Monthly Archives: June 2014

World Cup review: Spain


After a period of dominance that would be the envy of any national side, the Spanish team leave Brazil humbled and humiliated. The reluctance of Villa, Torres and Mata to even celebrate their goals against Australia demonstrates just how much this Spanish team is hurting from the result. Such pain is only natural, but it would be easy to overstate how much trouble the Spanish side are in. The end of an era it may be, but this Spanish side have hit such tremendous heights that even a large fall from grace leaves them above most.

Losing to lady luck

One thing that cannot be ignored is the sheer strength of the Spanish group. In the Netherlands and Chile, Spain ran straight into what look like two of the strongest sides in this tournament. Both are organised and disciplined for the most part, van Gaal and Sampaoli having constructed their respective sides extremely well. Both managers also benefit from having players such as Robben and Sanchez who have that special something capable of turning a good team into a great one.

Had the Spanish been drawn in the place of, say, Argentina, it is very possible that they could have taken 9 points from the group, beaten Switzerland in the round of sixteen and Belgium in the quarter-finals to make it to the semis. Had they done that, the legacy of this Spanish side would be still be intact, and anyone prophesising the doom of Spanish football would rightly be laughed at. In many ways, the final chapter in the tale of this Spanish side was written not in the Maracanã, but in the Costa do Sauípe Resort, where the draw was held; how terrible for all those officials to have to travel all the way to the beach for the draw, no doubt at the expense of the Brazilian people.

Despite their tough group, Spain still put up a good fight. Against Chile, they had 9 shots on target to 4 from the South Americans. Finishing is of course a part of football, but with the quality that Spain have, one might expect them to have converted a few more of those chances on another day. It is also worth pointing out that Chile, while in the lead, were understandably less willing to pour players forward and so probably ended with less shots than they would have done had they not taken an early lead.

Victims of their own success

To an extent, this Spanish side may have suffered somewhat from their overwhelming dominance of the world game. In the six years since tiki-taka tactics have burst onto the scene, some of the finest minds in football have presumably spend many long days pondering the question of how to stop Spain and Barcelona. This is a fairly natural progression for any radical tactical innovation, and was to be expected sooner or later; the (relative) struggles of Barcelona are also evidence of this.

New tactics burst onto the scene in an extreme variant. The new innovation is generally designed to exploit a common weakness within mainstream tactics, and so is deployed to nearly its logical conclusion. Over time, opposition managers begin to devise ways of countering the new tactics and exploiting the weaknesses that the overextension of this tactic opened up. As the ways of countering the extreme variant of this new way of playing become common knowledge, it becomes progressively less effective.

Some ideas and methods from this new variant are incorporated into mainstream tactical thinking in order to exploit the weaknesses that were originally identified; others are discarded for opening up too many weaknesses that can in turn be exploited by the opposition. The days of the “pure” version of each tactic thus slowly fade into footballing mythology. Just as we never see Total Football played now, in 40 years we may reminisce about the days of tiki-taka; perhaps one day a Spanish side will play roughly in a World Cup final and be criticised for betraying their footballing heritage.

Class is permanent

Even if the current Spanish system is on its way out, there is no reason for Spanish football to panic. Plenty of Spanish players ply their trade in other teams with other systems; the Madrid players even play for a side set up – with its quick, powerful counter-attacks – to beat the tiki-taka style of play. An extremely high line, along with an emphasis on ball-playing centre backs, leaves the tiki-taka style vulnerable to counter-attacking football.

With a midfield that can leave out the likes of Jesus Navas – who would surely be a starter on the right for England – and an attack that can afford to leave his clubmate Alvaro Negredo at home, Spain would do well not to panic just yet. A manager who was to organise the players at their disposal into a fairly traditional 4-3-3 with Spain would already have a fearsome side on their hands.

With David de Gea in goal, Raúl Albiol and Sergio Ramos in the centre of defence, Jordi Alba and César Azpilicueta as the fullbacks, Javí Martinez, Koke and Cesc Fabregas in the middle, Pedro and David Silva on the flanks and a healthy Diego Costa up front, Spain would boast a side more than capable of beating any team in the world. As well, they would still be leaving out players who might walk into other strong sides.

