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.

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