Before we get to anything else, we need to talk about this:
I know, it happened on Friday and there have been eleventy billion matches between then and now. But try to remember. Try to remember when Spain and the Netherlands were playing one another in a tense and competitive soccer match, rather than Iker Casillas’ nightmare and a “performance that sang of the glue factory.” Before this moment, it looked as if Spain was going to head down the tunnel at halftime up a goal, on a potentially properly given penalty, and with not much else happening on the field.
After this moment, the game went into the half tied, the Dutch side encouraged and emboldened by Robin van Persie’s goal. Their intent was clear: to get between and behind the Spanish centerbacks quickly on the counter-attack. Playing up cautiously through the center, from defense through the midfield and then to the strikers would only play right into Spain’s hands. They pack the center of the field tight with players who press up on any opponent who tries to get through them, and then rebuild their own attack after winning the ball back.
In this match, Spain kept four players essentially within the center circle — Busquets, Alonso, Xavi and David Silva— with Iniesta close by to both initiate the press and serve as an outlet for any balls won in the middle of the field. Alba and Azpilicueta, the fullbacks, were positioned well wide and on the center line, essentially creating a line of 7 across the middle of the middle of the field, like a World War One trench, with the only vulnerable point a gap between the center circle and Azpilicueta on the left. Of course, Azpilicueta wasn’t that far wide because he or Vicente del Bosque wanted him out there, but because the Dutch formation required it.
Louis van Gaal, who is taking over Robin van Persie’s professional club Manchester United at the conclusion of the World Cup, trotted out a 5-3-2, seemingly to counter Spain’s attack. It appeared he intended to put out an overly defensive line with three centerbacks and two fullbacks in an attempt to build their own trench, just closer to their own penalty box, implying that the game would be played in the space between them. Or so I thought.
Even though I heard the announcer call the fullbacks “wingbacks”, the combination of winger and fullback and a hybrid generally as extinct as Eric Cantor’s legislative career unless you play FIFA and buy wide midfielders and turn them into wingbacks because you never lose the ball anyway, I never imagined van Gaal would play them as advanced and with as much license as he did.
With the three centerbacks marking (to some degree) the lone Spanish striker, Diego Costa (who is a terrible fit in the Spanish attack thus far*) and occasional forays from Xavi, Silva and Iniesta, and with Nigel De Jong and Jonathan De Guzman able and willing to drop deep and provide a second net over them, the Spanish attack up through the center was essentially thwarted: four Spanish attacks on five Dutch defenders.
This left those fullbacks with an immense amount of space on the sides, and with van Gaal’s permission to push up and take it, pulling the Spanish fullbacks out of their position and isolating the Spanish centerbacks (poor Pique and Ramos) against two of the best attackers of the generation: the afore-giffed RvP and Arjen “my right foot is for display only” Robben.
Here is a picture of what I mean:
Daley Blind**, with the ball, right on the sideline, has plenty of time and space to choose either of two runs about to be made. Robben (the baldheaded one closer to the bottom of the photo, is dragging his defender away from the box and clearing out room for van Persie, who is also in space between two defenders, neither of whom are close enough to impede his progress once the ball comes of Blind’s foot.
None of this comes to anything if Blind doesn’t play a perfectly weighted ball, and van Persie doesn’t have the ingenuity and audacity to essentially chip the goaltender with a flying header from almost 50 feet. But then, Robben’s first goal comes to nothing if he doesn’t turn 270 degrees in order to go left rather than his usual 90 degrees.
There is still work and art to be done, even when the tactics, strategy and execution all mesh. The beauty isn’t so much in the tactics themselves, but in the way the players understand the interplay between the freedom and responsibility those tactics give them. This goal didn’t crush Spain’s chances (the third probably did that), but going into halftime it should have been a harbinger to Del Bosque and wasn’t. It was a rout because Casillas had a terrible day, but it was a win because the Dutch found a way to exploit Spain’s strength through the midfield and turn it into a weakness. They’re not the first to do so, but no one has done it as thoroughly as the Dutch did on Friday.
Onto today’s games:
NOON: Germany and Portugal are heavy favorites to emerge from their group, and this match is likely to determine which of them wins it. Indeed, Germany are among the favorites to win the Cup, with a host of stars and a Golden Generation that actually appears to be capable of winning things, for club and country. Some of the more stats-inclined folks on SoccerInternet are touting Portugal as a dark horse to make a deep run and maybe even hoist the trophy. If they do, they’ll rely primarily on one player, but he happens to be one of the best in the world going on six or seven years now. Hate him because he’s beautiful, arrogant, flagrant, demonstrative or whatever, but he can be an absolute joy to watch, and a complete terror to play against. Germany probably have the defensive mettle and talent to isolate him, but that still might not be enough to actually stop him. Germany 2-1 Portugal.
3:00: Iran and Nigeria. Seriously. Aren’t you glad you’re at work now? Argentina and Bosnia are the other two teams in this group and they have played the only competitive match that will occur in this group. Congratulations to Argentina on winning Group F on the first day.
6:00: I wrote this less as a preview than as a kind of an attempt to stir up feelings and get folks excited, so I didn’t say much about this match specifically. I’ll do that here, then. Ghana have knocked us out of the World Cup two times running. It is almost impossible that we would see them a third time consecutively, but here we are all the same. Ghana still have Kevin Prince Boateng, Asamoah Gyan, Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. They’re good. But they aren’t unbeatable. They have weaknesses—including the aging Essien—that can be exploited. If Klinsmann brings out the dynamic formation he attempted agaisnt Nigeria in the final tune-up, then the US can bring a lot to bear on Ghana and potentially overrun them. Putting all of the serviceable midfielders out at once is a very “damn the torpedoes” move, but if the US is going to have any chance to advance out of the group, it needs all three points here.*** Same with Ghana. Look for this match to be very open and attacking because of that, at least until one teams scores and then parks the bus in front of the net, daring the other side to throw everything forward to get back in it. Sadly, I don’t think either team gets what it needs and essentially closes out its chances barring a meltdown from Portugal (this is not impossible! take heart!): Ghana 2-2 USA.
That’s it. I hope there’s something great to write about in the morning, and I hope it comes from the late game. Happy watching!
* “Diego Costa looks as comfortable playing tiki-taka with Spain as Dwight Howard would in the Spurs’ motion offense.” @RealGMSoccer
** That would be a terrible name for a goalkeeper, but somehow means nothing to an outfield player.
*** Yes, I’m kind of assuming you know about the US team and that’s probably not fair. Watch Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. If Jones is regularly further upfield than Bradley, that’s not a great sign. If Bradley isn’t playing the ball onto Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore — at speed — from the edge of the center circle to the edge of the penalty box, that’s not a great sign. If we’re whipping in crosses (God how we love to whip in crosses) from wide positions and Jozy isn’t within 10 feet of the keeper or 10 feet of the ball, that’s not a great sign. If Besler and Cameron are looking at Tim Howard and Tim Howard is looking in his own net, that’s not a great sign. If Beasley is allowed to come across the halfway line and cut inside to create space for Bradley or Dempsey, that is a great sign. If Jozy is able to get between and behind the Ghanaian defense, and Dempsey is able to drag the defense out wide, that is a great sign. If Bradley is shutting from box to box and directing the offense, that is a great sign. If you don’t hear the names Timmy Chandler and Brad Davis, that is a great sign. Essentially: watch Bradley and see how much time he has on the ball and how advanced he is when he has it. The more time and the further advanced, the better the US is probably doing.
Follow wahurd on Twitter @hemingwaysgun.