FIFA World Cup: Round Of Sixteen

Some random thoughts on the 2006 FIFA World Cup Round of Sixteen:
– Germany’s win against Sweden was less a function of what Germany did well and more a function of what Sweden didn’t do. Sweden didn’t close anybody down, they allowed Germany too much space, they didn’t man-mark, they had no semblance of defensive structure or organization, they allowed Germany too much possession, they couldn’t get forward with any consistency, they never got any service to anybody in attack, and as they got more and more frustrated they started making stupid mistakes and fouls (and it cost them with a Teddy Lucic sending off early). Stated simply, Sweden just didn’t come to play – AT ALL. I realize that Lukas Podolski did a lion’s share of the scoring, but the Man of the Match was Miroslav Klose, who’s runs into the box drew too much attention from Sweden and allowed him to find open attackers like Podolski for easy scores. Germany was all over the place, especially in attack, where every time they made forays into the Sweden penalty area (and that was a lot) it seemed that Sweden was just standing around, not closing anybody down and not going after anybody (keeper Andreas Isaksson was absolutely livid all match long, having to be the only person stopping the many bombs coming at him as a result of his defense doing nothing and having little success to show for it). When Henrik Larsson, one of the best penalty-kick takers in the world, misses a penalty kick, you know it just is not your day. This is not your father’s German side: This team is having fun; they’re flowing and fluid and just plain having a ball; I don’t know whether it is a function of being in Munich or not, but Germany’s attack just seems textbook mesmerizing when they play at Allianz Arena. The German backline, although still showing a few holes with minor mental lapses, kept their shape, marking Swede front man Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of existence. It keeps getting better and better for Germany with each passing game, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the field.
– How to deal with Argentina’s mesmerizing, flowing, attractive 3-3-1-3 attack that had taken apart everyone in group play? Mexico’s Ricardo LaVolpe, himself an Argentine, countered with a 3-4-3, with emphasis on putting numbers in midfield and limiting Juan Roman Riquelme and Javier Saviola, Argentina’s two main midfield playmakers, the space to create service into the box… It worked. This was the first game in this tournament in which Argentina had to spend more time in between the penalty areas than they were accustom to because Mexico was challenging them before they could make those beautiful one-touch passes going forward. Furthermore, with three front men (striker Jared Borgetti was back with help from two flankers), Argentina had to expend resources in their rear, further limiting the numbers they had normally sent forward. The Mexicans actually were able to show good attacking form, with Borgetti getting decent service in the box, making Argentine keeper Roberto Abbondanzieri have to work. The telling stat was that Mexico, not Argentina, had the majority of possession. It was truly surprising to witness Argentina have to slow their roll and build an attack from the back, a rather ironic switch in attacking approach. Mexican defender Rafa Marquez and Argentine defender Gabriele Heinze were critical in their respective rear guards, coming up big by closing down finishing chances. Given the solid tactical form of both teams it is appropriate that the three goals scored were on set pieces (Marquez, Hernan Crespo) and a long shot (Maxi Rodriquez). LaVolpe will take a lot of heat for leaving Omar Bravo, who had had a magnificent tournament on the right flank in support of the front men until now, on the bench, but give him credit for coming up with a tactic that made Argentina sweat this one out. It could have gone either way. As it is a tired Argentina (which escaped, let’s not kid ourselves) now has to play a hard charging Germany that is getting better with every match.
