Why are there so many shock results at this World Cup?

CNN  — 

From early on in this World Cup, the traditional heavyweights of the game have been up against it.

Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina in what has been described as the biggest shock in the tournament’s long history. The 2022 World Cup truly kicked off at that moment.

In the following days, Morocco beat world No. 2 Belgium and Australia edged past Denmark to assure its qualification to the knockout stages in Qatar.

The epitome of the unpredictable group stage though came from Group E, in which Japan beat both Germany and Spain to top the group and Germany was sent packing, having struggled to beat Costa Rica – the Samurai Blue even found time to lose to Costa Rica, which had been defeated by Spain 7-0 in its opening match.

We’ve seen plenty of World Cup shocks over the years, but this year’s edition has seen more than most. In fact, this World Cup is only the fourth edition in the tournament’s 92-year history where no team won all its group games – and the first since 1994.

So why have there been so many upsets at this year’s tournament?

Saudi Arabia's players celebrate their shock victory over Argentina.

A World Cup like no other

This World Cup is a first for many reasons.

It is the first to be held in the Middle East. It is also the first that’s been held in the middle of the traditional European football calendar.

Because of FIFA’s decision to move the World Cup from its traditional home in July and August due to the temperature in Qatar during those months, most teams have had little over a week’s preparation for what is international football’s premier competition.

As a result, the nations with players featuring in predominately one country thrived early on. Saudi Arabia – with not one player plying their trade outside of the country – and England looked well organized from the outset.

However, host Qatar, who also had every one of its players playing in the country, did not look so organized, becoming the worst ever World Cup host nation in terms of results.

On the other hand, squads with players in leagues from all corners of the globe struggled for cohesion in the early fixtures.

Argentina looked disjointed, Denmark lacked verve and Belgium looked sleepy as some of the bigger nations got off to slow starts as teams missed the usual extra time in early summer after many leagues conclude their seasons to fine tune tactical organization and camaraderie.

Meanwhile, the lack of preparation time meant that players were arriving in Qatar on the back of almost four months of grueling scheduling, with two games played a week for many.

Usually, players get almost a month to first rest, and then physically ramp up for the tournament, but this luxury was nonexistent this tournament.

Wales forward Kieffer Moore is sprayed with water his team's game against England.

This has resulted in a general lack of a explosiveness from some of the stars we’d expect to light up the tournament as well as injuries to many we’d have hoped to see grace the world stage.

The general lack of fitness has put an emphasis on managers’ ability to successfully use substitutes, with the introduction of fresh legs often a catalyst for change.

The recent increase from three to five substitutions permitted for teams has aided managers’ desires to change players and tactical systems when they want.

In Japan’s victories over Germany and Spain, manager Hajime Moriyasu added new faces to the team at precisely the right time – when their opponent was tiring – to provide the needed impetus to push for wins.

Although the lack of preparation has been a problem for all 32 teams, it’s been a leveling force for all, perhaps cracking open the door for some of those unfancied teams to compete with the traditional favorites.

Ao Tanaka celebrates after scoring Japan's second goal against Spain.

Timing

For many of the bigger teams, you could correlate their surprising defeats to situational circumstances without taking anything anyway from the victorious nations.

Argentina’s loss to Saudi Arabia, in hindsight, looks more like a freak result. Saudi Arabia converted its two shots on target and Argentina had numerous goals ruled out for tight offside calls – given Messi and Co. won their next two games and Saudi Arabia lost its next two.

In the case of Belgium, the age profile of the team – which had been dubbed a “golden generation” – led some to believe that its window had passed.

In fact, the Red Devils’ star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said in an interview with the Guardian that his side had “no chance” to win the title because the players are “too old.”

De Bruyne’s comments reportedly led to a rift in Belgium’s dressing room, but – whether because of that division or because of flaws in the squad – he was eventually proven right as the European nation was dumped out in the group stage.