South Korea 2-0 Germany: South Korea went with a compact, defensive 4-4-2 that could play like a 4-2-2-2 if they wanted to get forward on the flanks. Center-halfs Jung Woo-Young and Jang Hyun-Soo stayed back and protected the four-man backline. Any forays forward were going to happen by getting the ball directly up the flanks to Moon Seon-Min and Lee Jae-Sung. Germany came in with their customary 4-2-3-1 that played like a 4-5-1 if they wanted to get numbers in the box and a 4-3-3 if they needed to close down the middle. Sami Khedira was back in the starting XI to provide cover for the back four, allowing Toni Kroos to push forward in attack. Mesut Oezil was also back as the central talisman, with Marco Reus as the ramsteuder on the left. Germany brought in Leon Goretzka less as an out-and-out striker and more as a rotating midfielder (some teams can make that work, playing six midfielders with no discernable striker and just finding whoever works their way into the box at the moment). Lots of attacking players on the pitch for the Nationalmannschaft, but Korea was up to the task of using their speed to close them down quickly. Fun color contrast in this game; this was one of the few times no side was wearing white.
Early on Jang played more in line with the back four, creating a five-man backline. As expected, Germany ruled the possession and even got some quality chances on goal, but Korea kept their defensive discipline and shape throughout, not letting the Germans put together a concerted attack in the box, which is generally their specialty; every time Germany got the ball in the box there was a Korean player to block it. And Jo Hyeon-Woo was cool and calm and came up big in goal. Korea had to withstand a furious attack by Germany (who knew they had to score once Sweden scored in the other group match) in the second half, but as much as the Korean back line bent, it never broke. You would have thought that giving up a 3-1 advantage to Germany in possession that Germany would have broken through at some point – it never happened. I think Germany waited way too long to get Thomas Mueller in the game on the right flank.
So many chances for Germany to win this game; they didn’t finish so many close chances in the box. In the last 10 minutes plus stoppage time, Germany sent so many players forward – including goalkeeper Manuel Neuer – that they were vastly exposed in the back; that more than anything is what led to both Korean stoppage time goals. In an earth-shattering result, the defending champions crash out of this tournament getting eliminated before the knockout stage for the first time in their history. I’m guessing Nationalmannschaft coach Joachim Low is going to lose his job over this embarrassment.
Mexico 0-3 Sweden: Mexico made no changes to its lineup and maintained a patient, possessive 4-2-3-1 formation, moving the ball from flank to flank. Their best thrust into the attacking end happened on the left wing, when Andrés Guardado and Hirving Lozano brought the inside to a trailing Carlos Vela. Mexico doesn’t have Sweden’s aerial ability, so El Tri was going to get physical at times, not letting them have space. A more conservative 4-4-2 formation by the Swedes, they were going to play a little more direct, sitting back compact and disciplined in their own half, waiting for the Mexicans to bring the ball to them then quickly going over the top to the front, forcing set pieces to take advantage of their size with Sebastian Larsson as the linkup to the front, Emil Forsberg the creative force bringing the ball inside from the left to target man Ola Toivonen up front. Both teams played to their strengths, neither team got taken out of their game by the other. Even though Mexico had most of the possession, Sweden was a lot more dangerous in front of goal.
In the second half, El Tri did a better job of finding channels inside to get players into. Sweden started bringing their fullbacks forward in attack more. Ludwig Augustinsson 50th minute goal for Sweden’s goal was ironically by more of an organized buildup than a counter. Playing too casual and way too high a line, Mexico got caught off guard on a Swedish breakaway, and defender Héctor Moreno brought down Marcus Berg in the box; Andreas Granqvist converts the resulting penalty. Mexico were 6’s & 7’s on a throw-in in the box by Sweden, resulting in an own-goal by Edson Álvarez in the 74th minute. Sweden collapsed into their own end to stave off the furious Mexican attack the last quarter of the game. Since Mexico didn’t have Sweden’s size, they needed to bring numbers in the box. Group F gets turned upside down with this result and the earth-shattering result in the other group game; South Korea’s win in Kazan gave Mexico a lifeline. Mexico lost this battle, but the get to still fight the war.
