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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group C and D Second Matches

Denmark 1-1 Australia: This was the back-and-forth, evenly matched game I expected it to be. Both teams play a combination game, putting passes together to work their way up the field in attack. The Danes did a better job of staying composed, closing down, maintaining pace, keeping the ball, and finding angles. The better quality shots were taken by the Danes. Both teams play a similar attacking style; get the ball forward, play up-tempo, make the other team uncomfortable when they don’t have the ball. A surprising amount of this game was played on both ends despite the lack of counterattacks and quick long balls from end to end. Aggressive pressure in the box by both teams led to either team being 6’s and 7’s on their goals in the first half; first by a lapse in judgment in the Australian backline leading to a quick goal by Dane talisman Christian Eriksen, then later a handball in the box by Yussuf Poulsen leading to a Mile Jedinak penalty for Australia.

The Socceroos were at their best defensively when they kept Eriksen off the ball. The last 45 minutes saw the Socceroos putting more pressure on the Danes, closing them down more when they had the ball. Denmark was at their best when first Poulsen and then his substitute Martin Braithewaite made strides down the right side on the attacking end. Australia still wasn’t making long passes into the attacking end, but they were getting downfield more with quick combination passing. Kasper Schmeichel came up big for Denmark in goal, living up to his famous father’s name. Don’t be fooled by the score; this was a battle from beginning to end.

France 1-0 Peru: I was surprised to see that for the first time in years, French midfielder Paul Pogba did not have some kind of colored dye in his hair. Peru can certainly create a lot of chances, but they just can’t seem to find the net. Peru’s tactics are simple; get the ball down the flanks long, hold up play and hope a trailing attacker will fill the space up front to put the ball on. It kind of make Les Bleus tentative at the beginning, staying back in a tactically rigid 5-4-1. France were noticeably better in the air on headers and 50/50 balls. When Olivier Giroud was linking up with Kylian Mbappe, France was much more fluid and coordinated in the final third. Good defensive resistance from Peru, but you kind of got the sense that Pogba-Mbappe-Greizmann linkup would eventually break through. It happened when Mbappe got free in the center.

A more controlled attack by Peru in the second half, as they played with a sense of urgency, keeping Les Bleus pinned in their own end trying to stave off the furious Peru attack. French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris stepped up, keeping the many Peru chances out of the net. With about 25 minute left, Peru played a little more direct, getting the ball into the attacking third a lot faster, trying to find the equalizer. To withstand the onslaught, French coach Didier Deschampe brought on fresh legs in Ousmane Dembele, Nabil Fekir, and Steven N’Zonzi. I kept waiting for forwards Paolo Guerrero, Christian Cuevo, and Andre’ Carrillo to put the ball in the back of the net given how many chances they all had in this and the previous game against Denmark, but they just couldn’t seem to finish. A surprisingly quiet game from Antoine Greizmann. France didn’t win; they survived.

Argentine 0-3 Croatia: The key to this game was the play on the wings, because Argentina used a rigid center back three, the Croatians looked to move the ball forward quickly on the flanks. Nobody does a better job of finding space for himself in the box than Lionel Messi, but in this tournament he his having issues finishing, highly unusual for him. The best way for Croatia to interrupt the otherworldly creativity of Messi and Kun Aguerro was to get physical and disrupt their rhythm and flow. Obviously the point of attack for Croatia was talisman Luka Modric, so every time he got the ball on his feet, there was defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano to close him down. Argentina didn’t seem to play the nervy, one-two combination game that characterizes them, seeming to be just a little too conservative, leaving some good playmakers on the bench. It just looked like Messi was having a hard time getting off the schneid. That goal by Croat Ante Rebic was a gift, a fatal error by Caballero. That got Argentine coach Jorje Sampaoli to bring on Gonzalo Higuain in place of Aguerro. Aguerro was playing up high in the box, trying to split the Croatian defenders but not getting enough space to get a shot off. Huguain moved around a little more off the ball.

As an aside, I love the sight of spectator Diego Maradona biting his fingernails nervously after Argentina went down by a goal. In an attempt to get more finishers up front, Argentina brought on Paulo Dybala and crowded the forward attack with as many as five players, dropping Messi back in support. Argentina just weren’t playing with any width; they have among the best wingers in the world and they just aren’t utilizing them. They totally lacked creativity on the ball, finishing up front, and their talisman, Messi, practically disappeared in the second half. On the second goal by Modric, it looked like Argentina just gave up. To say that Croatia’s midfield just ran over Argentina is an understatement. After that Argentina was 6’s and 7’s, unorganized and unmotivated, getting caught too far upfield on Croatia’s last goal by Ivan Rakitic’. How Argentina gets out of this is beyond me. Just no heart.

