Some random observations after the second group fixtures:
Brazil 0-0 Mexico: Clearly not having the ball skills and wizardry of Brazil, Mexico looked to get physical to interrupt the Brazilian magic. Despite making Brazil uncomfortable, Brazil was still able to keep a good portion of the play in the Mexican half with short, crisp passing, bringing their wingers forward. For a team that came into this game with confidence, Mexico seemed to be rattled by the moment. The Mexican attack eventually settled down some and managed to build up some momentum going through the middle, but the shots they took were from long range, off target and outside the penalty area. There must have been something about the scoreless first half that gave Mexico confidence going into the second half, because El Tri played with a lot more organization, staying in front of Brazil and denying them space to create. Brazil struggled with their shape and organization in the second half and were forced to play a decidedly un-Brazil, negative game. Mexico got forward in numbers, though not in the penalty area, and they took numerous long range shots, though none on target, but it kept Brazil on their backheels. Guillermo Ochoa is the best keeper in the tournament so far, and with the quality shots in the box that Brazil was getting, he needed to be. Mexico with take what clearly results in Brazilian disappointment. A surprisingly fun game for a scoreless draw.
Australia 2-3 Netherlands: Australia came to play! They did not sit back against this scary a counterattack; they actually got the ball forward and made plays in the attacking end. But you kind of figured that the high line the back four had was going to get them in trouble sooner or later. I like that the Dutch’s first instinct when they get possession is to quickly get the ball out to the flanks and spread the opposition from the jump. Nobody counters faster than the Dutch. Without making extensive use of the flanks the Socceroos were finding holes in the center of Holland’s midfield and backline to exploit. Australia’s strategy for slowing down the Dutch attack was to tightly mark the Dutch in the midfield. The Netherlands can’t seem to attack without countering; patient buildup and combination play doesn’t seem to work. Australia clearly won the tactical battle, and the Netherlands played much of the game with their backline 6’s&7’s. Arjen Robben always looks to shoot first when he gets into the box, even when he is being closed down by multiple defenders and has open teammates around him. Having to run down Dutch defenders tired out the Socceroos towards the end, and it showed. A valiant effort by Australia, the first team eliminated from the tournament. Holland dodges a bullet and gets full points.
Spain 0-2 Chile: Major changes for Spain as one of the best midfielders in the world, Xavi, is replaced by Pedro. Clearly Spain is looking for more speed and service down the left flank. Also world-class center back Gerard Pique, who was exposed repeatedly against the Netherlands, is benched for Jordi Alba. Faster tempo than you usually see from Spain. Spain had most of the possession, but Chile got forward on the counter as expected, and took advantage of Spain’s slow response on the backline. I don’t know what’s wrong with keeper Iker Casillas, but he is slow on the uptake and gets caught out of position frequently. Spain is clearly experiencing as loss of confidence. Chile gave up most of the possession to Spain – they usually do – but Chile closed down Spain in the final third and forced Spain into making mistakes. The South American side simply flowed through them. Although every Chilean touch was sublime, every Spanish attempt at a tackle was so helpless. While Spain at once panicked and hesitated, Chile emphatically seized the opportunity. The South Americans were by then displaying a combination of quality and pace beyond Spain. As the deposed world champions toiled to try to make the right pass, Chile were effortlessly winning high-tempo tackles and then nutmegging their opponents. Spain were outpaced, and their play made to look outdated. Spain’s problems began from the front and effectively finished there — not least because their strikers couldn’t actually finish anything. Chile looked as if they’re playing a different sport entirely, coupled with aggression, workrate, rhythm and, above all, as efficient a use of space as you’re likely to see. Chile had cohesion, intelligence and the kind of synchronized movements that negate creativity. In every aspect of the game Spain looked old, slow, and out of touch. Never has a defending champion fallen so colossally fast; they didn’t even last a week.
Cameroon 0-4 Croatia: The emphasis in this game was definitely on attacking. Neither side left grass grow beneath their feet. Under ordinary circumstances Croatia’s attack down the flanks would be considered anemic, but so bad was the Indominable Lion’s both in defense and in midfield that throughballs and long passes through the center worked just fine. It’s not as if Cameroon weren’t making headway into the attacking end, also; they were getting long passes into the Croatian penalty area as well, but the big difference was that they put practically no shots on target, and Croatian keeper Stipe Pletikosa had virtually nothing to do all game long. Conversely, Cameroon keeper Charles Itandje was barely serviceable, and he was under siege for most of the game. Long runs punctuated by long Croatian passes kept Cameroon’s backline confused and lacking, and they got no help from holding midfielder Maxim Choupo-Moting or wingers Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Stéphane M’bia. They did attack, however, but getting the ball to any forward player in the box was a chore. Only a side this anemic without the ball could make Darijo Srna and Ivica Olic look like they were in their early twenties. When Cameroon went a man down and still tried to get back into the game by sending numbers forward, it just got worse; the last two goals were scored with a streaking Mario Mandzukic having to beat only one defender. A much-needed three points for Croatia, who now get Mexico for second place in the group.
