Some random observations after the Round of Sixteen:
Brazil 1-1 Chile (3-2 aet): Fernandinho came in for the ineffective Paulinho, but he look rusty early on. Brazil may have looked like they just mailed it in during the group stage, not playing with any sense of urgency, but they clearly played a lot better when the stakes got higher. Neymar was a one-man gang, taking players on with his world-class ball skills. Most impressive, though, was Brazil’s defense; they dispossessed Chile and interrupted their attack before they could even get to the final third. It was all good for the first 20 minutes, then of course the Brazilian defense began to self destruct. Both Fred and Hulk have had a subpar tournament, and in the first half it mattered. A lot of chippy fouls at the start, but things opened up for both teams after the first goal, and the pace really picked up. Chile then began to close down Neymar, and the Brazilian attack stalled. Jo came in for a useless Fred and slightly showed a little more proficiency in the box. Claudio Bravo was much more consistent in net than Julio Cesar. Chile wasn’t any better at finishing than Brazil but the Chileans played with a lot more spirit and belief. When it came down to penalty kicks, Chile was not up to the task; I did not expect Cesar to come up big like he did. Brazil goes through but they have nothing to be proud of; they are still playing well below their capabilities.
Columbia 2-0 Uruguay: Uruguay looked to sit deep, make sure there wasn’t too much space for Columbia to create, get the ball long and deep on the quick counter, and without Luis Suarez it was Edinson Cavani they wanted in the box finishing exposing Mario Yepes with Diego Forlan the playmaker. Columbia clearly wanted to create things going forward, but Uruguay was thwarting them everywhere, filling channels and spaces where Columbia wanted to get forward or pass. Plus, the more physical team was clearly Uruguay. James Rodriguez, whether on the flanks or in the center, was being closed down incessantly. I can understand why Diego Forlan was left on the bench until now; he clearly is a shell of his former self. But I think Uruguay would have been better served not having the 2010 World Cup Golden Shoe Winner on the team at all. Uruguay found out the hard way what happens when you don’t close down Rodriguez even for a moment. After that score Uruguay looked to use their physicality, but a confident Columbia got a lot more comfortable on the ball and ruled the possession, taking more quality shots on goal. I like that fullback Cristian Zapata was getting forward on the counter and making things happen, but Columbia was much better served without him shooting. Uruguay’s strength is making things happen in attack on the flanks, but Columbia was closing them down on the flanks. I can understand why it is Uruguay thought it was the end of the world when Luis Suarez was suspended; Uruguay plays hard, but they just seem to lack that refuse-to-lose, get-it-done quality he brings. Especially up front, where Cavani got his shots off but just doesn’t have the same finishing quality.
Netherlands 2-1 Mexico: Orange Crush vs. El Tri. A 97-degree day meant that neither team wanted to expend a lot of energy too early. The Dutch’s lineup choices meant that they wanted to exercise more possession than they had in their previous matches. These are two teams that love attacking down the flanks and switching play quickly from flank to flank. Of all the wingers on both teams, Miguel Leyun was having the best play, making great runs down the left flank into the attacking end, getting crosses into the box, and getting inside to create offense in the center. El Tri was using three in the back to close down any of the three Dutch forwards who made runs into the box. Despite having an edge in possession, El Tri had the creativity, the opportunities, and the fluidity. One of the best close down defensive midfielders in the world, Nigel de Jong, was taken out in the 9th minute; without him there was nobody that was effective at closing down the center, and it mattered. Giovanni dos Santos could not have picked a better moment to get off the scoring schneid. When that happened, the Dutch finally played their game (what they should have been doing all along), getting out on the flanks, quickly counterattacking and getting the ball directly into the box. Arjen Robben is very easy to defend when you know that he isn’t going to pass the ball to anybody and try to shoot it himself. But the Dutch did a good job of putting a number of shots on goal the last 35 minutes, which got them a rebound and putback by Wesley Sneijder, who himself finally got off the scoring schneid. To Holland’s credit, after that score they kept pounding the ball into the box, and Mexico’s defense finally came undone and cause a fatal penalty. Mexico got the better of the play throughout and should have gone through with a big upset. At the end of the day, this is the Netherlands…
Costa Rica 1-1 Greece (5-3 aet): With five defenders in the back, Costa Rica basically looked to defend first, then have Bryan Ruiz, Christian Bolaños, and Joel Campbell get on the ball in the final third, hold it up and wait for the rest of the team to make late runs forward for help. Surprisingly Greece played a higher line defensively, actually getting the ball forward more than they usually do. Both teams played more of an east-west than north-south game, not taking many advantages of the flanks. Slightly better possession from Costa Rica, but neither team took quality shots on goal. Not the world’s most tactically or creatively pleasing game, just a lot of back and forth. The best way to describe the goal allowed in by Greece is that the Greek defense was “Dazed & Confused”; the weakest shot I’ve ever seen and the Greeks were just standing around not even ball watching. The Greeks started off the second half so well, but then they just started looking ragged on both ends of the pitch. With a man advantage, Greece is finding players in the box, but they just can’t seem to get the ball on target and make keeper Keylor Navas make a save. Greece has only itself to blame for not advancing; after the sending off they had way too many chances to win this and could not finish it (not that they would have deserved it anyway).
