FIFA World Cup: Quarterfinals

Some random thoughts on the Quarterfinals of the 2006 FIFA World Cup:   

  (EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m sure the football traditionalists are falling all over themselves with glee over this quarterfinal draw. With six former world champions representing 15 of the 17 previous championships, this draw represents a reestablishment of the football status quo, which was shaken up when neophytes South Korea, Turkey and the United States at Korea/Japan 2002 [and to a large degree Greece at Euro 2004 in Portugal] had the temerity to break tradition and challenge the accepted football hierarchy by beating the football blue-blood royalty with tactics other than beautiful, hypnotic creative flair and artistic imagination. Heaven help if somebody other than the traditional football elite actually enters these major international competitions and actually has designs on winning! Here’s a sarcastic shout-out to Gavin Hamilton, Keir Radnedge, Brian Glanville, and Paul Gardner at Soccer World magazine: I hope you’re happy now.) 


– Argentina’s speed and flair versus Germany’s size and strength. Five World Cup titles between them. Argentina broke from their 3-3-1-3 and employed a 4-4-2, with Carlos Tevez partnering up front with Hernan Crespo, and bringing in Fabrizio Coloccini as extra cover in the back. A very physical match, with Germany looking to put a body on Argentine attackers in order to slow them down. Definitely an intense and passionate affair though lacking in football nuance and skill. Neither team got consistent service into the box, although Tevez had the occasional run with the ball into space. After getting down a goal (by Roberto Ayala on an Argentina set piece), Germany responded like a team is supposed to; they started going forward, looking for Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose to beat the offside trap and get in behind the defense. The German midfield was surprisingly nondescript, and they were surprisingly weak on the flanks — a strengths until now – so it wasn’t surprising when Germany brought in David Odonkor for his pace and energy. While Odonkor and Tim Borowski, the sub on the other flank, weren’t involved in the German equalizer, reestablishing flank play was key; it was Ballack’s service from the left flank that was instrumental. Surprisingly Argentine coach Jose Pekerman’s substitutions erred on the side of caution; he brought in defensive-minded midfielders instead of the more attack-minded players, like Lionel Messi, he had in previous cup ties (which begs the questions: Why take both Juan Roman Riquelme and Hernan Crespo out of a 1-0 game?). Both teams got away from what worked for them throughout this tournament – I firmly believe if both teams played the kind of free flowing, attacking football they had up until now this match would have never gone to a penalty shootout. But it is appropriate, given how good both of them are and the international pedigree they both bring to the table, that it did come down to penalties. The best Argentine side since 1986 goes home because they didn’t play their game. Now we know how well Germany can respond when behind. 


– Italy, with the best defense so far, got a quick goal from Gianluca Zambrotta then locked down the Ukraine, whose only offense came from off-target long range shots. Italy’s attack was predicated on getting the ball forward as quickly as possible and oftentimes utilizing individual ball skills to get forward. It kept the Ukraine on its heels all match long, but that wasn’t surprising, since the Ukraine’s offense consists of getting service to Andrei Shevchenko in the attacking end and not much else. Bad man management by Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin resulted in two subs made before halftime; they weren’t getting any real chances on goal with the 4-5-1 so they brought on a forward for a defender and switched to a 4-4-2, with little success. Luca Toni finally got on the scoresheet, the beneficiary of the quick forward Italian attack and a good Francesco Totti cross into the box. Totti is finally beginning to put his stamp on the Italian attack, although he still isn’t linking up with Andrea Pirlo with any regularity. Toni’s goal notwithstanding, eight different players have scored for Italy, pointing up the schizophrenic finishing up front that is still better than the Ukraine’s, which isn’t saying much. Despite making it this far the Ukraine never established any other options in the box to partner Shevchenko and they never established any real playmakers in midfield to support him – against this good a defense it mattered. Of all the quarterfinalists, Italy had the least difficult road to the semi-finals; the luck of the draw had them go through neophytes Australia and now the Ukraine (while everyone else had to face at least one former world champion). Madd Props, though, to the Ukraine, the one-trick pony that made it this far. Italy hasn’t played up to their abilities just yet. Germany won’t be nearly this easy. 


