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FIFA World Cup 2018: Knockout Round Day Four

Sweden 1-0 Switzerland

The Swedes came into this game looking to shut down the middle and get forward on the wings in a 4-2-2-2 formation, looking for Emil Forsberg to create things floating in from the left, Victor Claesson crossing the ball on the right, and Ola Toivonen the target man in the box getting the ball onto Marcus Berg. Switzerland limped into this game with a few players out through injury, employing a flexible 4-2-3-1 that played like a 4-5-1 in attack, playing the ball through sideline-to-sideline midfielder Granit Xhaka, with his primary attacking help coming from Xherdan Shaqiri on the right, Steven Zuber new to the starting XI trying to make runs forward on the left, and Josip Drmic the fourth starting target man in the box this tournament.

The Swiss were committed to play out of the back, find good starting positions and combinations, working the ball around, then finding a playing running into the box to cross it to. The Swiss are usually good at playing out of pressure, but they got careless in the back a few times and gave up good chances to the Swedes. Sweden were a little more direct, but not really finding an offensive rhythm. Sweden played a very deep back-line, which is why Switzerland was able to find space to pass the ball into. No surprise that the Swiss dominated the possession. The Swedes did a lot of work closing down space in the center, and their wingers were pressing the Swiss flankers. Both teams got shots off in the box, just not on goal, with some badly missed finishes that should have gone in.

Forsberg finally got on the end of a ball in front of the box in the 66th minute. The Swiss were getting really frustrated with the officiating, so they were putting bodies on a lot of Swedish players. Drmic was practically useless up front, not getting the ball in the box and not really a part of the Swiss offensive buildup. Sweden was very disciplined in the back after scoring, closing down the box to the Swiss and not giving them good looks at goal. It’s not always pretty, but there is a cohesion and a single-mindedness to Sweden that squeezes every ounce of performance out of those canary-yellow jerseys.

Colombia 1-1 England (3-4 pk)

Without their talisman James Rodriguez, Colombia employed a Christmas tree 4-3-2-1 formation, with Carlos Sanchez providing cover for the backline, Jefferson Lerma and Wilmar Barrios bringing the ball forward on the flanks, Radamel Falcao responsible for the chances in the box, and Juan Cuadrado and Juan Quintero trailing into the box to help. England took a chance with an adventuresome yet center-intensive 3-1-4-2, with Jordan Henderson protecting the backline, sideline-to-sideline technical midfielders Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard varying their runs all over the pitch, speedy Raheem Sterling breaking into the box to link up with Harry Kane waiting on the ball to take his chances on goal. A three-man backline meant that Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier were going to be busy both attacking and defending on the flanks.

Both these teams live and die on set pieces. A lot of youth and speed for the Three Lions, with Colombia trying to close down space through the center to discourage runs by Sterling, Alli and Lingard. Early on, Kane wasn’t finding space in the box to operate, so he was coming back deep to get the ball. England was doing a good job of closing down the forward thrust of Colombia on the flanks, pressing Cuadrado and Quintero up high and limiting their ability to get the ball forward. Falcao was not getting a lot of options in the box, as England’s three-man backline was good at cutting off his help.

For whatever reason, Colombia decided to get physical and chippy, challenging England everywhere on the pitch, grabbing and bullying (you would have thought the English would be prone to this). It cost them in the 57th minute when Carlos Sanchez dragged Kane down in the box and Kane converted the penalty. Of course, England’s score meant that Colombia started to get players into the attack, which predictably meant that there was now space for Alli, Lingard and especially Sterling to use their speed to exploit. England replaces Alli with Eric Dyer to provide more cover centrally in the back.

Colombia tried to get the ball into the box, but the Three Lions did a good job of closing down the final third, closing down channels to both run and pass into. Three minutes into extra time, England were uncharacteristically 6’s and 7’s on a Colombian corner and center back Yerry Mina scored his third goal of the tournament on the header. That took the wind out of England’s sails and gave Columbia extra energy in their game, especially on the left side. It was as if England just couldn’t get over having victory taken from the jaws of defeat in extra time. England were the better team throughout. It would have been disappointing had they not made it through on penalties.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Knockout Round of 16 Preview

The Round of Sixteen

Group play is done and the round of 16 knockout stage is set.  Group play went pretty much as expected, except for two major surprises.  The top seeds in Groups F (Germany) and H (Poland) were both unexpectedly eliminated.  This was particularly startling for defending World Cup champion Germany in Group F, which lost to Mexico in its opening match and then, needing a win to advance in its final group game against South Korea, the third lowest-ranked team in the tournament, not only failed to win the contest, but allowed two late goals to lose 2-0. 