France 2-0 Nigeria: Surprisingly energetic and pacey start for the Super Eagles, who came out and clearly weren’t scared of the French. The French were showing a lot of holes between the midfield and defense that Nigeria was getting in between. Four games in and I’m still waiting for Jon Obi Mikel to provide something in this tournament. Clearly the French attack is at its best and most efficient when Paul Pogba is making things happen in midfield. As athletic as Nigeria is I’m surprised they aren’t taking better advantage of the flanks, choosing instead to move the ball in an east-west direct attack. France has no such problems, stretching out the Nigerian defense on both wings. Mathieu Valbuena is a little Mighty Mite on the left flank, finding tons of space both on and off the ball. The last 30 minutes of the match the French took so many quality shots on goal that you had to figure that one would eventually go in. The Achilles Heel of Nigeria typically came to be fatal to them: defending set pieces; poor defending, poor goalkeeping, poor cover. They’ve now given up 7 set piece goals in the last two World Cups. Can’t defend set pieces on that level and you deserve to be eliminated, but Nigeria was game.
Germany 2-1 Algeria: Despite the fact that the Algerians have dropped every field player into their own end on defense, the Germans still found space for their short passing, combination game. The Algerians arguable played their best futbol the last two games, so it is a curiosity that they made six changes to a lineup that clearly worked before now. Every time Algeria won the ball back, they immediately looked for center forward Islam Slimani to make a run on the quick counter through Germany’s backline, which consisted of two center backs, one (Per Mertesacker) who can’t really run. There were no signs of big-occasion nerves from the Algerians, who actually got some good shots off against the two-man German backline that clearly did not respect their attack. Germany has been notorious for playing a high defensive line; Algeria spotted it from the first whistle and took advantage with a series of long-ball counters. As the game wore on, the Algerians got more and more relentless. Clearly the six changes to their lineup served them well. Slimani, Sofiane Feghouli and Faouze Ghoulam were the direct beneficiaries of this relentless attack. Germany, to their credit, never wavered from their game plan and somehow managed to keep Algeria out of the net. Germany’s substitutions have been spot on; Andre Schurrle came on for Mario Goetze and made an immediate impact on the left wing; he partnering with Mesut Oezil and Thomas Mueller were floating in and out of the final third and making things difficult for the Algerian defense, which was surprisingly stout considering they did not play their customary flood defense (but they did press to good effect). Algerian keeper Rais M’Bolhi played out of his mind. To everyone’s surprise, extra time was needed. To no one’s surprise, Germany came off of two quick goals. But even with that, Algeria kept up the relentless pressure and managed to score with one minute left in extra time; they just refused to go away. Algeria exited this World Cup impressing everybody.
Argentina 1-0 Switzerland: The Swiss gameplan was clearly to not let Lionel Messi beat them. Every time he touched the ball, 2 to 4 Swiss defenders moved in to mark him. Argentina dominated possession in the first half as a result, but the offense looked disorganized without Messi able to make his runs. The Swiss offense, on the other hand, was effective in the counterattack and had far better, if fewer, scoring opportunities in the first half. The Argentinians made some adjustments at the half and were able to develop the attack with better rhythm in the second half despite the Swiss focus on Messi. Gonzalo Higuain had several opportunities on headers and Messi finally managed a shot in traffic after beating two defenders on the dribble, but the Swiss back line was resolute and kept the game scoreless at the end of 90. Argentina continued to show urgency in the extra time periods and finally broke through with minutes left after a turnover and quick counterattack allowed Messi to make a long run at the goal. When the Swiss defense collapsed on Messi, he delivered a perfect pass that Angel di Maria buried in the net. Then and only then did the Swiss make a push on offense and very nearly got the equalizer, but it was too little, too late. Argentina can expect to continue to see the Swiss defensive model and unless someone other than Messi can step up on offense, they will continue to have trouble scoring.
Belgium 2-1 United States: As with the previous five matches, this one was tied nil-nil at halftime. Although possession was fairly even at the half, Belgium was playing with greater offensive tempo, creating far more corners and shots and forcing Tim Howard to make some good saves. Clint Dempsey had one good opportunity for the Americans in the first half but couldn’t get enough on the shot. For much of the second half, it was still the Belgians pressing the attack. Time and time again, Howard was forced to make saves. Belgium widened their attack and repeatedly used their flanks to develop attacks, but could not finish. So for the second time on the day, a scoreless game had to go to extra periods. With all the Belgian pressure, it seemed merely a matter of time before they would break through and it came just three minutes into the first extra time period. Kevin De Bruyne received a pass in the box, curled around two defenders and pounded the ball past Howard into the goal at the far post. Near the end of the first extra time period, Romelu Lukaku took a through ball into the box and finished nicely to put Belgium up 2-0. Just when the U.S. looked like it was dead, 19-year-old sub Julian Green, two minutes into his first World Cup appearance, took a chip from Michael Bradley over the Belgian backline and volleyed it home in the first minute of the 2nd extra time period. After that, the Americans pushed waves of attackers forward and created their best opportunities of the game, but as with the Swiss earlier in the day, it was not enough. Belgium had a huge advantage in the number of shots, shots on goal, and corner kicks and earned their victory. It was only Howard’s brilliance in goal (18 saves!) that kept the score from being much worse. The Americans played far too conservatively on offense throughout the Cup. Perhaps Jurgen Klinsmann was not confident in his reserve strikers after Jozy Altidore was hurt in the first match against Ghana. However, the offense developed rhythm at the end of the Belgian match with Green and Chris Wondolowski in the game. The U.S. could have used their attacking ability earlier in the match. On the whole though, Belgium was easily the better team in this match.