David Owen

Pressure makes most of us, even top-class athletes, buckle.

There are exceptions; those on whom pressure seems to have the opposite effect, focusing them on the task in hand, inspiring them to excel, to bring out their best when it most matters.

The England cricketer Ben Stokes is one of these rare individuals.

Watching him win another World Cup for his country on Sunday with an innings of grit and acumen, I started to think about who might emerge as the Stokes of Qatar 2022.

The obvious answer would be one of the big goal-scoring stars - Lionel Messi or Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo or Harry Kane, Kylian Mbappé or even Mario Götze, who grabbed Germany’s winner in the 2014 final.

But actually modern FIFA World Cups tend to be won more often by sides with the best defence than those with the best strikers.

This was demonstrably the case in 1998, when France triumphed, and in 2006, the tournament won by Fabio Cannavaro's Italy.

I would argue it was the same in 2010, where Spain demonstrated that they had perfected the art of keep-ball and won all their knockout matches 1-0.

At the last World Cup in Russia in 2018, France were so much better than anyone else in all departments that normal rules scarcely applied.

Ben Stokes came up clutch for England in the T20 World Cup final ©Getty Images
Ben Stokes came up clutch for England in the T20 World Cup final ©Getty Images

There is a fairly obvious reason why strong defences tend to hold sway in competitions in which progression depends on winning a succession of matches.

Scoring goals is the hardest thing to do in football.

Over the seven games it takes to win a World Cup, even the very best strikers are almost bound to have a match or two in which they are out of touch, or luck, or both.

Squads without an effective Plan B may find themselves all too quickly boarding the plane home.

You could argue, indeed, that football's history consists of a series of tweaks and reforms on the part of lawmakers to keep the innate edge enjoyed by defences within bounds.

For example, the change to the offside law implemented in June 1925 - whereby the number of defenders required to be goal-side of a forward receiving the ball for him to be deemed onside was cut from three to two - led to a 43 per cent increase in the number of goals scored in the English first division the following season.*

Even by Christmas, however, new defensive tactics were being devised to help counter the impact of the law change, and soon enough goal tallies were retreating back towards pre-1925 levels.

I have a hunch that the relatively warm conditions likely to pertain in Qatar even at this time of year, and fatigue/niggles stemming from the sport's relentless modern schedule may further play into the hands of the best-organised defences during the tournament we are about to witness.

If a defender is to emerge as the Stokes of Qatar 2022, leading candidates might include Brazil's Thiago Silva, Denmark's Simon Kjær, Portugal's Rúben Dias and Virgil van Dijk of The Netherlands.

Even Spain's tika-taka team of 2010 was built on clean sheets ©Getty Images
Even Spain's tika-taka team of 2010 was built on clean sheets ©Getty Images

That, though, would be to forget that other intensely dramatic ingredient of modern football knockout competitions: the penalty shoot-out.

One in five World Cup knockout matches - 22 out of 105 since 1994 - concludes this way, with the proportion exceeding one in four at the Russia 2018 and Brazil 2014 tournaments.

While any player on the pitch at the final whistle might score the World Cup-winning penalty, the most likely individuals to emerge as heroes are plainly the two goalkeepers: not only must they try to keep out every one of the opposing team's spot-kicks, but if the competition goes on long enough, they must take a penalty of their own.

If I had to choose therefore which of the over 800 Qatar 2022 players would end up as the tournament’s Stokes, I would pick a goalkeeper.

Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel would be high on my list, as would Argentina's Emi Martínez and Belgium's Thibaut Courtois.

Nor would it surprise me if Qatar 2022 broke the record for the most shoot-outs at a single World Cup - currently four.

There is though something else that is worth remembering about Stokes: he learnt the hard way.

In 2016 at Kolkata’s atmospheric Eden Gardens arena, he was playing for England in another short-form world championship final against the West Indies.

Asked to bowl the last over of the game, with the Caribbean side requiring an unlikely 19 runs for victory, Stokes was smashed for four consecutive sixes by Carlos Brathwaite.

Penalty shoot-outs present goalkeepers with a chance to be the hero ©Getty Images
Penalty shoot-outs present goalkeepers with a chance to be the hero ©Getty Images

That harsh lesson helped to make him the astonishing big-match player he is today.

With that in mind, if I were asked to pick an England player who could be the Stokes of Qatar 2022, I would nominate Bukayo Saka.

Saka missed England's fifth and final penalty in last year’s lost European Championship final against Italy in what must have been an utterly devastating experience for a player who was still a teenager at the time.

This season, however, his form has been crucial to Arsenal’s Premier League-topping transformation.

I see him as a key man if England are to match or better the fourth-place finish they achieved in 2018 - not least in any penalty shoot-outs the team may be involved in.

* A podcast on this subject, to which I contributed, can be accessed here.