The Germans had never before failed to advance out of group play.  This was one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history and will surely cause all kinds of changes in Germany’s World Cup management, likely starting with coach Jogi Low’s job.  Overall, it should come as no surprise that 10 of 14 European squads and 4 of 5 South American squads advanced.  Only Mexico and Japan represent other continents and neither are likely to advance much further.

So what to expect now that the knockout rounds are starting?  Here’s a look at the Round of 16 matchups.  In each case, the team listed first won their group and the team listed second finished second in another group.

Uruguay vs. Portugal

Uruguay was one of 3 teams to win all three group matches.  Of course, this was to be expected given that Group A was statistically the easiest group of all time.  Despite the lack of real competition, La Celeste managed just five goals.  By way of comparison, Russia in the same group scored 8 goals despite getting none against Uruguay.  Strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani have nearly 100 international goals between them, but are both 31 and slowing down.  Against tougher defenses in the knockout rounds, Uruguay may be hard pressed to find the back of the net. 

Portugal, despite the presence of one of the greatest players of all time in reigning FIFA player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, is a perennially underachieving World Cup Squad.  After an exciting 3-3 draw with Spain in their first group game, Portugal did not inspire in a 1-0 win over Morocco and 1-1 draw with Iran.  I can see this match going either way, but give a slight overall advantage to Portugal and I think they will edge Uruguay.

France vs. Argentina

This is a match-up of two former champions who were both the top seed in their group.  Neither looked at their best in group play.  France managed just three goals in three games, but a stout defense allowed just one goal.  Les Bleus beat the teams they were supposed to beat, while finishing in a nil-nil draw against a tough Denmark squad.  Argentina also only scored three times, while giving up five goal, including three in a stunning 3-0 loss to Croatia. 

The Argentines barely qualified for the tourney and barely made it out of group play.  Superstar Lionel Messi was unable to create as brilliantly as he usually does on offense and the defense was overwhelmed at times.  I think France prevails in the match-up because their defense will bottle up Messi and their offense will find opportunities against the leaky Argentina defense.

Brazil vs. Mexico

Perennial contender Brazil won their group as expected, but did not look  to be at their best.  Their star Neymar Jr. found himself getting beat up constantly and he looked the worse for the wear, but he doesn’t do himself any favors by taking dives at every opportunity.  Brazil’s chances at contending may depend on Neymar’s health. 

Despite winning their first two games, including their startling upset of Germany, Mexico needed help from South Korea in order to advance as Sweden dealt them a crushing 3-0 blow in their final group contest.  El Tri found success early in group play with passes down the flanks, letting their wingers outrace defenses to the ball.  The Swedes shut that down and Mexico may have to find new ways to score now that Sweden has shown how to defend them.  Brazil should easily prevail against Mexico because they know how to win at this level and Mexico does not.

Belgium vs. Japan

Belgium came into the tournament ranked #3 in the world after cruising easily through qualifying.  The Red Devils also made quick work of their group, ending with a +7 goal differential, the highest in group play.  Japan, on the other hand, was a surprise survivor in Group H.  Samurai Blue came in as one of the lowest ranked teams, but managed to beat eventual group champion Colombia in their first game, before drawing against Senegal and losing to Poland. 

They advanced over Senegal because they incurred fewer yellow cards.  That was the last tiebreaker before drawing lots.  This is called the fair play tiebreaker.  Yes, advancement to the knockout round was decided by which team was nicer on the field.  This game should be an easy win for Belgium.  That being said, Belgium showed some lapses in their defense during group play, particularly against Tunisia, and may find difficulty against a good offensive squad later in the knockout rounds.

Spain vs. Russia

Spain won the World Cup in 2010, but like Germany this year, failed to advance out of group play in 2014.  They redeemed themselves by winning Group B this year, but it wasn’t pretty with two draws and one win.  La Furia Roja found the back of the net often, but gave up almost as many goals, including one caused by an unforgivable error by Spanish goalie Daniel de Gea.  The best defenses usually fare well as the Cup goes on, so that does not bode well for the Spanish. 

The only reason Russia advanced out of the group stage was the historically bad group that they were in and probably bought.  They scored a lot of goals against bad teams before being shut down by Uruguay.  Unless the refs throw the game Russia’s way, their tournament ends against Spain.

Croatia vs. Denmark

Croatia was the surprise winner of Group D, but they earned it with their utter domination of Argentina, a balanced scoring attack, and allowance of only one goal in three games.  Croatia was the lowest ranked team to win all their group matches and looked far better than their ranking.  Manager Zlatko Dalic was brought on late in qualifying and has made a huge positive impact on the squad. 

