Saturday, 28 June 2014

Heat rises in the North? World Cup climate & red cards

'The inside of the stadium was a furnace. My shirt was drenched from just standing. Moths were the size of bats.'
Manaus, as described by @socceroverthere

What kind of strange otherworld was this place?  Roy Hodgson, famously declared pre-draw that he'd really rather not go to Manaus & try and play a football match with English players in the middle of a rainforest.  And then had to retract everything he said when England were immediately drawn to go there for their first match against the Italians.

Much has been made of the climate issues this World Cup (contrastingly only today I read an article debunking the idea that it was relevant) but generally there's been a feeling that the North was tough and anyone who witnessed England's pitiful attempts to keep the ball in the field of play in the last half hour versus Italy in Manaus (Rooney's corner anyone? Wilshire's pass to touch?) will be able to testify that there was something different about a World Cup in a rainforest.

Here are the venues:

As you can see here, there are two distinct bands of location in Brazil: from Brasilia heading North is tropical, largely rainforest (Blue) until you hit the coasts which are drier yet still stiflingly hot (Orange).  In contrast, the south of the country, from Belo Horizonte downwards is comparatively temperate (Greens), with lower levels of heat and humidity; still hot but an altogether more pleasant place to play football.

To put in a different perspective, the distance between Porto Alegre and Manaus is similar to that between London and the Canary Islands. OK, it's more hot to hot than the latter example but still, it's a real difference & some teams have benefitted more than others; especially when considering how often teams have had to travel or what their home climate is like.

Home from Home for CONCACAF & others
As the map shows, Colombia, Costa Rica & Ecuador are all based in a similarly tropical climate to the North of Brazil, and each has performed largely well; Colombia & Costa Rica both qualifying easily whilst Ecuador performed with reasonable credit.  Honduras is only just north of Costa Rica, but a combination of rough tactics & a lack of quality led to their failure.

Colombia played twice in central Brazil: Cuiaba and Brasilia & won both times, whereas Costa Rica beat Uruguay in Fortaleza & Italy in Recife.  Ecuador only had chance to take advantage once but they lost to the Swiss in Brasilia, a performance that gives great credit to the victors.  Otherwise they were based in the south: a great equaliser.  Honduras only had the advantage of acclimatisation when it was too late, in their dead match vs the Swiss in Manaus.

As stated already the CONCACAF group teams have fared generally well, Mexico played 3 times in the North and qualified well, and the USA qualified after three tough fixtures in Natal, Manaus, & Recife.

Central Africa/Northern Brazil
Four teams that should have arrived in Brazil with little to fear from conditions were Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast & Ghana.  Central Africa has a similar climate to tropical Brazil & their adaptation would have been fairly straightforward.  Sadly, and somewhat inevitably, the African teams have been beset by crises involving bonuses & players being sent home & only Nigeria remain having been able to edge through in their group.  Their benefit was minimal but crucial; their only victory coming against Bosnia & Herzegovina in Cuiaba.

Ghana played a marvellous game against Germany in Fortaleza but came up short against the USA in Natal & Portugal in Recife whereas Cameroon were faced against the already acclimatised Brazilians and Mexicans & had a poor time of it regardless with stories of rifts & generally abject play.  Ivory Coast made the biggest mess of things. Having beaten Japan in Recife (advantage used & achieved) and only narrowly lost to similarly acclimatised Colombia, a result against Greece would have seemed a straightforward task, especially when considering it was in Fortaleza.  A later than late penalty put pay to their chances & like the Swiss, the Greeks' performance can be upgraded when factored against conditions.

Who had it hard?

From this we can see that both Switzerland & Germany have qualified from their groups despite facing hard conditions that they are unlikely to be used to.  Opposed to this, Pirlo sagely described their being 'Two World Cups' when noting how some countries had been based largely in the more clement South of Brazil, in contrast to his own residence in the humid & stifling North.  His feeling that countries more acclimatised to such conditions had an advantage is partially borne out when compared to the two other countries with 3 fixtures based entirely in the the North of the North (ie. Manaus, Fortaleza, Natal & Recife) : USA & Mexico, both based in the CONCACAF region & thus used to playing in conditions not dissimilar to that of Northern Brazil.  Of course, they both progressed out of their group & Italy did not. 

Argentina, Belgium & Algeria have all emerged from groups without leaving the GREEN zone & poor Uruguay have been to the North and back twice; no wonder they've looked a little sub-par for the most part; still, they qualified.

