An eventful Monday began just 10 minutes after noon, when João Pereira brought down Mario Götze in the Portuguese 18 yard box, conceding a penalty and drawing a yellow card for his troubles. A little over fifteen minutes later, Portugal’s striker Hugo Almeida grabbed his hamstring and exited the match, swiftly followed by another German goal — this tally from Mats Hummels — and then, well, J Reed covered this yesterday:
What you can’t see from that angle is the referee staring directly at them as it occurs, nor the incident that preceded it, for which this was — presumably? — retribution, in which Thomas Mueller, goalscorer and headbutt recipient, may have embellished a foul around the edge of the box. Let’s reset here: Pepe, who plays on a team with Nani, João Moutinho, Fábio Coentrão and Cristiano God Damned Ronaldo, became so irate at the notion of a player potentially getting a little theatrical in the even of contact that he ran over to him and threw his forehead into that person’s skull, under the watchful eye of a referee not 20 yards away.*
A college friend of mine once, in the middle of the night, knocked over all the plates in the dining hall, not out of anger or any particularly remarkable drunkenness, but merely because he “wanted to hear the sound they made.” A security guard happened to be sitting in one of the dark corners of the hall and immediately apprehended him, surrounded by shards of plates. When the administrator on duty came to investigate, our man, broom and dustpan in hand, looked up at her and said: “I’ve done a lot of dumb things in my life, but this is probably the dumbest.” He was wrong, by the way. He’d done much dumber things, and would carry on to do still dumber things in the future, but it was the dumbest thing he’d ever been caught doing. Pepe, pick up the plates.
Portugal was at a loss as to how they might free Ronaldo and Nani when they had eleven players. Once down to ten, it was only a matter of how close they could keep it. Mueller added a second before the half, and it looked for all the world that this match could end up making the Netherlands-Spain meetup look tense and cagey. Ronaldo didn’t exactly give up, as he still tried to take on defenders and create space for teammates, but his work rate certainly declined as the game wore on. Honestly, I’m not sure, down a man and three goals, why you’d keep an all-out attacker like CR7 on the field at all, except for ego. He’s human, and as yesterday demonstrated, humans can break.
The game ended 4-0, as Germany mostly tried to dominate possession and only went for goal when the stars aligned perfectly, and as they tend to when you’re playing with considerably more talent one to eleven and have a man advantage to boot. Germany look like they’ll coast to the top of the group, with three points and a +4 goal differential.** Mueller looks not to have lost a step from 2010 when he won the Golden Boot for most goals in South Africa, as he got his hat trick in this one.
PortugLOL, on the other hand, looked downright miserable and defeated even before Pepe went off. They didn’t seem to have a plan beyond pack the penalty area and then get the ball to Ronaldo and/or Nani in space. When those spaces closed up, as they obviously would when they fell behind, there didn’t seem to be a plan B. Ronaldo stomped and pointed at his teammates. Nani had a “hissy fit” so audacious and brazen that even the announcer called it precisely that, and then later stole the ball right off his own teammate running in on goal so he could shepherd it uselessly to the endline. None of this even mentions the certain loss of Pepe to suspension as a result of his red card, nor the likely injury-induced absence of Almeida and fullback Coentrão, who both had to be removed and look unlikely to be ready by Sunday. Missing two first choice defenders and their man up top, Portugal cannot rely on the counter-attacking strategy they had counted on until today.
Of course, the thing is, they may not have to. Ghana and the US proved to be nothing if not vulnerable at the back, and particularly outside. DeMarcus Beasley looked shocked to see people coming toward him, even though Ghana have pretty consistently buttered their bread from crosses flung in from out wide. In this analogy, Sully Muntari is a knife, the ball is the butter and Asamoah Gyan is the bread, except, really the goal should be the end result, so perhaps Muntari is a toaster who flings the bread at the butter (Gyan), and thus lightly caressed, lands on a plate/goal. That will do. Yes. On the other end Fabian Johnson was, in the latter stages of the match certainly, able to make some probing runs into the penalty area simply by showing up there.