Denmark managed just two goals while only allowing one in their one win and two draws in group play.  This is a team that plays a compact defense and waits and waits and waits for opportunities.  They are not very creative, preferring to play solid defense and hoping for the best on offense.  With Croatia’s far better attack, they should prevail against the Danes.

Sweden vs. Switzerland

Sweden was the one team that the disappointing German team actually beat, when the Swedes allowed a late goal by a man down German squad.  Sweden throttled Mexico and South Korea to win the group, but they are not a ball possession squad, instead preferring to hold their ground on defense and finding counterattack opportunities.  Their defense will serve them well in the knockout rounds, but they may lack enough offense to go far. 

Switzerland scored the same number of goals (5) as Sweden in group matches, but did so in the Group of Death and with an attack that showed greater creativity and ball possession.  The Swedes scored three of their five goals in the second half against a Mexican team that was falling apart.  Although Sweden is the group winner here, the Swiss should win this matchup by controlling the middle of the field and getting more scoring opportunities.

Colombia vs. England:

Colombia needed a win in their final group match to advance and managed to hold on for a 1-0 win, despite a furious Senegal attack.  The Colombians showed inconsistency in the group, losing to the low-ranked Japanese team, while crushing the group favorite Poland.  That does not bode well for further advancement.  England roughed up Tunisia and Panama in the group stage, as expected, before running into the Belgian juggernaut. 

Only the Belgians scored more goals than the English and the English captain, Harry Kane, is currently the Golden Boot leader.  Although they lost to Belgium 1-0, it was a hard fought game in which the English acquitted themselves well while playing many reserves.  The English look like the better squad here and I expect them to outscore the Colombians.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group G and H Third Matches

Senegal 0-1 Colombia: Senegal went with a safe 4-4-2 that played like a 4-2-2-2, with Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate providing cover for the backline, the creative talisman Sadio Mane on the left and speedy Ismaila Sarr getting deep in the right, Mbaye Niang the target man up front partnering with Keita Balde, who was expected to finish. Columbia played a 4-2-3-1 that played like a 4-5-1 when they needed to send numbers forward. The creative force coming in from the left was James Rodriguez, but Juan Cuadrado was expected to make attacking runs from the right, with Ramadel Falcao holding up play for false-9 Juan Quintero trailing in. When Senegal had the ball in the final third, Mane, Niang, and Balde rotated throughout.

Colombia took a little time to get into their rhythm, which is short, crisp passes in the center. Senegal coach Aliou Cisse wanted his player to be creative with the ball on their feet. When Rodriguez went out with an injury in the 34th minute, the Colombian attack seemed to stall, like they were stuck in second gear, never finding that extra gear. Senegal was really organized, picking balls off in the midfield. At around the 60th minute Columbia got some inspired attacking from Quintero, who took on the talisman role with Rodriguez out, and Cuadrado got on the ball and into the box more effectively. Falcao just wasn’t getting the ball in the box much, shut down as he was by the Senegalese backline. A Yerry Mina header on a corner was the difference in this game in the 74th minute.

Needless to say, as soon as there was a score, Senegal sent numbers forward in an attempt to get on the board. Mane made several forays into the box, but Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina was there to thwart it. Niang had a tough time getting on the end of the ball, so he was replaced late by Diafra Sakho. Senegal was level on points, goals, and goal differential with Japan at the end, but Senegal gets eliminated on the new fair play rule. FIFA needs to find a better tiebreaker than who has the least yellow cards.

Japan 0-1 Poland: Japan used a hybrid 4-5-1 that morphed into a 4-4-2 with two major changes; Yoshinori Muto was the starting target man up front holding the ball up for Shinji Okazaki joining him up top in a false-9 role. No real midfielder creator, so the wingers Takashi Usami and Gotoku Sakai were expected to bring the ball forward on the flanks. Poland, already eliminated from the tournament and with nothing to lose, experimented with an attacking 3-4-3, with deep-lying playmaker Grzegorz Krychowiak roaming from the center linking up with forwards Kamil Grosicki and Piotr Zielinski, trying to get striker Robert Lewandowski the service and help in the box he just hadn’t been getting. Japan was composed and sound on the ball, they keep the ball very well and have a fine balance; if someone goes forward, someone covers them. Japan was smart enough to let Lewandowski have just a little space, because they knew if they got a body on him he has the size and strength and turn and get a trailing player to help him. Poland could not allow the game to get stretched, because that suits Japan where they can be efficient with their passing, move into areas, and before you know it they are running at your backline.