This has been a World Cup of relatively few cards, indeed beyond the farce of the first game, refereeing standards have passed by comparatively unnoticed; indeed, the officials have done well.  Yellow cards are running at 2.6 per game which is low & red cards are coming at a rate just over one every six games (9 from 48).  However, the location of these red cards & the nature of the dismissals bears closer scrutiny:
I have bordered the 4 stupidest incidents of this World Cup & will draw attention to the fact that they all occurred in the North of Brazil.  All of those specific incidents occurred in daft hot conditions, with their team's in disadvantageous positions.  It's a potent recipe.

Anyway the straight red card rate in the North is 1:5.6 games & in the south it's 1:10 and in the North of the North (ie. Manaus, Fortaleza, Natal & Recife) it's 1:3.2 !  Holland v Mexico, Costa Rica v Greece & Brazil v Colombia are all being held in the North of the North, just saying!

Going forward:

Matches left in the North:
Round of 16:
Holland v Mexico, Fortaleza
Costa Rica v Greece, Recife
France v Nigeria, Brasilia
Belgium v USA, Salvador
Quarter Finals:
Brazil v Colombia, Fortaleza
Holland/Mexico v Costa Rica/Greece, Salvador
Argentina/Switzerland v Belgium/USA, Brasilia

  • Mexico have played all their matches in the North of the North, the Dutch beat Spain in Salvador, but it's a tricky tie for them against a battle hardened team in ideal conditions.
  • Greece have done well in a tough predominantly Northern schedule but face a team 2/2 in the North of the North in Costa Rica.  
  • Belgium are into 'parts unknown' against a team who toughed it though a Northern group, in USA. Having played only in the South and not generally impressed with their play, this looks an excellent chance for their opponents to qualify for the quarter finals.
  • France beat Switzerland in Salvador, but haven't played an acclimatised team, or indeed an African team in a Northern venue.  Nigeria await in Brasilia.
  • If the Dutch get through, they go again, this time in Salvador, again against teams that have played well in the North.  It's not going to be easy for them & I fancy Mexico to come through this section.
  • Germany now avoid the climate they qualified in; if they are as good as many think, there'll be few excuses from here on in.

So we go on...

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 23 June 2014

World Cup 2014: Half-Time Team Talk

Been pondering a general World Cup post for a few days now & it's fascinating to see where the general perception of success & failure transect in a competition where literally one event (late goal, misplaced back-header, moment of hot-headedness, referee's discretion) can cause an entire reversal of a team's fortunes.  Margins are necessarily thin in football anyway, but magnified by the expectation of nations & a schedule of just 3 games (sometimes 2 if it all goes wrong) & the limited effect a coach can have (based on having to throw together groups of players bonded purely by national identity & create a coherent strategy), the margins become almost arbitrary & some of the success (or lack of it) lies predominantly in the realm of luck.

1.  These teams have done well, for all that it matters:

Yet there is every chance they will be going home this week after having picked up no more than token points between them.
Harsh? Yep: that's the World Cup.  You have to be on your game from the very start and have a level of good fortune.

Bosnia have played 3 good halves of football, two of them against Argentina and looked generally skilful & neat but have contrived to lose both their games.  Australia & Iran, facing opposition deemed many notches above them in the football food chain, have respectively shown great strength, tenacity & directness (Australia) and a nearly perfect defensive plan (Iran), yet both are likely to depart very soon.  Ghana put up one of the performances of the first round in thoroughly rattling 'the Germans' (©Alan Hansen) only to end up drawing & now facing the irritation of being the 'other game' in a potential 'Anschluss'-between Jurgen Klinsmann & his homeland.

All told, had any of these teams progressed to the next stage, they would have been deemed 'successful', but for now they're the plucky losers, pride retained but nonetheless unable to navigate an unforgiving three game run.

2. Shooting but not scoring
...was Bosnia's other problem, with Dzeko landing on the wrong time to become profligate, a problem that has also afflicted the partially fit Ronaldo.
Here's a list of players with 6 or more shots but no goals:

Sergio Ramos- 6 (Spain)
Emmanuel Eminike- 6, Ogenyi Onazi- 8 (Nigeria)
Christian Atsu- 6 (Ghana)
Reza Ghoochanneijhad- 7 (Iran)
Xherdan Shaqiri- 9 (Switzerland)
Edin Dzeko- 9 (Bosnia-Herzegovina)
Cristiano Ronaldo- 14 (Portugal)

Nigeria could well go through & so too the Swiss, but generally profligacy has been the domain of teams that are getting knocked out.  Two games is too small a sample to draw much definitive information from a team, beyond that they may have been, to some degree, unlucky.