A point to prove

Spain will thus head into Euro 2016 with a point to prove. The days of pure tiki-taka might be over, but Spain still possess enough quality players with enough knowledge of other systems to thrive all the same. Every member of the side outlined above bar Pedro has played outside the Barcelona system, and more importantly, every member will be 30 or under at the next Euros. As well as these players, many other Spanish starlets look set to break through in the next few years. Spain might be out, but they will certainly be back.


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The case for Colombia and Chile


This is one of the most open World Cups in recent memory. Seven sides have won both of their first two group games: the Netherlands, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, France, Argentina and Belgium. Picking apart those records, however, leaves few sides which are looking like they can genuinely take on anybody. Other pre-tournament favourites such as Germany and Brazil faltered in their second group games. Former winners England and defending champions Spain are out already, Uruguay and Italy head into a vital game to decide qualification from group D while 2010 darlings Ghana and Ronaldo’s Portugal teeter on the brink of elimination over in Group G.


The opener between the Netherlands and Spain will go down as one of the most famous matches of this World Cup. A sweet revenge for the humiliation of 2010, the scoreline may flatter the Netherlands a bit. Mistakes from Iker Casillas and Spain’s willingness to continue attacking rather than salvage their pride by limiting the damage allowed the Oranje to rack up the goals. A nervy encounter with Australia confirmed that, while strong, the Dutch are by no means invincible.

Costa Rica

It is easy to become enthralled by the fairy tale of the underdog. Costa Rica performed admirably against Italy and Uruguay, but they will still struggle to make it past the round of 16. If Mario Balotelli had showed slightly more composure or Andrea Pirlo had been replaced by a player who can actually run, the Italy game could have gone very differently. Likewise, the Uruguay that fell to Costa Rica was a different team to the Uruguay that felled England; the first did not have Luis Suarez, the second did.


France are one of the few sides to come through two matches with few question marks over their heads. Bar one moment from Paul Pogba, they kept their cool against a Honduras side who appear to spend their free time practising martial arts, far easier said than done. A demolition of a decent Swiss side followed. Two late goals give some cause of concern, but France can be forgiven for a lapse in concentration when they were than far ahead. The only reason to doubt this France side at the moment is the absence of a game against one of the true favourites. Given a likely round of 16 opponent of Nigeria or Iran, that is unlikely to happen before a prospective quarter final with Germany.


Argentina lack balance behind one of the best forward lines in history. While the likes of Messi, Aguero, Higuain, Lavezzi and Di Maria offer a wealth of attacking options, Argentina can barely boast a single defender or midfielder of that quality. Consequently, they have struggled in their first two games. Bosnia and Herzegovina continually threatened in the opener, and it took a moment of Messi magic to unlock a dogged Iran, who have done their manager Carlos Quieroz proud.


Belgium’s team, while strong on paper, is also struggling. Lacking true fullbacks has forced the Belgians to field a towering wall of centre backs. Against Algeria and Russia, this has restricted their attacking options going forward. Against a team with top class wingers, they could come unstuck. Going forward too, they lack ideas or any semblance of a coherent team identity or vision. No player seems quite sure what to do with the ball, and even less sure where his teammates are.

The similarities between the two

In contrast to a sluggish Belgium side, both Chile and Colombia boast very strong identities. Chile press hard, winning the ball high up the pitch and attacking with pace. Colombia sit deeper, drawing opponents in before, again, attacking with pace. Both sides can claim, unlike many of the sides here in Brazil, to be stronger than the sum of their parts. Each squad currently boasts one standout attacking player – Sanchez and Rodriguez respectively – ably supported by hardworking teammates.

Crucially, each side demonstrates a level of collective understanding that is rare in international football, and their managers deserve a lot of credit for fostering that. Having such clear team identities makes everyone’s job easier. Each player looks like they know where runners will be, which makes everyone’s job easier: they can look up once and play the pass, rather than having to check back and slow down the attack.


