I’m Sorry Ronaldo, Klose’s For Real: World Cup Recap and Netherlands-Argentina Preview

/taps mic

I’m Sorry Ronaldo!

Klose’s for reeeeaaaal!

Never meant to make your country cry,

Die Mannshaft won it sieben-eins.

 

The US conceded six goals in four games. Costa Rica gave up two in five. Germany has let four in over six. Reiging (until Sunday) World Champions Spain saw seven balls roll over the line in their three group stage matches, as did Portugal. It took Algeria and Switzerland a fourth game to reach that total. Only Honduras (eight), Australia and Cameroon (nine each) allowed more than seven goals over the course of this world cup. Those last three teams finished 30th-32nd in the tournament.

Yesterday, in capitulating to Germany, Brazil surrendered seven goals to five different opposing players. In the span of six minutes, they allowed four, to three players. It got so bad that after Andre Schuerrle’s goal in the 79th minute*, this happened:

THE SCOREBOARD SCROLLED DOWN. There was not enough room in the real estate afforded and, thus, space had to be artificially created below that, such that the first goal — Thomas Mueller 11′ — was not visible at the same time and in the same space as the final two — Andre Schuerlle 69′, 79′. This may seem an odd thing to fixate on after such a match, but I’m doing it, mostly out of morbid fascination, but also because some metaphors are also facts.

Brazil was in this game for roughly eight minutes. By the time Mueller scored his fifth goal of the tournament (tenth of his career), after being left completely unmarked by interim-captain David Luiz on a corner kick*, it seemed like a 1-0 lead was already insurmountable. Fred** looked more likely to earn a red card than a goal; Hulk seemed intent on passing it to the least convenient — if not physically impossible — places for his teammates to receive the ball; wee bastard Bernard ended up isolated on the wing and any attempt to cut in toward goal was caught out by Philipp Lahm, finally playing at his natural fullback position. Without Neymar (RIP) to hold up play and control the ball in the attacking area, not to mention his ability to conjure up magic on his lonesome, the Brazilian attack was stymied.

When Klose scored, and in doing so took the all-time World Cup scoring record away from a Brazilian, in Brazil, against Brazil, I joked that the Germans would need a secret tunnel to escape the stadium. Six minutes — and three goals — later, I completely seriously suggested that the Brazilian team might want to use that tunnel as well. The fifth goal was the one on which it was obvious that Brazil had just about lost interest in competing in the game and given up any hope of winning it. Sami Khedira*** fed Mezut Oezil on the left side of the Brazilian penalty area and literally stood still, patiently waiting for Oezil’s return ball. It came, as it obviously would. How many Brazilian players came with it? Let’s watch and find out:

Zero. [Count von Count voice] Zero Brazilian defenders. Ah ah ah. [/Count von Count voice]

They still played for another hour, allowing two more goals, but the match, had it not been decided before Khedira’s goal, certainly was in that moment. Losing Thiago Silva, their best defender and leader, may have meant even more than losing Neymar. Brazil enjoyed more possession than Germany, took more shots and produced more crosses and deliveries into the penalty area. Germany attempted fourteen shots and scored seven. A 50% team average is rare in basketball, where teams often score in triple digits; it is unheard of in soccer. Silva’s absence put Brazil’s defense in disarray, which pulled Julio César out of his position or made him slow to react to what was happening in front of him. After a fairly good tournament that had seen him getting some renewed buzz, César had one of the worst days a keeper could ever imagine. This was the polar opposite of Tim Howard’s performance against Belgium. Everything that could have gone wrong for Brazil did. They lost the players that meant the most to them on offense and defense, and rather than attempt to adjust their style of play in light of those facts, doubled down on the tactics that had brought them to the semifinal in the first place. 

Of course, the problem with that was that they didn’t get there convincingly. They never looked the favorite even while playing with the decided advantage of having 60,000 rabid fans cheering them on every time they took the field. They played Mexico to an exciting but still goalless draw; eked past Chile on penalties in the round of 16; beat Colombia in something that was less like a soccer match and more like Muay Thai with a ball. They attempted to continue those bruising tactics against Germany, kicking out and shoving, coming in heavy and late in the midfield. This can intimidate and slow down a lot of teams, and it might have slowed down Germany, except that it also pulls your team out of shape. If you’re coming in late, or sliding, you need time to recover. Silva allowed them that luxury, but against Germany, all those rash movements simply opened up space for players like Khedira, Schweinsteiger and Kroos to push the ball ahead to Mueller, Oezil and and Klose. Lahm’s move to right back also gave the German team another player capable of coming into the midfield to retain or regain possession.

