players are tired and have been chasing the ball all game, you can replenish energy in key areas of defense and midfield to ensure your intensity doesn’t drop.
It’s up to all coaches to use what they have on the bench to make an impact, whether that’s trying to be braver – as Japan have done twice now – or maintaining defensive stability. .
Making the right changes at the right time is more important than ever, and I think substitutes will be more important in this tournament than at any previous World Cup, especially in the knockout stage.
Outsiders also use their brains
We’ve seen that wonderful desire of some of the underdogs at this World Cup to give it their all, often in ridiculous heat.
He showed that you can play high-tempo football in all conditions, if you have the right personnel.
I know they lost in the end, but there is no way Canada should dominate this Belgian team. Likewise, Morocco have good players, but they could do the same against Roberto Martinez’s team because they are so physically strong.
England have fantastic technical players who are also good runners, but when they played against the United States they faced as athletic a midfield as you’re going to see in this tournament.
The whole American team has so much energy but Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah were in the middle of the field and at the heart of their plan.
They’re all decent players, but certainly no better than England’s midfielders – but they managed to keep them out.
I want to make it clear, though, that those teams I mentioned aren’t just a bunch of extremely fit headless chickens running around. They’re good players, and their success isn’t just because they play at 100 mph all the time.
One of the smart things I’ve seen with some of the teams that got a surprise result in Qatar is that they know when to take a break and be compact as a team.
So while it was Japan’s high pressure that got them back into the game against Spain, and they were still running runs behind the German defense late in that game, they did both things to- blows rather than for 90 minutes. It depends on the coach.
Will the clashes continue in the knockout stage?
As the group stage progressed, I think we realized that teams that had really good physique and athletes – guys who were really determined – had to be paired up.
If you can do that and match their work rate, then your quality comes through – so some of the teams with more technical players have changed their approach, although Spain have been the exception.
The Spanish midfielder is probably the only one in Qatar who relies mainly on his technical ability. The two young lads, Pedri and Gavi, can race ahead of Sergio Busquets, but it doesn’t look like they were supreme athletes.
They stumbled against Japan, but I don’t think they will change when they face Morocco in the round of 16 – they will just try to dominate them like they try to dominate all their opponents.
However, everyone will make sure there are plenty of legs in their team – even Brazil. It’s no coincidence that Raphinha plays for them, as we know from his time at Leeds United that he never stops running, and a big part of the reason Richarlison is chosen is his work rate.
So all the top coaches realize the importance of hard work, and the element of surprise that some of the underdogs had early on is surely gone now as we head into the last 16.
Japan are a remarkable team with a great bond and Morocco won’t go easy either, but I expect fewer surprises from now on.
England have already had their kick in the back, with their draw against the United States. They will have to be careful against Senegal, but I think it helps that they haven’t just got through their three group games. This means they will be ready for whatever comes next.
Danny Murphy was talking to Chris Bevan in Doha, Qatar