It may even be beneficial for Colombia that Falcao is out. The absence of a world class centre forward forces the whole team to rally around, and encourages the team to play the best pass, rather than forcing it to their superstar. Portugal were guilty of this at times last night; the entire side seemed overly eager to give Ronaldo the ball. While this is natural, and getting the ball to Ronaldo eventually should be a cornerstone of the Portuguese strategy, the ball into the Madrid forward often looked forced. Rather than wait until Ronaldo was well-positioned, the Portuguese midfielder gave him the ball early, allowing an organised American defence to move to neutralise his threat each time. Had Ronaldo received the ball in more threatening positions, the ability of the Americans to close him down before he did anything might have been greatly diminished.

Leading the side in place of the Monaco striker is his clubmate James Rodriguez, my favourite player of the tournament so far. Rodriguez plays with level of class and maturity that one might expect from a player entering the twilight of their career, and yet he is only 22 years of age. It is Rodriguez who makes this team tick – his vision and technique make Colombia extremely threatening whenever they are in possession. Rodriguez combines the rare ability to see two or three passes ahead with speed, dribbling ability, composure and excellent passing and shooting.

Against Cote d’Ivoire, the organisation and teamwork of the Colombians was highlighted. At both ends of the field the generals of the African side – Yaya Toure and Didier Zokora – looked frustrated with their teammates, regularly marshalling players into position and berating them once the ball went out of play. At times, Yaya Toure looked almost disgusted with the lack of support he was receiving, and the Ivorians rarely looked snappy going forward. Their goal too contrasted with the Colombian side – a moment of magic from the talented yet frustrated Gervinho rather than crafted goals full of intelligent runs and quick passing.

Stopping Colombia will necessarily mean stopping Rodriguez. The other players in the Colombian attack have the pace and technique to threaten, but it is Rodriguez who is the architect, the brains of the operation. Should Colombia top their group, as expected, they will face Uruguay, Italy or Costa Rica in the round of 16. Uruguay might be the most dangerous – the prospect of Suarez and Cavani taking on the experienced and determined yet somewhat-over-the-hill Mario Yepes is not one that will fill Colombian hearts with joy. Italy’s struggles against Costa Rica suggest that they are vulnerable to counter-attacking football, and Colombia do that better than Costa Rica who, for all their effort in the first two games, are simply not quite as good as we want them to be.

While Colombia have, like France, yet to test their mettle against a true favourite, the game against Greece provides some indication of how their will face against top class defences. The Greek side – still haunted by the ghost of their Euro 2004 win – know only one way to play: defensively. They remained fairly tight at the back throughout against Colombia, and were never excessive risk-takers. It is the Colombian defence which is the worry here. They managed to largely contain Yaya Toure, but the few of the Ivorian midfielders came close to him – either in terms of positioning or quality. He lacked supporting runners much of the time, and when he had them they were not that useful.

Should Colombia top their group and win their round of 16 tie, they will face either the winners of group A (probably Brazil) or the runners up from group B (the Netherlands or Chile), which will no doubt be a tough game. However, World Cup quarter finals are not meant to be easy. If they face the Netherlands or Brazil, it is likely that the heavyweight side will feel the need to attack Colombia. The pace of the Colombians on the counter-attack could punish the extremely aggressive fullback pairing of Marcelo and Dani Alves, who are both likely to spend a lot of time camped in the Colombian half. For the Netherlands, some individual quality going forward and an organised side will be dangerous, and both defences could struggling to contain the attacking threats; a high-scoring tie is on the cards if the two meet.


The current Chile side is the brainchild of Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa. Formerly a manager of the Argentine national side as well, the potential of his Chile team first became apparent following a 1-0 over his native Argentina, Chile’s first in a competitive match against their neighbours. Prior to the Bielsa appointment in 2007, Chile had lingered between about 30 and 50 in the Elo rankings for a decade, and had featured in only two of the prior six World Cups. They come into this tournament ranked 9th in the world under Bielsa disciple Sampaoli, and look good value for it.