Columbia 2-1 Ivory Coast: The Ivorians looked to make it a track meet, taking advantage of one-on-one situations and offer a more direct attacking quality. The Columbians looked to be a little more creative and spread the field a little more. Quick, precise passing by Columbia, especially down the right side to exploit the weakness down the left side of the Ivorians. I think the Ivorian attack would be a lot more tactically efficient if Yaya Toure was more involved in the buildup instead of as an advanced midfielder. The Ivorians rarely put together more than three passes in a row as they tried to build from the back. If they would just spread the field instead of just going through the center, they would spread the Columbians thin and they could commit numbers in attack. Better service into the box by Columbia; rarely did the Ivory Coast show this quality. My guess is that at 35-years-old Didier Drogba doesn’t have the stamina to go 90 minutes anymore, which is why he doesn’t start and they hold him out until the 60th minute. In any case, the energy and coordination returned to the Ivorian attack once he entered the game. James Rodriguez is having the best tournament of any Columbian in 34 years. Difficulties by the Ivory Coast building from the back – especially while trying to send numbers forward in attack when they got behind – resulted in mental lapses that resulted in fatal errors. Great individual effort by Gervinho from the left flank on his score. In a tournament that is filled with scoring, the best defender so far is Columbia’s Mario Yepes. Ivory Coast will still qualify out of this group; they get a petrified Greece next.
Uruguay 2-1 England: Neither team established control of pace and tempo early, like a boxer looking to stick and move and see where the openings were. Both goalkeepers showed a certain lack of ability early. Slightly better defending from Uruguay, who were doing a good job of interrupting the British attack in the midfield and not giving them space to get off shots in the box. England’s backline was a little shaky, especially on set pieces and corners, where they had to work to keep Uruguay from making quality shots on goal. Even though England had a significant amount of the possession, there wasn’t a lot of quality, creativity, or imagination on either side. The thing about Uruguay’s front men Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez is you can’t let them get into a two-man game in the penalty area; you have to close them down – which England didn’t. Uruguay are expert at gamesmanship; delaying tactics such as rolling around on the pitch like a sniper just shot them. Wingers Leighton Baines and Glen Johnson began to spread the Uruguayans thin and England got some big time chances in the box because of it. When Wayne Rooney finally got on the board in a World Cup, all of a sudden the gamesmanship from Uruguay stopped. At the end of the day it was the two-man long game played by Cavani and Suarez that did the British in. England are mathematically still in it, but just.
Japan 0-0 Greece: Japan attacked with a surprisingly patient buildup from the back for them, which actually stands to reason considering Greece puts a lot of players in front of the ball. Greece actually made a few forays in the attacking end via long passes, but it was mostly unorganized. Not a lot of pace, but given the tactical buildup by Japan you would have thought they would have taken more quality shots in the final third than they did. Even after going down to ten men, Greece were still making forays into the attacking end via long passes and throughballs through the center. However, Japan could afford to build up their attack with more patience with their opponents down a man. Why it is that Greece didn’t play with this kind of industry while at full strength through one and a half games is beyond me. The more likely team to score was always going to be Japan, and quite frankly I’m surprised they could not break down a resolute Greek rearguard. A badly played game from both sides.
Italy 0-1 Costa Rica: Costa Rica did not play scared against the Italians, making many thrusts into the attacking end, playing a high line, forcing the Italians into building patiently from the back and beating the offside trap, and most particularly closing down their talisman in the middle, Andrea Pirlo (something England did not do in their game with Italy). The beauty of playing a high back line is that the Costa Rican goalkeeper had time to collect himself and make smart decisions when under attack. The Italians did begin to figure out the Costa Rican offside trap a little more by getting the ball to target man Mario Balotelli. The Costa Rican attack worked best when the interrupted Italy’s buildup in the midfield and then counterattacked, but the Italian backline was resolute, not allowing Costa Rica any real chances in the penalty area. When the Ticos finally got a chance to finish in the box, they did not waste it. For whatever reason Italy could not break down the Ticos tactically, and the Ticos just had the athletic advantage. There was no alternate plan of attack for the Azzurri; they relied way too heavily on having Pirlo introduce the attack and getting the ball to Balotelli in the box. It didn’t work. As great a finisher as Balotelli is, he can’t do much of anything else, and when he wasn’t getting the ball in the center of the attacking end, he was just standing around doing nothing. Costa Rican Keylor Navas was resolute in goal. Nobody would have thought that playing such a high line against a futbol superpower would work like it did, but the Italians committed 12 offsides trying to beat the trap. In the group of champions that had three supersides sharing 7 world championships between them, it is the minnows who win the group. If anybody claims they saw that coming they are lying. With this Costa Rican win, England have been unceremoniously eliminated.