Oh, and let’s not forget the reason for the season, Our Lord and Savior Clint Dempsey (PBUH), who rambled and rampaged through a Ghanaian defense apparently unaware that an opposing player was allowed to do that, only 34 seconds in. Behold:
Now that really is great work there, by everyone involved, even if we don’t get the whole build-up in that gif. The passing and spacing is incredible, and Dempsey puts three perfect touches on the ball once he gets it. The team was, from the opening whistle, playing as a cohesive unit that looked as if it had spent far longer than three weeks preparing for this match. Of course, they’ve known their opponent for months, so every friendly and every training session was devoted to getting a win in this match (and probably a draw against Portugal).
For the first twenty minutes, Ghana seemed a little shocked by the US strategy of allowing them space on the flanks in attack and then using the vacated areas to play the ball onto Altidore and Dempsey. The formation before the game was announced as a 4-4-2, with Altidore and Dempsey carrying the attack, and then a diamond in the midfield supporting a flat four. This was, as most formations are, a lie. Often, the US played in almost a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation, with Jozy the star, then Bedoya and Dempsey, with Bradley, Jones and Beckerman shielding the defense. This gave Ghana room down the sides (as there was no width up top, the fullbacks could make runs up the field without worrying about losing the man they should be marking) when they were on the attack. But as the fullbacks came up, and the midfielders packed the central areas, they found no further comfort, playing the ball generally onto the feet or head of one of the seven men behind the ball.
At which point, the formation became something more like a 4-3-3, with one of either Altidore or Dempsey headed to where the fullback should have been and the other splitting the centerbacks, waiting to pounce on the clearance at speed and in space. This worked well enough, as Jozy especially found himself in some advantageous positio — oh
When he pulled up with an obvious hamstring issue, the entire game changed. Gone were the confidence and the effective runs into space. The US played much more cautiously and sat back even further. After winning the ball back, Bradley would even drop behind his own defense in order to restart the attack, which is a far cry from the whiplash movement of the first twenty minutes.
I’m not sure the US could have kept up their pace for 90 minutes even without the injury, but after it, they flipped the switch completely — no dimmer — and turtled up, sitting way back and allowing Ghana all of the possession and the lion’s share of goal-scoring opportunities, most of which were, blessedly, completely wasted. Packing the box (LOL) has its advantages, as it makes it much more difficult for opponents to find room to maneuver in front of goal, and less space in which to run onto cross unimpeded. Ghana’s game is not quick, close-quarters passing up the middle, but bombing down the sideline, throwing a cross toward the goal and then running up to the rebound at full speed and firing off a shot from 25 yards. Nothing the US did changed their gameplan or hindered it in the slightest. It was Ghana’s profligacy, recklessness and perhaps poor GPS that sent shots so far wide that Tim Howard barely bothered to watch them sail past.
This was not a tactical victory, nor — in all honesty — a deserved one. Substitute John Brooks, who only came on at the half because Matt Besler also came down with an injury, scored on a great corner kick after looking for all the world like he would give up twelve goals before he ever scored one. DeMarcus Beasley didn’t appear to have a grasp of his role, or else whoever was supposed to provide cover preferred to stay far away from the disaster zone. Bradley was, for the most part marginal, and there wasn’t a great player on either side for the whole match. Dempsey spent the last hour of the match struggling to breathe after getting his nose broken by a red-cardable kick to the face, but with Jozy already sidelined, there was no way to take him off.***
That said, it was a victory, and it puts the US in position to control their own path into the knockout round. They will face a wounded and desperate Portugal on Sunday evening, needing a win to salvage any hope of advancing. Whether this lights a fire under Ronaldo and Nani or turns the entire team into a fascinating dumpster fire remains to be seen. But the US cannot allow wingers like them the space and opportunity to create that they gave to Ghana. Even a disinterested Ronaldo, booking a week at Ibiza and shopping for new swim trunks on his phone while running at Beasley, would have more than likely put at least one in the back of the net against last night’s team. The US also needs to address the staggering number of injuries, nicks, knocks and general fitness malaise that struck them last night. They’ve likely lost Altidore for the duration, Dempsey won’t be full speed, Besler may or may not be fit, Alejandro Bedoya was grabbing at his hip, and several other players seemed to be cramping up at regular intervals.