As with Colombia, Chile are lead by an exciting forward at this World Cup. Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona’s fourth-choice forward, leads the line, and unlike some national superstars is more than willing to put in the effort required of him by the Bielsa-Sampaoli system. The pressing of the Chile side requires that each player closes down the ball quickly when the responsibility falls on them. If but one player begins to fail in their duty, the system falls apart, as it relies on each player trusting in their teammates to cover the whole they leave by pressing the next player on the ball.

So far Chile have been able to do that, but World Cups are won over seven games, not two, and a heavy schedule can begin to take its toll. Even at the end of the Spain game, Chile looked exhausted, and should a knockout tie played in a hot, humid arena go to extra time, Chile could fall apart completely. Chile have more than enough quality to win a tie in 90 minutes, with the marauding wingbacks, biting defence, tireless midfield and classy attack sufficient to give even the very best sides pause for thought.

Nowhere is the greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts nature of the Chile team highlighted more than in the goalscoring record of Eduoardo Vargas. When he signed for Napoli in 2012, some at the Italian club were convinced that they had signed the player to take them to the next level. Finally threatening the business end of Serie A for the first time since the departure of Maradona, Partenopei had an exciting young forward to enthuse over. In 19 league games for the Italian club, he has yet to score a goal. In his last 19 for the national side, over roughly the same period of time, he has 12. The goals are not merely being racked up in friendlies against poor opposition either; in two games against Spain – one last week and one friendly in 2013 – he has three goals. Likewise, Vargas netted in two 2013 friendlies against Brazil and bagged three goals in the last four games of the notoriously tough South American qualifying league, including strikes against Uruguay and Colombia.

Chile’s game against the Netherlands will be crucial in determining their fate. Lose, and it is a case of out of the frying pan into the fire for Sampaoli’s side. After surviving what is possibly the toughest group – only D and G come close – they would set up a tough tie with hosts Brazil. Should they make it through they, they will most likely see Colombia, Italy or Uruguay in the quarters. Win, and things look somewhat more promising. A round-of-16 tie with – in all likelihood – Mexico or Croatia would be set up. Chile look better than both, and should progress to face the winners of group D – Costa Rica, Italy or Uruguay – or the runners up of group C – most likely a poor Cote D’Ivoire side.

Uruguay would be a tough game, Cavani and Suarez are easily enough to trouble any side. Italy don’t look overly convincing, but of course have the quality to make a game of it. For Italy, the pace of the Chileans may simply be too much. Fullbacks Abate and Darmian have the legs to keep up with the Chilean counter-attack, but they may well be deployed far forward in an attempt to overload the wingbacks and create mismatches on the flanks. The centre backs and midfielders – Motta excluded – look sluggish in comparison. Costa Rica, despite prospering against a Suarez-less Uruguay and a wasteful Italy, would surely come unstuck here. Cote d’Ivoire lack the organisation to let their stars shine, and would likely be picked apart by Chile. A semi-final against France or Germany is on the cards.

Everything to play for

With the World Cup set up as it is, every side still mathematically able to qualify for the knockout phase must be dreaming of victory. While England and Spain are left wishing that the last two weeks were only a bad dream, Chile and Colombia rejoice. Perennial heavyweights Brazil and Germany both faltered in their second group games, which should give every team still in it hope. Reach the semi finals, and two moments of luck can change the course of footballing history. Should Chile or Colombia win in Brazil, the stars leading their sides will become genuine legends in their homelands, and the World Cup will have perhaps its greatest underdog story yet.

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World Cup review: England


In the wake of England’s World Cup exit, it is natural that questions are asked and fingers are pointed. As commentators and pundits alike have pointed out ad nauseam, it is 60 years since England have departed a World Cup at the group stages. However, the usual sense of despair is perhaps not as sharp as the situation might suggest.

Indeed, the consensus certainly seems to be that, despite being dumped out of the tournament after just two games, England really haven’t played that badly. They have taken on two very strong sides and, had the winds of fate blown slightly differently, could easily be standing on 6 points. That luxury, however, is left to the surprise package Costa Rica.