Nigeria 2-0 Iceland: Nigeria employed a more adventuresome 3-5-2 scheme for this one, looking to get flankers Bryan Idowu and Victor Moses more into the attack going forward and relying on Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi to interrupt the Icelandic attack in the center of midfield. What’s more telling is that Nigeria went with a 19-year-old in goal, Francis Uzoho. Nigeria has the youngest team in this tournament, while Iceland has the tallest. The game plan for Iceland is simple: use their size to win the ball – especially on 50/50 balls – then get the ball quickly to their linkup player Gylfi Sigurdsson. Nigeria’s game plan was to play the ball diagonally, stretching Iceland on the wings and in the back. The referee in this game as a lot less rigid in calling physical play than in other fixtures.

Nigeria caught Iceland with too many players forward early in the second half; Moses got the ball on the right flank with only two Icelandic players back and quickly got the ball in to target man Ahmed Musa in the box, who finished off a one-timer. I don’t think Iceland is built to play any differently when they get behind. If Iceland was going to get back into this game, they had to stop giving up significant possession to the Super Eagles. Predictably, Iceland started sending numbers forward, which left them vulnerable in the back and on the flanks, which gave Nigeria ample opportunities on goal. Musa’s second goal proved this. Wow! Iceland got a lifeline with a penalty and Sigurdsson misses wildly (Uzoho didn’t even have to do anything). The Super Eagles stuck to their tactical rigidity in the back and it paid off.


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World Cup 2018: Group D First Matches

Group D opened play with heavy group favorite and two-time champion Argentina taking on World Cup darlings Iceland, making their first Cup appearance ever.  Imagine a game where one team had the ball over 70% of the time, completed their passes 92% of the time, had over 700 passes while the other team had less than 200,  took 26 shots to the other team’s 9, and had 10 corners vs. 2 for the other team.  You would expect that game to be a blowout.  The beauty of the beautiful game though is that dominance on the field does not always translate to wins.

As expected, Argentina dominated the ball from the get go.  Iceland was back on its heels and forced to bring everyone back on defense and to play rough.  The continued pressure by the Argentine offense finally achieved success when Sergio Aguero found a glimmer of space on a turn around shot that found the upper corner of the goal.  With the lead in hand, Argentina relaxed and Iceland pressed forward.  A shot across the box was deflected by Wilfredo Caballero, the Argentine goalie and onto the foot of Alfred Finnbogason among a sea of defenders.  Finnbogason buried the equalizer in the back of the net.  Argentina continued it’s offensive onslaught in the second half and earned a penalty kick after an unnecessary trip by an Icelandic defender.  Superstar Lionel Messi took the kick and directed it to the left corner, but goalie Hannes Halldorsson, a filmmaker when not playing futbol, guessed right and made the diving save.  Messi did not hit the ball hard and one wonders why he was taking the kick in the first place as he has only made 50% of his penalty kicks lately.  This failure would haunt Argentina the rest of the way as Iceland packed its defense, sending multiple men to mark Messi and rarely advancing to the other side of the field.  Iceland was content to play for the draw, taking no shots in the second half.  Argentina never figured out how to break through this defensive effort and the 1-1 draw was not the result they expected.

The other group D game featured Croatia and the tourney’s youngest team, Nigeria.  Unlike the Argentina-Iceland match, this game was spent with a lot of back and forth pushes.  Both teams found opportunities.  Nigeria repeatedly went to Victor Moses down the right wing, but while he delivered many good crosses into the box, a solid Croatian defense put out any fires before they started.  30 minutes in, Croatia broke through on a corner kick onto the near side of the goal box where it was headed into the middle.  Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic drove a diving header off a defender and into the corner of the goal from there.  Other than that goal, neither team had a shot on goal in the first half.  The Super Eagles started strong in the second half using superior speed and switching the point of attack to create opportunities.  Like the first half though, they cannot finish.  Croatia’s offense was not putting anything on goal either.  Midway in the second half, a Croatian pass into the Nigerian box resulted in defender William Troost-Ekong making a football, not a futbol, tackle, wrapping his arms around Mandzukic and pulling him to the ground.  Croatian captain Luka Modric drilled the resulting penalty kick into the bottom left corner for a 2-0 lead.  Down by two, one would expect Nigeria to play with some desperation and push the attack, but, if anything, Croatia did a better job controlling the pace through the end of the game.  The victory left Croatia in sole possession of first place of Group D, but with tough games against Argentina and Iceland yet to play.

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5. Argentina

What Went Right?  Fantastic movement off the ball, and more times than not they employed a surprisingly patient offensive buildup, something you didn’t see in previous incarnations of this side. Took take advantage of space, with combination passing that sustained attacks and ball possession. Made efficient use of east-west, north-south, and diagonal runs and passes. They were very good at beating the offside trap and getting behind the opposition backline, and were even better at finding cracks in the defense to exploit. Spread the opposition by frequently switching play. Got fantastic service into the box, and because they played with three finisher up front running into the box every time they took a shot, they were the best in the tournament at creating multiple shots on goal on the rebound. When not in possession they did a good job of maintaining tactical discipline and rigidity. Midfield was pretty good at interrupting the opposition attack, so Argentina also was pretty adept at sudden counterattacks. Defense on the flanks was pretty decent and got surprising close-down play from the fullbacks. They got very good use out of their bench. Bottom line: They tactically played typical Argentine football.