Serbia 0-2 Brazil: Serbia played a direct 4-2-3-1 attack, looking to get the ball quickly up the flanks to either Filip Kostic and Dusan Tadic, who them would bring the ball inside to take advantage of target man Aleksandar Mitrovic, who had the size to challenge for every ball in the box. In any case, Serbia needed central distributor Nemanja Matic to link up with the flanks. Brazil looked to spread things out in a wide 4-3-3; they relied on movement on and off the ball from side to side and in and out of the center. Of course, Brazil’s talisman is Neymar roaming from the left side, but they are at their best when Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho are allowed to leave their midfield spots and creatively roam up front with Neymar. Pressing Brazil is risky; Brazil is so good at ball skills that they could quickly beat the press and get into the attacking end before Serbia has a chance to get back in transition. The more Serbia fouled, the more Brazil were slowed down and taken out of their attacking rhythm, and nobody got fouled more in this tournament than Neymar.
Better attacking buildup in the final third for Brazil, and they did everything to get the ball on the feet of Neymar. One super ball over the top by Coutinho to Paulinho in the 36th minute – who showed a great touch in getting the ball over the goalkeeper – changed the game for Serbia, who had shown discipline and control up to this point but now had to chase the game. The one thing Serbia didn’t want to do once they got down was stretch themselves; against a team like Brazil that is expert at taking advantage of space, that would have been fatal. Serbia did an effective job of getting the ball forward on the right side, with Antonio Rukavina linking up well with Tadic, and they had some quality chances in front of the Brazilian net. A rare hiccup by Serbia defending a set piece as Thiago Silva heads in a corner; a rare mistake by Serbian center back Nikola Milenkovic. Predictably, a lot more back-and-forth after that as Serbia opened things up getting forward in numbers, which opened up the back for Brazil to exploit. Despite the final score a fun game to watch as Brazil not unexpectedly wins their group.
Switzerland 2-2 Costa Rica: A very self-confident Switzerland came into their standard 4-2-3-1 that they like. Breel Embolo got the start on the left side to add pace and thrust wth Ricardo Rodriguez, but talisman Granit Xhaki roamed from his central attacking spot to the left, while Xherden Shaqiri was the right flanker getting forward getting the ball into target man Mario Gavranovic in the box, bringing Xhaki and Embolo in trailing. Even though they were out by now, Costa Rica tried to be spoiler and took a chance with a 3-man backline in a 3-4-2-1 offensive look, a center-intensive tactic with middle flankers Bryan Oviedo and Cristian Gamboa dropping back to support the back three for a five-man backline, as well as getting forward in support of central talisman Bryan Ruiz, who had the freedom to roam sideline to sideline and switching play, while Joel Campbell was the lone target man in the box. This game was by far the most aggressive Costa Rica was in this tournament; the reigns of conservatism were off them as the Ticos sacrificed some shape in the back to get in offensive areas and open things up in attack, creating multiple chances. Holding midfielder David Guzmán got forward in attack early, and we saw some attacking quality from center half Daniel Colindres that was missing from his game up to now.
As long as Costa Rica was going to press and take chances going forward, the Swiss were going to counter. This was the high-paced, direct attacking quality we had been waiting for from Costa Rica all along, pressing high to get the possession quickly then countering. The Swiss maintained most of the possession, and around the 25th minute were able to find space between the Costa Rican backline and their covering midfielders. Blerim Džemaili blasted the ball in in the 31st minute with a surgical attack involving an Embola header from the left flank. Even though Keylor Navas was the more renowned goalkeeper, it was Swiss keeper Yann Sommer who had the more impactful game. A towering header on a set piece by Kendall Waston in the 56th minute to get the Ticos on the board for the first time this tournament. After the score Costa Rica played a much deeper defensive line, and once the game was tied the Swiss played a much safer game. Sloppy defense from both sides late. The Swiss left too many players on the pitch sitting on yellow cards, resulting in two defenders being expelled for their next knockout round fixture. Switzerland finally gets through with the vertical ball through the middle as sub Josip Drmic finishes a screamer in front of goal in the 88th minute. And just when we thought Switzerland had this game won, Sommer with a boneheaded mishandle as the ball comes off his head on a penalty by Ruiz and into the net behind him. One of the more entertaining games of the third stage.