So, the US needs to completely change its defensive shape and strategy while also getting some magical muscle elixir into the legs of its players. In five days. Though Klinsmann has always known Portugal was the second match, it seemed from the friendlies that he was concentrating on Ghana, to build confidence and secure the “easiest” opportunity for points in a stacked group. The group got a little less stacked with Portugal’s meltdown, but they remain a formidable opponent. A draw and the US is in amazing shape to progress, needing only to not lose to Germany by five more goals than Portugal beats Ghana, should that happen.**** It’s not impossible to believe that they can manage that, but they won’t get it if they play the way they did for the majority of the match last night. I don’t think Klinsmann would have chosen that path were it not for injuries, nor were it against Portugal, but I don’t know what other options are out there without Altidore’s hold-up play and Dempsey with half a nostril. The US has always relied on speed, toughness and stamina to compete against teams with more skill. Last night, all three of those took a hammering. The clock is running for Klinsmann to find a plan B.
Noon: Belgium have somehow put together one of the most complete teams in this tournament, despite no one ever giving a shit about Belgium. Jan Vertonghen (COYS!), Daniel van Buyten and Vincent Kompany are world class defenders. Eden Hazard is about as creative and deadly as they come, even after an up and down club season. Moussa Dembele (COYS!), Nacer Chadli (COYS!) and Kevin de Bruyne are well drilled in their roles and know how to play with one another in the midfield and up the flanks. Romelu Lukaku is one of the more sought after strikers in the transfer market, an up and comer who has already up and come a long way. They also have three other players in their starting lineup, none of whome play for Spurs (yet). They play an attractive brand of soccer that you would enjoy if the game weren’t on in the middle of the day, but you’ll get plenty of other chances to see them in this tournament and over the next few years, as they really blossom. Algeria have 11 players born in France in their squad, such is the continued horrific legacy of colonialism, though none are named Camus.
3:00 Hey! These teams have already played! Must mean we’re done with new teams! Marcelo is unlikely to gift Mexico a goal as he did for Croatia and exploding ham cart David Luiz will find more space in the open attacking scheme of Mexico. Gio dos Santos might find some room when Luiz starts rolling downhill, but the question is whether anyone will risk taking the ball off Luiz and if they’ll be able to see the tiny guy behind Paulinho and Thiago Silva. That said, expect Hulk (HULK!) and Neymar to have their way outside as a result of Mexico’s extremely narrow formation.
6:00 OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE MORE NEW TEAMS. Russia and South Korea will play a soccer game while you are hopefully taking your significant other out to dinner as an apology for scaring the dog both times the US scored last night, and his/her continued acceptance of your monopolizing the television. Or is that just me? Or you could just stay late at work and catch up on everything you missed today watching the first two matches. Either way.
*Upon which contact Mueller reacted theatrically again, because OF COURSE HE DID, that’s why you were mad in the first place you punch-drunk fuck-weasel.
** Goal differential serves as a tie breaker when two teams have the same point total from matches contested. Three for a win, one for a draw. So if Germany ends up on 5 points, which would mean one win and two draws, and so does — lets say — the US, then they would win the group with a +4GD to the US’ +1GD. It rewards teams that win handily and score goals, and is, over the long run, a mark of a superior team over a merely lucky one.
*** Can we now, finally, dispense with the “soccer players are nancy boys who fall over and cry whenever they get touched” nonsense. This is the second time that a US player has gotten the crimson mask in a World Cup game and stayed on until full time. In 2006, Brian McBride got the full force of Daniele DeRossi’s elbow, requiring three stitches and something just shy of windshield wipers to keep the blood out of his face, and stayed on. Yesterday, Dempsey took a shoe to the face that would have knocked each of us out, and just got some paper towels shoved up his nostril. Let’s all just agree: baseball players are the real sallies in sports, if only because golf is not a sport.
*** Of course, Ghana could beat Germany and Portugal, the US could draw both of its games, and they’d be on the outside looking in.
Follow wahurd on Twitter @hemingwaysgun.