What Went Wrong?  Didn’t make any changes in approach or personnel on the rare occasions when things weren’t working, and in their quarterfinal exit to Germany, things went horribly wrong. Quite frankly, Argentina couldn’t make the necessary changes because this team was a one-trick pony: Get the ball to Lionel Messi and everybody else get the hell out of the way. No side in this tournament leaned so heavily on one player. Trying to get one magical, blessed-by-God player to carry a team to a championship in the era of tactical rigidity and discipline and the total team whole is greater than the sum of its parts concept is just a fool’s errand. It looks good and is pleasing to watch, but like the W-M and 2-3-5 formations it just doesn’t work anymore. Until the quarterfinals teams tried to shut down Messi. It didn’t work because it created space for Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain to do their thing. Plus, Messi just has the unmatched ball skills to break down multiple defenders, so closing him down just wasn’t cutting it. But Germany didn’t waste time trying to close down Messi. Instead Joachim Loew had his two star defensive midfielders Sami Khedira and Bastien Schweinsteiger cut off Messi’s service. That is, Germany interrupted the Argentine attack before it could even get the ball to Messi. When that happened, Argentina was lost. They couldn’t get anybody to be the focal point of the attack because THEY DIDN’T HAVE ANYBODY ELSE! What’s more, when Germany or anybody else was able to interrupt the Argentine attack in the midfield, the quick counterattack was able to reveal just how soft the center of Argentina’s defense really was.

Who Stepped Up To The Plate?  Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain were one of the two or three best strike partnerships in the tournament. They were able to get on the end of fantastic service in the box and were Johnny-on-the-spot on put-backs. Lionel Messi didn’t raise his game to legendary status like most of us thought he would and Argentina was counting on, but he was everywhere and did everything. Messi created virtually all of the Albiceleste attack, so if it wasn’t for him Tevez and Higuain don’t score their goals. It fell on Javier Mascherano to provide cover for the backline (God knows they needed it) and Juan Sebastian Veron to capably orchestrate the attack, and they performed capably. Fullbacks Gabriel Heinze and Jonas Gutierrez did a fine job covering the wings in the back. I liked the contributions Nicolas Burdisso, Clemente Rodriguez, Nicolas Otamendi, Diego Milito, Martin Palermo and Sergio Aguero made coming off the bench

Who Didn’t Show Up?  If it wasn’t for Mascherano and Veron then we would have found out a lot sooner about how soft and deficient Walter Samuel and Martin DeMichelis really were in front of goal (a shame really; both used to be world-class centers). Sergio Romero is just another in a long line of Argentine goalkeepers going back close to 20 years who are mediocre and best and do nothing to get you wins. Angel di Maria and Maxi Rodriguez could have taken the attacking onus off of Messi some if they had been just a little better at making inroads down the flanks, but they didn’t. Even though Messi sublime ball skills create a lot of space and chances for his forward partners – and he did take a lot of shots himself – he just wasn’t able to put the ball in the net. If he had scored just one or two goals and everything else being equal, that probably would have been enough to put a scare in Argentina’s knockout round opponents, changed the complexion of those games and arguably gotten them to July 11. Just a thought.

How Was The Coaching?  To say the least, flamboyant and colorful. By far the most popular coach in this tournament was Diego Maradona – and he lived up to his ostentatious persona. More passionate fan and loveable motivator to his charges than football tactician, Maradona gladly accepted the onus of getting the Albiceleste a World Cup, if not having the technical wherewithal. More mad hatter than cerebral thinker, Maradona’s antics did have a purpose: He took all the attention, and in the process kept his players from having to feel the pressure of expectations. His over-the-top exuberance and constant bear hugs put his players at ease, and created a stable team. But the pure passion, energy and motivation he relied on could only take them so far. As the Germans clinically and mercilessly picked his midfield apart, Maradona had no answers because (1) in making Messi the absolute focal point of the attack he did not have anybody else on his roster to take up the onus if Messi got shut down (“Where Have You Gone, Juan Roman Riquelme?” – sung to the tune of the famous Simon & Garfunkel song), and (2) Maradona himself didn’t have the tactical know-how to figure out what to do. As much as we all loved having El Diego around to make life interesting, I’d have to say at the end of the day his deficient roster choices combined with his lack of X’s and O’s means his coaching performance overall was seriously lacking.

Did They Finish Where They Were Expected?  Well, I thought that Messi was going to become this otherworldly legend, put the side on his shoulders, and win the World Cup in spite of Maradona’s lack of tactical know-how. Clearly I was wrong. I think most observers, however, had them finishing about where they did. Of course, the people of Argentina certainly are disappointed with this finish.

Now What?  Sorry, Argentina, but as much as you revere Diego Maradona, unless he learns the world-class intricacies of coaching tactical and technical football, then he has to go. Messi can still be the focal point of the attack but you would do well to get him some creative help both in the center and on the flank. Do something to develop a goalkeeper that at least approaches the consistency of the last good one you had at this level, Sergio Goycochia. And for God sakes get some decent central defenders.