– Short on strikers due to the tournament-ending injury to Michael Owen, England look to work to their strength against Ecuador by employing a midfield-intensive 4-1-4-1, bringing in Michael Carrick to cover the middle of defense and freeing Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard of a lot of their defensive responsibilities to send them forward. England had lackluster results in the first half. Wayne Rooney, not a goal poacher under the best of circumstances, was the lone striker up front. At the knockout stage of this big a tournament, it is not the time to go conservative and try to make it with just one out-and-out striker (if you are going to have five midfielders, then go with a three-man backline and keep playing with two strikers). Neither team looked to attack with any regularity in the first half, and neither team took any real chances on goal. It’s as if they both were hoping to just wait on the other to wilt under the hottest day of the year in Germany – and it was really boring to watch. Ecuador maintained their defensive shape in both the midfield and defense, not letting Lampard, Gerrard or Rooney get finishing chances (they had fewer in this game than they had on any one of their previous games when they used a 4-4-2; might as well switch back). In case anybody needs to be reminded that David Beckham is one of the best midfielders in the world, his curling set piece goal will set you straight (doesn’t Posh look good as a dirty blonde?). Sometimes all it takes for things to open up is a score; England did a better job of finding their attackers afterwards. Still, not the greatest performance by an England side that has yet to put a full game of quality football together but seems to get the result regardless. That’s just plain luck – you can’t play this conservatively for any length of time at knockout time.
– Two evenly matched teams in Portugal and the Netherlands. Both teams got their midfields involved early and often (Mark van Bommel finally started getting into the attack), with Portugal getting the better attacking play from its center midfield pair of Deco and Maniche, who found the range on his long shots. Slightly better counterattacking from Portugal, whereas the Dutch seem to be content with trying to get long passes onto Arjen Robben’s feet, with little success. Dirk Kuyt just doesn’t have the nose for goal on the international level that Ruud van Nistelrooy has, but nobody has shown any nose for the goal for the Dutch in this tournament. In the first half Holland had an almost 3-2 possession advantage, but that accentuates the point that the Portuguese backline kept its form and organization and didn’t let the Dutch attack into the box with any regularity.  A good game for Portugal – and then the fatal error by Costinha, which got him sent off, caused Portugal to have to play the rest of the way with ten men, and inexorably changed the complexion of the match (this is one of the few times when I actually agree that a player deserved his sending off). Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the cards; things got nasty after about the 60th minute, when both sides got ugly and started throwing extremities and bodies all over the place, particularly at each other. Neither side recognized any control, sportsmanship or decorum, and the official lost any semblance of control (gee, there’s a shock, although this time I can’t really blame the officiating; these two teams were going to go at each other’s throats even with the great Pierluigi Colina on the pitch). A very badly played game all around, with Portugal gaining a Pyrrhic victory, having to go into their quarterfinal match with England without Deco and Costinha.
– Australia and Italy came to play! Both teams employed direct attacking tactics and strategies. Italy took Francesco Totti out of the starting lineup, put Genarro Gattuso as a bull in front of the defense, and brought in Alessandro del Peiro on the left wing to service the front men, basically making Andrea Pirlo the focal point of the attack. Australia had a three-man backline, put Marc Bresciano on the left wing in a five-man midfield, and pushed midfielder Tim Cahill up front to link up with lone striker Mark Viduka. Neither team let roots grow beneath their feet, and the ball spent very little time in the middle third of the field. Counterattacking was the name of the game: both teams got the ball directly to their front men, and both teams took a large number of shots on goal – both team’s goalkeepers and backlines were under siege. It was fun to watch. Australia did not come into this match intimidated by their Italian counterparts with the pedigree at this level. Italy, thought, had the slightly better ball movement, especially in the box. As usual with this tournament, the refereeing changed the entire complexion of the match, with Marco Matarazzi being red-carded for a possible bookable offense but not an automatic red card. Italy, though, clogged up the middle of the pitch and held the Australian attack at bay the rest of the way. I don’t know if the 93 minute foul by Lucas Neill in their penalty area really was a foul that deserved a Totti penalty kick, which won it, but I’m certain that a match like this did not deserve to end like this; Australia, as well as they played, didn’t deserve to go out like this. The referees are really taking the joy out of this World Cup.