3. Clint Dempsey & Tim Cahill
...have got game.
Dempsey scored probably my favourite goal of the tournament so far with his run & finish against Ghana & backed it up with his stomach in the Portugal match, whereas Cahill showed the world both the art of the header & the over the shoulder wrong-foot volley with his two goals.

It's both refreshing & indicative of the international game, that two players entering the twilight of their careers and having left the big league they populated during their best years, can still show their street smarts & prove entirely vital to their nations.

4. Messi
He's not quite at Maradona levels in terms of dominant performances, but already his contributions have been definitive & vital, overcoming otherwise ordinary and tactically naive efforts from Argentina.  Indeed this could well be the ultimate trade-off that defines Argentina's chances this year.  Whether Messi alone can create enough in attack to counteract the paucity of good strategy from his coach.  It's a  fascinating scenario & in what should be his absolute prime & on South American soil, his best chance of entering the pantheon of the greats.

5. Vive la France!
To my mind, the only team to have impressed me twice is the French. Whilst the Dutch have had the best result (5-1 v Spain) and everyone got sucked in by Germany's flattering demolition of Portugal, only France have turned up twice & put the turbo on.
Ridiculously, Benzema could easily have scored 6 times by now & granted normal luck can be considered a mite unfortunate to only have registered 3, with a missed penalty, a shot off the post & the back of the keeper & his late, late disallowed goal vs Switzerland all counting for naught.

What France have done particularly well is involve everyone; their attacks formulate all over the pitch & throughout their midfield and forward line they have potential match winners, all the while backed up by enthusiastic runners from the full back position.  Whilst no French side will be considered without ego, this one seems content to work for each other & lacks the definitive star; maybe Ribery's absence has homogenised their mentality?  Even Dechamps demotion of Pogba for the second game struck me as the action of a self-regulating unit, rather than be entirely punished he was brought on later in the game; a slap on the wrists but done with love not malice.  Their draw isn't likely to be difficult either, with a likely game against Nigeria followed by the emergent side from Belgium, USA and Algeria, prior to a semi-final against someone decent.

6. England, oh England.
  • They were unlucky. Ben Pugsley has calculated they had the lowest PDO of the first two matches. In layman's terms, Hart conceding 4/5 shots on target reflects this & good chances were missed.
  • Rooney has scored and created a goal in two matches.  His scapegoating is baffling.
  • Gerrard being asked to play in a two in CM/DM was the clear problem in the set-up.  Indeed, with Rooney, Sterling, Sturridge & Welbeck playing, Roy's system is verging on 4-2-4, which is clearly unsustainable unless you are a Brazilian team from history.  What were you thinking Roy?
  • The players chosen were the only players that could have gone.  England has no depth in it's national squad.  Arguably, only Brazil, France, Germany & Spain do.  Any other country has clear issues with squad depth, witness the many 'classic' veterans ('I forgot about him! Is he still playing?') that are inevitably included in the squads of less strong nations every World Cup.
  • England has no defensive midfielders.  This is a problem that isn't going to go away.  There aren't any young English DMs in the league, so unless, like Alan Curbishley, you fancy Wilshere & Barkley as your DM2, it's probably worth getting used to the idea that Phil Jones as a destroyer could be England's only option in the near future. Okay then.


We're exactly half way through now 32 matches gone, 32 to go and half the remaining games will be played in the next 4 days, until we get to the good stuff: the knockout stages.
As I wrote, i'm sweet on France's chances from here.  I feel that Germany and Holland have flattered so far & could well lose as soon as they come up against comparable opposition.  I'd never rule out Brazil, despite their clear ordinariness.  It was the same in '94 and they snuck through that. Maybe it's for the best that Messi wins it for Argentina to mirror Maradona & the journalists can dust off their 'greatest ever' stories.

Let's just hope the quality remains high.

Monday, 16 June 2014

UK World Cup Commentary: Ineptitude & strangeness.