Both teams were good at transitioning back on defense when not on the ball. Japan was at their best attacking when Muto trailed back and got the ball and his flankers Usami and Sakai got forward in front of him. Except for the one goal (a set piece goal by Jan Bednarek in the 59th minute), Japan’s defense was quite disciplined in the center, not allowing Poland to get through the middle, forcing them to have to use the flanks for the most part, interrupting the Polish attack at midfield. The center of Poland’s defense, Jan Bednarek and Kamil Glik, held firm all game long, and they had to; Japan ran at the heart of it all game long. Lewandowski had a horrible tournament, never allowed to get the ball on his feet in the box; he needed help and got none. It is obvious that the way to stop as prolific a scorer as Lewandowski is to cut off his service.

England 0-1 Belgium: Lots of changes for this top-of-the-table fixture for two teams already in the knockout stage; out of 22 postions, 19 different players started from their previous group fixtures. England looked to stay on the ball and employ an attacking 3-1-4-2. Eric Dier looked to break up play in front of the back three, and England Manager Gareth Southgate wanted to see what Trent Alexander-Arnold could do on the right side servicing James Vardy and Marcus Rashford up top. Belgium likes to filter numbers centrally in a 3-4-2-1 formation, with Thorgan Hazard taking his brother Eden’s spot on the left filtering inside, Moussa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini in the center given the keys to the car to make the Belgian attack run, and Youri Tielemans and Adnan Januzaj rotating up top with striker Michy Batshuayi.

Early on this game was about who could pin whose wingers back, not giving them the space to move forward. Belgium’s attack was not nearly as dynamic without Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard in the engine room. Alexander-Arnold showed a lot of calmness and flair on the right with his thrusts down the flank and service into the box; at 19 he was given a lot of responsibility in this game, and he performed capably in his first World Cup. Danny Rose, on the other hand, was less effective on the left. I like what I saw from Fallaini, who made several well-timed forays into the box with the ball on his feet, putting the England back three on their heels. With this many substitution, you kinda had to figure that the tempo, flow and rhythm that we had seen from both these teams in their first two fixtures would be interrupted.

In the 51st minute, England let Belgium have a little too much possession in the final third, allowing Januzaj to pick his spot on the right side of the box for a finisher. After that, England started to get a lot of offensive buildup through the center with sideline-to-sideline midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, While Belgium started filtering their passing through the sides. Not a disappointing loss for England, and certainly not a statement win for Belgium. This would have ben a much better game if both teams still had had something to play for. But given how both teams played, you have to wonder if either can regain the momentum they had coming into this game.

Panama 1-2 Tunisia: The best game of the day turned out to be this one between two teams that had already been eliminated and had the freedom to play with no pressure. Panama came out in a 4-3-3 that played like a 4-1-4-1 when they wanted a more disciplined approach, with Gabriel Gomez providing cover for the backline, Ricardo Avila and Anibal Godey the sideline-to-sideline midfielders expected to run into space going forward, Jose Luis Rodriguez and Edgar Barcenas on the upper flanks servicing the ball inside to lone target man Gabriel Torres. Tunisia played a similar 4-3-3 formation but was a little more compact, with their crafty playmaking talisman Wahbi Khazri playing up top, rotating players in and out from sideline to sideline, so they were going to rely on movement both on and off the ball between the midfield and front players. Tunisia were on their third goalkeeper in Aymen Mathlouthi due to injuries.

Tunisia’s approach seemed to work better, passing the ball from one side to the other, moving the ball back and forth even in the final third, being patient and getting players running in and out to create opportunities (why didn’t they play like this all along?). Tunisia’s movement up front really confused the Panamanian defense. As a result, when Panama did get possession they were out of sync and there was decided lack of precision in the attack; they tried to get forward quickly but lacked an organized effort. It is of particular note that the lone goal scored by Panama was by own-goal (Yassine Meriah in the 33rd minute, although on that particular Panamanian buildup the Tunisian backline was 6’s & 7’s). To deal with the constant Tunisian movement up front, it looked like Panama was dropping five back in defense. The two attacking players that were expected to score for Tunisia – Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (in the 51st minute) and especially the striker up top Wahbi Khazri (in the 66th minute) – finally got on the board this tournament.

Both Tunisian goals were as clinical as they come, as the Panamanian backline left too many wide open spaces and did not communicate with each other. Panama did get some long passes into the attacking third in the last 25 minutes, but nothing they could get on the end of to finish. Panama finished them off with possession and tight defending in the back. It’s a shame we didn’t see this kind of attacking rhythm from Tunisia all along.

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