Commentators are often talking about the cagey nature of a team's first match during the group stage, how neither team really wants to lose because it puts them in a poor position in the group, because they're getting used to playing with each other, because they're testing their opponent, etc. Somewhere along the way this was accepted as a perfectly reasonable bit of soccer wisdom and the basic question I have to ask is: why? Every opponent is going to be a new one as even if a country has played their opening match adversary before, the specific team selection, the coach, and the attitude of the country could have changed. This is no different in the second or third match, save with one extra game's worth of film to study. Getting used to playing with each other is reasonable as in many cases the players on the national team spend their time playing club football away from each other. But still, one extra game and three extra practice sessions is all you gain, and in return you're willing to not play to your fullest? It's not an attitude that makes sense to me.
The only point I'm willing to give any credence to is that if you lose, you are sitting on zero points after the first match and are likely sitting last in your group. And if you aren't sitting last, you're three points behind two different teams. So I get it, you play conservative and hope that the worst you do is draw, earning a vital point as well as keeping an opponent from earning three. Still, there are several things wrong with this mentality:
1. What if you lose?
If you lose a match that you played in such a restrained fashion then not only do you risk the ire of your fans for playing so negatively, but you have made a basic error in that you didn't do your best to win. Simple as that. You went into the match with an inferior plan and lost, so who do you have to blame but yourself?
2. What if you draw?
If you're North Korea playing against Spain, sure, you'd love to draw. Completely agreed there. But what if you are faced with a beatable opponent that isn't quite a walkover? Sure you have earned a point, but you also gave up the ability to earn three. If you have a slight slip-up and draw again, your opponents could vault past you and again, you'd have no one to blame but yourself for your position.
3. Isn't winning always better?
I'm stating this to be obvious, but there is still a point here. In poker tournaments, there is a point called "The Bubble" that refers to the places you can finish that are just shy of making money. For example, in a 1000 person tournament, generally the top 100 finishers will be paid. 101st place makes nothing. 100th might double their $100 entry fee to $200 while 1st will take home multiple thousands. It's a sliding scale that rewards you if you place in the money, but rewards you much more if you place well. Now when you're on The Bubble, when there's 110 people or so left but only 100 people get paid, players start playing more conservatively so that they make the money. They'll fold out of pocket 10s with a raise in front of them, they'll take fewer stabs at dry pots, and they'll generally get into fewer hands because they don't want to get involved in a hand where they could get knocked out of the tournament without getting paid. Knowing that this is the general attitude, there are a small percentage of players that up their aggressiveness, that take advantage of this passive attitude to collect more and more chips during The Bubble. In doing so, they put themselves at more risk to get knocked out before the money but put themselves in an excellent position to finish deeper in the tournament and therefore take home a larger purse.
Why doesn't this strategy make sense in the world of soccer? When everyone is going into their first game cautiously (again, assuming relatively equal competition), doesn't a team have a lot to gain by going for the throat and making their opponents uncomfortable by playing a more aggressive style? If you're Ireland and you don't really have it in your makeup to be aggressive, of course there's nothing wrong with sitting back. But what if you're France with all of your attacking options? Or Portugal with your ability to counter with pace? You don't want to play yourself out of a match, but there is certainly something to be said for earning that early win. Let's say your group breaks down like so: there's a team you should beat, a team you can beat, and a team that will probably beat you. You're playing the team you can beat first, a team that is more or less equal to you or at least on the same level. Rather than starting out slow and trying not to make many mistakes, you take the game to them, put pressure on their tempered tactics, snake a goal or two, and win the match. Now you have three points with a game against a team you should beat still to come. Win that and six points will get you through to the next stage almost guaranteed. Compare that outcome to if you had played to tie. With one point from the first match, there is a lot more pressure to get a win against the team you should beat, and even if you do get the win, four points might not be good enough depending on what else is happening in your group, so you could need a result against the powerhouse as well. Which scenario would you prefer?
I'm not saying that going all out is always going to be the right play. But it is something that should be considered more often than it is. Listening to Roy Hodgson go on about how 1-1 against France was a great result for England annoyed me to no end. Yes, it's good that you didn't let France win. But you didn't either. All of a sudden the home side Ukraine doesn't look like a pushover and Sweden was impressive in qualifying. Neither win is guaranteed and a loss wouldn't be hard to see either. In such a close group, wouldn't an opening win have been exactly what was needed? Now instead they must get that win elsewhere as the pressure mounts and as the schedule doesn't get much easier. Perhaps shrugging off some of that conventional wisdom would have done them well.