If you've grown up in the UK watching big football tournaments, some of the greatest moments have been gilded by great commentary.  From obvious fare like Kenneth Wolstenholme's 'They think it's all is now!' though David Coleman's 'What a save!' exclamation over Banks' save from Pele to more modern, less heralded classics like 'Look at these scenes! Just look at these scenes!' from John Motson as Germany conceded a late equalizer to Robbie Keane back in 2002:

...and of course, Kevin Keegan's pained cry after Brian Moore foisted upon him a cruel prediction for David Batty's penalty prowess. 'You know him better than most, will he score?' 'Yes' ... 'Ow'.

So a new World Cup brings new hope of fun & frivolity at the hands of trusted helmsmen and their sometimes wayward sidemen.  But it's not all plain sailing:  Brian Clough provided many a star turn in the studio, Jimmy Hill got annoyed at the wrong things for years on the BBC and Trevor Brooking said 'Well...' a lot.  The commentary booth is not a venue for the fearful: you're live and you may get it wrong.

This year has been somewhat eventful, and not for the right reasons.

The main outcry has been over Phil Neville's horrific one-note turn for England v Italy.  Not only did he show none of the prowess of his brother, he talked far too much, offering insight on nearly everything whilst continually exuding an air of superiority based on the fact that he, a former player, was uniquely positioned to provide insight that us mere viewers would be unable to perceive without his 'man on the inside' input.

New man for ITV, Joe Speight, stepped up for the little heralded Chile v Australia match & provided an interesting style: part Radio 1 DJ, part factoid machine; it wasn't pleasant.  In another world over on the BBC, somebody thought that the real thing (a Radio 1 DJ and factoid machine) was a good option for the red button and Scott Mills & friends chuntered through with little to no insight.  You wouldn't have a footballer sing a song, so why the opposite?

The Sam Matterface/Clark Carlisle axis, who I quite like having endured them throughout the season in Tottenham's Europa run, were doing OK until the memorable faux pas from Carlisle who, commenting on the strength of the Ecuador first XI, stated that Jackson Martinez, so lethal for Porto this last year, couldn't get a place in the side.  He was half right, Martinez was a substitute for Columbia the night before.  I winced for him and Matterface kindly and professionally made no on-air comment.

Mark 'Lawro' Lawrenson solidly trends on twitter throughout each broadcast he features on, bringing his special brand of misanthropy and mild outrage to every game.  Thoroughly and entertainingly dismissive of the goal-line technology, there are few things that generate joy in his heart.  Usually accompanied by the competent Steve Wilson, the sun to Lawro's rain, he is the last of the old guard of co-commentator.  Were his skills employed in America, his 'color commentary' would undoubtedly be grey.

Clive Tyldesley & Andy Townsend, remarkably ITV's go-to team, have alternatively overstated the drama (Tyldesley), mangled the English language (Townsend) and continued to wend their unmerry way throughout their selection of high profile games; there is nothing new here, beyond continued bemusement at Townsend's employment; though God love him, he's an enthusiast; blessed with insight, he ain't.

The piece de resistance however, came in last night's France v Honduras match.  Jonathan Pearce has long since left behind the role of crank commentator ( 'Fowler the Growler', anyone?) and over the years has managed to slightly tone down the preachy rhetoric.
However, yesterday was borderline insanity, sadly a more creeping and subtle variant of his prior efforts.  Starting as he meant to go on by bellowing at Martin Keown from a very short distance, he made a series of decidedly strange comments including one praising the locals for creating an atmosphere in the city by 'selling peanuts and cold drinks', failed to realise for far too long that a shot had hit the side netting, had no understanding of the goal line technology even as it was spelled out in front of us and generally sounded like a man one mike short of retirement.  Keown chipped in by praising players' 'athletism.'

The studio has also had it's moments.  For every Henry (who looks better than he sounds), we have a Savage, for every lucid Seedorf there's a stilted Cannavaro.  Patrick Vieira continues to look like he's done enough prior to even opening his mouth and ITV have gone far too heavily with non-native English speakers, creating long and slow periods of non-insight.  Shearer, as ever, pundits like he played: belligerent and unbending, all power and no finesse.

Alan Hansen will be there soon, and he is on the verge of the permanent golf course.  He will roll out the old tropes about shocking defending and spot players who are 'World Class' & make half of the others look like amateurs.  His passing is due, but one fears that those tasked with replacing him have, as yet, failed to hit their marks.  The old boy's network runs strong in football broadcasting & shows no sign of let-up.

And i've not even mentioned Adrian Chiles.