The small Central American nation has done amazingly well. Drawn into a group with three sides which are not only historically strong, but quite capable right now, the Costa Ricans cannot be said to be topping the group on luck alone. Costa Rica are, in fact, the only team to face three former World Cup winners in their group; no other group contains more than one.

The luck of the draw

England’s first round exit sees quite a few parallels with that of another footballing heavyweight, albeit one with far more recent success: Spain. Both go back home with more questions than answers, and yet the reality is that had either been drawn into a group such as France’s or Belgium’s, they might well be looking at a quarter final, rather than an inglorious exit.

As this tournament has shown, however, such things cannot be taken for granted. As Italy-and-Uruguay-beating Costa Rica, Netherlands-bothering Australia, Brazil-thwarting Mexico, Argentina-frustrating Iran and Germany-troubling Ghana show, anyone appears to be able to beat anyone right now, making for a fascinating World Cup.

A new era

The fact of the matter is, however, than people have beaten England, and there is very little getting away from that. There is no doubt that English football is entering a new era. Lampard and Gerrard are the last of the so-called Golden Generation for English football. That generation, however, was only ever Golden on paper.

While it might be tempting to yearn for a side that boasted genuinely world class players in several positions, we must not forget that this was a side in which reputation – not usefulness to the team – reigned supreme. Of course, the likes of Ferdinand, Terry, Cole, Lampard and Gerrard in their prime are something any team would be glad to have, but the reality of that team was less sweet than the teamsheet suggests.

Young guns

As the Golden Generation exits, a new group of players is coming to the fore. England’s World Cup squad this time around has an average age of 25.7, compared to 28.1 in 2010. That combined with genuinely better performances (sadly against genuinely better opponents) should give England fans some encouragement.

At 23 years old, Aaron Lennon was the youngest face in a conservative South Africa selection from Fabio Capello. Raheem Stirling, aged just 19, has that honour this time around. In Stirling, Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Shaw, England have, for the first time, selected players for a World Cup born after the founding of the Premier League. In total, the England squad for Brazil boasts eight players – those four plus Wilshere, Henderson, Jones and Welbeck – who are all younger than Aaron Lennon was in South Africa.

What must be avoided, however, is placing the same unrealistic expectations on this group of players as we placed on the last. The English fans and media need to be realistic and accept that actually, reaching the quarter finals is pretty good. Coming in the top 8 of over 200 countries is, mathematically, not too dissimilar to finishing first in a league of 20 teams. Of course there are differences, but England are all-too-often guilty of forgetting how well we have done to even be in contention for a prize coveted by the entire world.

The case for Hodgson

A side anchored for a decade by one of the best centre back pairings in the world at the time – Terry and Ferdinand – now looks to the future without top-class options at that position. It is hard to argue that any of the current crop would even have made the 2006 squad ahead of the aforementioned duo plus Carragher and Campbell. Defenders usually peak later, however, so it is possible that the likes of Jones and Smalling could become England’s answers at centre half. Starting the United pair against Costa Rica could be a wise move by Hodgson.

It is in attack, however, that England’s future looks brightest, with a new, more technical generation of players coming through. Stirling, Barkley, Sturridge and co will not, however, form themselves into a cohesive attacking unit. A guiding hand is needed, and it this time it doesn’t look like Hodgson has done a bad enough job that the disruption caused by a change of manager would justify any potential gain.

An attacking line featuring Sturridge as a striker with Stirling, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Barkley behind with Wilshere or Henderson pulling the strings from midfield and perhaps the occasional cameo from a veteran Rooney is an exciting prospect, should all of them continue to progress. This is far from a certainty – Jack Wilshere has definitely stalled in his development, and many footballers struggle to find the electric form of their breakout seasons.

Hodgson is the person who has begun assembling this team, and there is little to suggest that he has done much wrong. Hodgson can no more turn Cahill and Jagielka into Terry and Ferdinand than he can turn water into wine. Taking 10 years off Rooney and Gerrard is similarly beyond his capabilities. What he has done is take the fear out of the England side. The defeats were disappointing, yes, but England looked like they at least believed in their ability, which is more than can be said for the timid sides of the McClaren and Capello eras.

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