– Both England and Portugal came out in 4-5-1 formations with just one front man, although Portugal’s was more of a 4-3-3 with Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo flanking Pauleta. Regardless, neither team did a good job of getting their lone front men the ball (Pauleta was basically invisible). It’s not hard to understand why England had just one lone striker; Wayne Rooney was the only quality striker they had left, so they had to put on an extra covering midfielder (Owen Hargreaves) to try and get Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard forward into the attack. It didn’t work because (1) Rooney is not your classis goal poacher, who lives in the box, gets the ball serviced to him and just shoots; and (2) with Figo and Ronaldo attacking as much as they were Gerrard and Lampard had to keep tracking back to aid in the defense. Was wondering early on why Gary Neville’s presence in the lineup was so integral, and then I figured it out: Neville tracking on the wings and providing valuable crosses and service allows David Beckham to get more into the center of attack. Tiago didn’t play badly but without Deco the linkup between Portugal’s midfield and attack just wasn’t there. It had to happen sometime: Rooney’s characteristic temper got the best of him and he got caught kicking somebody in the gonads, reducing England to ten men. Although both teams lacked coordination going forward they did show lots of energy and pace throughout. Down a man England compacted the field, and Portugal began sending crosses into a crowded box. Lots of back-and-forth play during extra time, where both teams showed energetic direct forward attacking and tried to get the one score that would win it; they didn’t just sit back and wait out the extra 30 minutes. In the penalty shootout, keeper Ricardo came up big, guessing right on all four England shots and saving three. Portugal didn’t shoot any better than England but did enough (Lampard and Gerrard lost their confidence in their shooting and it clearly showed in the shootout). The better team is advancing to the semis. England never played up to their abilities throughout this tournament but still got this far. Maybe if Sven Goran Eriksson had done a better job of picking finishers we wouldn’t be having this conversation. 


– I keep wondering why it is that coaches change what it is that has been working for them when they get to this point? Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira changed from the fluid 4-2-2-2 that had been working for them for close to six years to a less fluid 4-5-1, leaving Ronaldo up front by himself. I realize that Ronaldo has not been getting along with usual strike partner Adriano for whatever personal reasons, but as long as Brazil had another striker in attack they were more fluid, more creative and had more chances on goal. Against France – who themselves changed their tactics to a midfield-intensive 4-5-1 to press and challenge Brazil in the midfield and hope to pry loose Thierry Henry against the offside trap – Brazil couldn’t get off the shneid, couldn’t get Ronaldo the kind of service he needed to get his shot off, and couldn’t get Ronaldinho and Kaka into the attack because they were being dispossessed in the middle by defensive midfielders Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele. France had more of the possession and more of the opportunities but didn’t get it done in the final third. My guess would be that, noticing that his side had been noticeably weak in the middle of defense, Parreira had an extra midfielder in to cover the center-backs. It seemed to work: Zinedine Zidane couldn’t create those mesmerizing passes in the middle and got pushed out to the wings in order to find space. When Henry finally was pried loose on a set-piece goal, Brazil then in the 60th minute brought on Adriano in place of Juninho, switching to their natural 4-2-2-2, but France still pressed and challenged Brazil at every turn, not giving them space to create. Ronaldinho never rose to the occasion throughout this tournament, and he was practically invisible in this match. France closed down everybody who came near their penalty area. Madd Props to France for coming up with a tactical plan to shut down the vaunted Brazilian attack and pull the upset of the year – the longer they hang around the more confident they get and the better they play — but that isn’t why they won. As stated pre-tournament, the only team that could beat Brazil was Brazil. For whatever mystical reason they changed their tactics from what had worked ‘til now and got cautious, believing their talent would always get them a win, so the most talented team that should have won it all is going home with their tails between their legs. The better team won.