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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group E and F Second Matches

Brazil 2-0 Costa Rica: Costa Rica played a compact, discipline 5-4-1, looking to sit back, win the ball and hit Brazil on the quick counterattack. Unlike in 2014, Brazil didn’t rely on flanker Neymar to score, but they did rely on the attack to flow through him this time around and get the ball into the box for Phillippe Coutino or Willian to finish. Brazil’s midfield did a good job of staying in front of the Costa Rican attack, not giving them the space to counter. More of a possession-intensive game by Brazil, kind of like the “tici-taci” game we are used to seeing from Spain. Costa Rica did a good job of closing down the Brazilian wingers Wagner and Marcelo early on, and the back three did a good job of keeping Brazil out of the box as long as they stuck together as a unit. Clearly Neymar is a marked man; opposition strategy throughout this tournament will be to put a body on him and beat him up. Costa Rica did a lot of switching play from side to side, making Brazil have to run around the pitch. About 25 minutes in Neymar began to find his rhythm, finding holes on the flank and gaining momentum. When that happens he brings the whole team with him.

In the second half, Brazil started to find holes in the back three of Costa Rica, making them panic in the box. Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas was awake and alert and he had to be, he was under siege for the last 45 minutes. I don’t have a problem with the Neymar penalty being overturned by VAR; he definitely embellished the minimal contact in the box. Too much of this game was played in the Costa Rican box in the second half, so it was no surprise that Phillipe Coutino finally got on the end of one in stoppage time. Neymar delived the dagger 5 minutes later. Costa Rico was a tough nut to crack defensively, but when you give up the possession they allowed, bad things eventually happen.

Serbia 1-2 Switzerland: Expected a tactically rigid and physical game from both sides and that’s exactly what we got. Identical 4-2-3-1 formations that relied on the two holding midfielders to clog up the middle of the pitch and introduce the attack going forward. So the influence and playmaking happened out wide. The second tallest team in the tournament made their presence felt in the fifth minute when target man Aleksandar Mitrovic got his head on a Dusan Tadic cross to put it in the back of the net. Mitrovic did exactly what a target man is supposed to do; get the ball up top, and either hold up play for trailing attackers to get into the box or take a shot himself. Switzerland’s backline looked disjointed and out of shape. Their attack was bewildering; they spent too much time trying to make thrusts forward through the middle (exactly into the Serbian strength) and not enough time going down the flanks where they could open things up.

Winger Aleksandar Kolarov and Tadic were especially effective on either flank for the Serbs. The Swiss ruled the possession, but the Serbs were so good in transition, getting back and maintaining their defensive shape quickly, making the Swiss have to just pass the ball back and forth. The Swiss didn’t so much get the ball down the flanks as much as they kind of methodically worked their way down the flanks. Xherdan Shaqiri made more runs at holding midfielders Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic, who were both sitting on yellow cards. Switzerland finally caught the Serbs slow on transition, and Swiss talisman Granit Xhaka buried a long range shot. As the game got more open and back and forth, it also got more chippy; every single ball got contested, but both teams played to win. Shaquiri’s runs at the Serbian center paid off in the 90th minute on a fast break. Gotta give it to the Swiss; they got it together enough to get full points.

South Korea 1-2 Mexico: South Korea looked to play very conservatively with a 4-4-2 formantion, while Mexico was going to be more adventuresome with three forwards in a 4-3-3 formation. It was apparent from the start that the Koreans were going to take people on, closing down Mexico’s speedy forwards and especially Javier Hernandez and Guardado. Mexico showed a lot of movement diagonally both on and off the ball, leaving Korea with having to get in front of them, especially in the middle third, trying to interrupt El Tri’s attack. The best Korean attacks came on the counter, especially down the flank. Mexico’s best chance was to manage tempo and try to keep possession, play from side to side. The penalty goal by Carlos Vela meant that Korea had to chase the game and take more chances both in the back and going forward. Korea became more aggressive but they still did not send numbers forward, relying on quick runs, by two or three players, and long passes into the attacking third. Yet Mexico did not play any differently after the goal, playing with width and maintaining possession.

Despite their lack of size the Koreans were dangerous on set pieces and 50/50 balls. At about the 60th minute you could tell that the humidity in Rostov-on-Don was getting to both sides, as both backlines were having to react to quick pressure from each other. Good to see world-class defender Rafa Marquez come on in his fifth World Cup; his purpose was to settle in front of the Mexican backline and act as a stopper before the Korean attack got into the box. Because Korea sent so many numbers forward, they were exposed in the back, and when Mexico interrupted a Korean attack in the 66th minute, Korea had nobody back to stop Hernandez on a quick counter for a score. Gotta give it to South Korea, they never gave up, and kept up the pressure at the heart of the Mexican backline, which finally wilted and allowed a stoppage time goal to Korean Son Heung-Min. Too little too late.