Switzerland 2-5 France: A usually disciplined and highly organized Swiss side made two uncharacteristically fatal errors early, one on a set piece that the Swiss are usually good at defending, the other on a mental lapse and sloppy passing on the ensuing kickoff. That kind of thing made are rather mundane French attack (lacking a true playmaker like they are used to having in the mold of a Platini or Zidane) that much more energized. The Swiss attack actually looked dangerous through the center, but in their zeal get back in the game, they sent too many players forward, left their rearguard vulnerable, and the French took advantage of it on the counter. No doubt here that France, smelling blood, went for the jugular. Not much to comment on here. A merciless French execution on a Swiss team that quite frankly has only itself to blame for its execution.
Honduras 1-2 Ecuador: This one was a track meet. No midfield control to speak of, just back and forth. Both teams just got possession of the ball and immediately pounded it forward into the final third. No creativity, no flair, no tactical scheme, no organization, no combination play – no nuance at all. Things just stalled for both when they went out on the flanks; it was all about getting forward directly through the center. It certainly was fun for the fans to watch, but it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t work unless you are playing somebody that plays just like that. Then it becomes a function of which slugger is left standing after the onslaught – in this case Ecuador. Enner Valencia is making the most of his World Cup debut for Ecuador, and Antonio Valencia move to the center made getting the ball to Enner that much easier. When the ball did get into the box – which was frequently – there wasn’t much nuance on shooting, just hard shots directly at the goal, with both keepers having to make frequent saves. Somebody had to win this slugfest; I’m not really surprised it was Ecuador. You kind of had to figure this wasn’t the kind of game that Honduras could get out of alive.
Argentina 1-0 Iran: Argentina went with a more adventuresome 4-3-3 attack-minded approach. Despite proclaiming before the match that they would go forward more in attack (a far cry from their previous game against Nigeria), Iran dropped back in numbers, and gave up an almost 4-1 advantage in possession to Argentina – a recipe for disaster. Good wing play going forward by Pablo Zabaleta and Angel di Maria. Iran’s attack consisted of crushing a long pass into the attacking end, then hoping for a corner or set piece – which Argentina was good at defending. I think that was more a function of resetting their defense than any actual designs on putting the ball in the net. Iran actually did a pretty good job of keeping Leo Messi out of the penalty area, and Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero seemed to be off target most of the game. Argentina was not effectively spreading the Iranian backline with the three frontmen, who should have been going wide, then getting the ball into the box. On two occasion Iran had very good chances on goal due to banging the ball forward and Ashkan Dejagah getting his head on the ball, with Argentine keeper Sergio Romero having to make a couple of great saves. Thank Gawd for Messi, who found enough of a crease on the edge of the box for a shot that found the back of the net.
Germany 2-2 Ghana: Much more patient buildup by Germany, which is why unlike their previous game against the United States, Ghana much less frenetic and much more compact in their own end. Clearly Ghana’s game plan was to close down the area between the midfield and backline, wait on the Germans until they made a mistake, then use their speed and athleticism to counter. What I like about Germany is the movement off the ball up front by the three attackers Mesut Oezel, Thomas Mueller, and Mario Goetze, who fluidly switch from central players to flankers on a moment’s notice, leaving the opposition confused. The goal by Goetze was a perfect example of this; Mueller floated out to the right, pick up the ball, and put in a perfect pass to Goetze in the box, who did not get closed down by the two Ghanaian central defenders. Ghana play more of an east-west game than a north-south game, but on the rare occasions when Cristian Atsu made things happen on the right flank going forward, Ghana got quality chances in the German penalty area. A lack of pace combined with fatal mental lapses means that it is probably time for Per Mertesacker to take a seat; his mistakes were directly responsible for two Ghanaian goals. I don’t know how he does it, but at World Cup time, Miroslav Klose just seems to have a nose for goal. Both attacks opened up; when Germany got down a goal, they sent numbers forward and loosened up in the back, which allowed Ghana to hit on the counter. The second half was by far the best half of football in the tournament so far.