– Switzerland was the fourth team since 1986 – when the current group and knockout format was first instituted – that shut out all of their group opponents… Now the bad news: The other three (Brazil 1986, Argentina 1990 and Italy 1998) didn’t win the World Cup. In their knockout match against the Ukraine, the best defense in this tournament thus far started without their best defender, Philippe Senderos. Neither team will bowl you over with their fluidity and creative flow. The Swiss were much more tactically rigid in the back and midfield. As usual, the Ukraine looked to play a less organized, direct attacking football – in this case meaning directly to Andrei Shevchenko. Both teams did on occasion, though, get players into the box and at least attempt to get them some service. Both teams were at their attacking best when they switched play to the flanks instead of going down the center, so you would have thought they would have figured that out. A rather stultifying, mind-numbingly cautious affair with no real quality going forward for either team. Not that I have a problem with extra time matches, but it sure would have been nice if they had re-instituted the Golden Goal rule for this one. Is anyone surprised that it went to penalty kicks. I realize that after 120 minutes your legs are jelly, but penalty kicks is definitely something Switzerland should work on in the future, cuz the ones they took SUCKED THE BIG PONY! The Swiss get to go away from this tournament with the best defense, a distinction I’m sure they would rather not have if it meant advancing (they now have dubious “honor” of being the fourth team since 1986 to not give up a goal in group play and not win the world title). The Ukraine gets Italy next, so they had better get their shit together and come up with some better attacking Real Soon Now.
– Ghana didn’t have their midfield general, Michael Essien, and it mattered. The organization and coordination going forward just wasn’t there. Ghana’s offside trap wasn’t working; Ronaldo and Adriano timed their forward runs well, and it left Ghana flat-footed and embarrassed (on Adriano’s score he was offside, so for once the officiating – you know, that old chestnut – fell down on the job for a call they didn’t make). Early in the match Ghana played as if they were in awe of the Brazilians, showing none of the pace and verve we had become accustomed to seeing from them. Ghana then got of the shneid, showed creative energy and flair, and played their game. They found some one-touch flair in the middle of the Brazil defense to create some chances, finding holes, moving off the ball, and running into space, with Eric Addo, a decent replacement for Essien, the focal point. Juan. Lucia, Ze Roberto and Emerson just weren’t closing down the middle throughout, and Ghana was playing better attacking football than Brazil, but they just couldn’t finish their chances (Brazil doesn’t have the chutzpah to take people on physically; instead they rely defensively on anticipation and cutting off service, and at this level you have to get into people’s grill). Gotta give it up to Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Pareirra for sticking with Ronaldo, who played his way into form and finally looks like a very useful member of the side; they guy sure can take some chances on goal. Brazil may have upset many of their fans by not playing that hypnotic, entertaining samba that they are known for, but they got the job done and rather efficiently. What should scare whoever is left in the field is that Brazil is winning like they are and they aren’t even playing their best football. In the end, Ghana’s reliance on the offside trap proved fatal. That said, Madd Props to Ghana for playing some of the most energized football in this tournament and embarrassing the Americans and Czechs in what clearly was the toughest group in the tournament.
– The Spain-France border war was the best fixture of the second round (typical of this World Cup, the last game has tended to be the best one). Both teams came out employing direct attacking formations, although France’s 4-5-1 was more midfield intensive and predicated on breaking the Spain offside trap by prying somebody loose in counter. France had the slightly better combination attack, putting their experience at spot-on passing to good use against Spain’s four-man backline. Spain’s three-man frontline, though, was giving France’s backline fits, getting service quickly from the flanks; Spain didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the midfield when they had possession. In the second half France started to put their mark on the game, with Zidane finally applying his deft creative touch to the attack. Similarly, Joaquin’s and Xabi Alonso’s insertion into the Spain lineup energized their forward attack. Both sides showed electrifying pace and took turns showering each other’s goal with shots. For fans it was fun to watch. In the end, the old grizzled veterans for France, Zidane and Patrick Viera, were the difference, able to put together enough direct attacking and set-piece brilliance. And once again Spain underachieved, not having the heart or ruthlessness to go deep with a team that clearly had superior talent. On July 1st we all get the pleasure of seeing the last two world champions go at it in the quarterfinals — a rematch of the 1998 World Cup Final in Paris – while the people of Spain once again get to spend the next four years wondering what happened.