Germany 2-1 Sweden: Even though Sweden play are careful 4-4-2 formation, they looked to play more adventuresome down the left wing with talisman Emil Forsman. Germany planned to move the ball around in a 4-5-1 formation, hoping to get Marco Reus and Toni Kroos to apply pressure going forward, with Tomas Meuller more in the center of attack as opposed to his usual ramsteuter on the right. The Swedish defense was pack tight, but Germany still managed to find space, especially on the left, where winger Jonas Hector and flanker Julian Draxler found room to operate in the final third. I expected Sweden to give up much of the possession and quickly go on the counter when they did get it, but to give up as much possession as they did is just self-defeating. Germany plays a notoriously high backline considering it is only two center backs (Jérôme Boateng and Antonio Rüdiger); It cost them in the 30th minute when Viktor Claesson stole the ball at midfied and sent a cultured through ball on to target man Ola Toivonen, who got loose behind the center of the German backline and buried it. In an attempt to get more creativity going forward, German coach Joakim Low moved Meuller back to his customary ramsteuter on the right, and Marco Reus moved inside.

You would think given how badly Germany handled the counterattack in their loss to Mexico that that part of their game would improve this time; it didn’t. By subbing Mario Gomez for Julian Draxler, Germany was going with four men up front in a 4-2-4 overload. It worked immediately; Reus scored on a one-timer three minutes in. Boateng gets sent off on a silly foul in the box with ten minutes left, so you would think with their tournament lives on the line, Germany would have to play the rest of the game more carefully. They did not. Germany kept up the possession and the pressure, keeping Sweden on their backheels, resulting in a short set piece free kick that Kroos buried from the left edge of the box in stoppage time. Sweden was so close to eliminating the defending world champions, but a desperate and classic Germany, a team that has historically known how to grind out results, pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat. NOW THAT WAS A FINISH!

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World Cup 2018: Group F First Matches

Group F kicked off with the first match of defending champion Germany facing off against Mexico.  El Tri came out the aggressor and some good passing led to a great early opportunity that was only denied by a sliding block from long-time German defender Jerome Boateng.  The ensuing corner kick bounced off a German defender and rolled lazily across the mouth of the box, but no one could capitalize before the goalie finally pounced on it.  Both teams managed good pushes upfield, the Germans using short passes and controlled possession, while the Mexicans used long passes to great advantage particularly down the left wing.  For much of the first half, Germany got the better shots, but they weren’t making the Mexican goalie move much.  Mexico’s first good opportunity came about 34 minutes in on a through ball to Miguel Layon, but the pass is a touch too hard.  A minute later though came a great Mexican sequence.  A steal outside of their own box and a quick pass to midfield started a quick counterattack.  Mexican star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez started a deft give and go and attacked the German defense down the middle before laying the ball to the left side for Hirving Lozano, who picked it up in stride in the box.  Lozano made a quick stop and turn toward the middle to beat a defender and launched a rocket to the bottom left corner of the net beyond the diving goalie.  It was as pretty a sequence as you will see with the steal to the goal running almost the length of the field in less than 10 seconds.  The Mexicans seemed invigorated by the goal and launch several other quick counterattack opportunities in the first half.

In the second half, the Germans pushed their defenders up to help the offense, but lacked creativity in getting good shots.  The Mexican counterattack continually created opportunities and a 2-on-1 nearly garnered a second goal.  Germany kept the pressure up and got lots of shots off, including a bicycle kick in the box that went just high, but too often were mishitting their shots.  Essentially the second half was played on the Mexican half of the field with occasional Mexican breakouts.  If the Mexicans were a little bit crisper with their passes, they could have gotten several more goals.  As time ran out in the second half, Germany was taking any shot they could, but could not finish.  The 1-0 result continues a recent trend of defending World Cup champions failing to win their first matches in the next Cup.  The stats from this game would suggest that Germany was the better team and was just unlucky, but the stats lie.  Mexico earned this win, playing a better game and with a strategy that repeatedly broke down the German defense.  The Germans lacked a player who could finish and one wonders if they miss the retired Miroslav Klose, who was that finisher in the last 4 World Cups.

The second Group F game could not have been more different than Germany-Mexico.  Sweden, returning to the World Cup for the first time in 12 years, took on perennial Asian qualifier, South Korea.  This game was a tough watch.  Neither team was sharp.  Passes and shots were off-target, possession could not be sustained, and neither team looked like they belonged in the Cup.  It was 20 minutes into the game before there was an on-target shot.  It resulted from poor marking in the box by South Korea’s defense, which allowed Swedish striker Marcus Berg to get a point blank shot from about 10 yards out, but it was right at the goalie who made the easy kick save.  This was the best opportunity for either team in the first half.  South Korea never managed an on-target shot in the first half, but technically got one early in the second half, a weak grounder from outside the box directly at the goalie. 

The best South Korean scoring opportunity came a little later in the second half  on a header that went barely wide left.  18 minutes into the second half, Sweden was awarded a penalty kick after a video review, the third time in this Cup that the new video review for penalties has resulted in a penalty kick.  It was an accidental foul by the South Korean defender who made a slide tackle at the ball, but the Swedish attacker got to the ball first just barely.  It was a clear foul, but not one that you could really fault the defender for.  Andreas Granqvist buried the penalty kick in the bottom right of the net easily as the South Korean goalie guessed the wrong direction on his dive.  Neither team was able to do much after that, trading possessions that they were not able to convert into scoring opportunities.  While Sweden ended up with the 1-0 win and 3 points, I would be surprised if either team advanced out of this group.

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