Nigeria 1-0 Bosnia-Herzegovina: Nigeria’s front four of Michale Babatunde, Ahmed Musa, Peter Odemwingie, and Emmanual Emenike finally used their speed and athleticism to create some chances in the attacking end. Bosnia did a good job of putting passes together through the center, putting passes together and getting Eden Dzeko open in the box, but they were decidedly lacking on the flanks. Early on, the Super Eagles’ chances on goal were more a result of mistakes in the back by Bosnia. The direct approach by Nigeria was certainly making the Bosnian defense uncomfortable, evinced by Odemwingie’s goal. But the Bosnian defense was no less under duress, as Dzeko was breaking their backline with quick runs into the box to break the Nigerian offside trap. Bosnia took a very big chance by having seven midfielders on the pitch, with only two defenders. It would have worked a helluva lot better had they used the flanks more and not attacked almost exclusively through the center. However well the combination play going forward was working for Bosnia, the Super Eagles were clogging the center and interrupting the Bosnian attack. Miralem Pjanic did such a great job in the middle of finding players in the box that Bosnians just know that when he gets the ball just run into space and he will find them. Bosnia furiously tried to score, continually pounding the ball into the box to Dzeko. I think that Bosnia would have been better served if another striker had been put in up top at some point during the game with Dzeko. Two reasons why Bosnia-Herzegovina is going home: (1) They should have put in two strikers, and (2) they should have taken better advantage of the flanks. It’s easy for them to blame the refereeing, but they have only themselves to blame for their early exit from the tournament.
Belgium 1-0 Russia: Both teams tactically played exactly the way they wanted: Belgium looked to fluidly build with a patient attack, stretching the opposition on the flanks, and combination passing to break down the defense; Russia looked to interrupt the Belgium attack in the midfield, then quickly get the ball upfield on the counter. While Belgium got the ball on the attacking end more often and won the possession battle, Russia took more quality shots on goal in the box. Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen did well on the flanks to stretch the Russians, creating space for the short passing to work. Frontman Dries Mertens didn’t get many quality shots off for Belgium, but he kept the Russian backline on their backheels, making quality runs into space and getting off his shots. Whether is was Vermaelen or his replacement Jan Vertonghen at right back, it didn’t matter, Russia was finding space on that side in the back to counter (this is the second game in a row that teams took advantage of Belgium’s right rearguard to advance the ball in the attacking end). Romelu Lukaku was pretty damn useless the entire tournament; he wasn’t getting on the end of anything or finishing anything. The finishing in this game was atrocious.
South Korea 2-4 Algeria: I’m actually impressed with the Desert Foxes. The team that hasn’t score a single World Cup goal since the Reagen administration actually got forward and showed a certain connectivity in the final third. Korea looked confused both in midfield and in the back. Maybe that’s why a normally cautious team such as Algeria went for a more attack-minded approach today; they were playing to their opponents. Good old fashioned, up-the-middle, over the top direct attacking is taking advantage of Korea’s chaos in the center of their backline. Which is made all the more prevalent even on defending set pieces. Algeria made the long ball work to the lone target man up front. No real midfield control from either side, this was not a tactical chess match. This was all about direct attacking, a slugfest that one side monopolized. Get numbers forward, do it quickly, take players on, play directly and make things happen; it worked so well for Algeria that you wonder why they never played like this before. Why in previous World Cup fixtures dating back to 1982 did they always park the bus with numbers in the back, batten down the hatches, play trench warfare and just hope they didn’t get bombed out of existence? Kudos to Korea for not quitting; the Route One approach was working for them, and they were finding holes to exploit in the normally disciplined Algerian defense. That may have been a function of Algeria sending numbers forward in attack and leaving their normally reliable rearguard exposed. But it was too little too late. A surprisingly exciting game from two teams you normally don’t associate with exciting futbol.
United States 2-2 Portugal: Whose idea was it to put a stadium in the middle of the Amazon rain forest?! Don’t you think it might help the US if, instead of just interrupting the Portuguese attack and clearing it, they did something to actually did something to maintain possession?! Not the start the US was hoping for; the first time they have to deal with a clearance in the box, they totally muff it. Confident ball movement both north-south and east-west from Portugal. It wasn’t just Cristiano Ronaldo making things happen on the flanks; Andre Almeida and Nani were integral on both flanks. Much more influential play from midfielder Michael Bradley this game, who practically disappeared against Ghana. The US did a pretty good job of keeping Ronaldo from making one of his patented runs through the back into the box. Ronaldo had the freedom to move anywhere on the pitch, and he spent a lot of time trying to get forward through the center, which allowed Fabien Johnson and DeMarcus Beasley the freedom to get forward on the flanks. The one thing that Jozy Altidore brings to the US is a physicality to gain possession in the box. Joao Moutinho had a great game as the provider in the center for Portugal. When Portugal brought in defensive midfielder William, Bradley didn’t have any space to provide in the midfield, and the US attack stalled. In response, the US moved their attack out to the flanks, specifically out to the right where Ronaldo didn’t do anything when Portugal didn’t have possession, so Johnson had room and space to get forward. And things opened up immensely when DeAndre Yedlin came in on the right. The US clearly still needs to learn how to finish teams off, but nobody should be surprised that Ronaldo is also a world-class crosser and provider. He wasn’t a factor on goal but he made his presence felt at the end. A cruel finish for the United States.