This was Luiz Felipe Scolari’s plan. And it had worked. Brazil won the Confederations Cup last year without losing a single match, conceding only three goals over five games, and shutting down the dominant Spanish midfield by employing their defensive midfield to knock them over, and their wingers to run past them. The cracks began to show against Mexico and even Cameroon showed they were far from invincible. When playing a similar team in Chile, they were stretched to the very end of their rope. Facing Colombia, they clamped down even harder, throwing James Ramirez to the turf at every opportunity, aided and abetted by a referee reluctant to hand out cards for violent play until it was already too late.

As of this moment, Scolari is still the coach. I’m shocked. I’ll be further shocked if he’s not replaced before September, when they play their first post-World Cup friendly. Against Colombia.

4:00 – I have no idea what to make of this match. If you look at the rosters, you’d think another scrolling scoreboard might be in order. Argentina can roll out Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain and, if rumors are correct, a returning Sergio Aguero. The team has played largely unchanged (except via injury) for years. Yet, they’ve often been mercurial and inconsistent (does that make them consistently inconsistent?), struggling to put it all together.

The argle-bargle (Argie-bargle?) going into this tournament was that Messi plays well for his club, but not for his country. After five games, we can certainly say that if this one is their last, it might indeed be due to Messi not playing well, but also that they wouldn’t have gotten this far without his contributions. Messi has been the only thing that Argentina has had on offer going forward. Of the seven goals Argentina has scored****, Messi has four of them, and assisted on another.

Seven goals over five games is not a great scoring record for a team with the attacking firepower listed above. They’re still in it because they’ve only given up three, thanks to Ezequiel Garay, Federico Fernandez, Marcos Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta at the back, and the ageless Javier Mascherano just in front of them. The Albiceleste have only faced seventeen shots on target over their five games. Not only are teams not scoring on Argentina; they aren’t even getting the ball in areas where they might have a chance. Part of this is also down to their opponents concentrating on their defense so as not to be exposed, but after allowing six on target against Bosnia in their first match, they’ve held every other opponent to fewer than five shots, culminating in just one shot on target for Belgium last weekend.

So The Netherlands will have to unlock the lead door that Argentina have set up in front of their goal. To do so, Dutch coach Louis van Gall can offer up Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie (who might be out, but I can’t imagine van Gaal following through), Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Wesley Sneijder. van Gaal even deployed Dirk Kuyt, generally a forward or attacking winger, as a wingback (on the wrong side to boot), and moved him all over the place in order to fit more attacking verve into his side. It didn’t work. They scored zero goals over 120 minutes against Costa Rica, which — again — only gave up two over their five matches, and is the low for the tournament, so is no great insult. They also left it very late against Mexico, scoring two (one of which was a penalty) in the final ten minutes to push past Guillermo Ochoa and ten other guys — but Ochoa was a revelation, allowing only a meaningless and last minute goal against Croatia in the tournament, before the late Dutch goals.

So, are the Dutch actually more hapless on offense than their name recognition, obliteration of Spain and general tenor suggest? Or have they just run into three of the tournaments best defensive teams, in Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile? We might find out today, except that Argentina is another defensive stalwart.

One last thing, remember when I said that Argentina had only allowed seventeen shots on target and that’s really impressive over five games? Well, the Dutch have allowed only fifteen (15!!!) over the same*****. And while you might think that most of their opponents focused on defending Robben, RvP, et al — and you’d be right — it’s still pretty amazing.

So will we need the scrolling scoreboard or will we need 120 minutes and penalty kicks to finally get a goal on the board? The most obvious — and likely — answer is neither. Both of these teams will defend deep and defend well, hoping to catch their opponent sleeping on the counter. How effective those tactics will be when neither team really wants to control the flow of the game but react is up for debate. But it should feature some fun moments of creativity from Messi and Robben.

Happy watching and I’ll be back on Friday to preview the Final unless this game has something amazing in it (i.e. biting, seven goals, a double bicycle kick, more than one red card).

* I can see that Luiz was blocked off him a bit, but that’s still awful defending. And I had very high hopes for Captain Ham Cart.

**The Brazilian Tony Shaloub

*** The German Jason Schwartzman

**** Argentina have “scored” eight goals, but one was a Bosnian own goal in their opening match.

***** (Ed. Note): That’s Villa defenseman and eternal savior for your sins Ron Vlaar you can thank for that one.

The World Cup Trophy Is Not a Cup, and Many Other Words

Hi everybody!

(Stranger danger!)

I’m the writer formerly known as Ghost. In the first iteration of this here blog, I mostly stuck to sports and booze, dabbling in the religion and politics beats — which is essentially how I spend my real life as well. There’s a really big sports event about to start in a few hours, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to make the first of possibly many infrequent contributions. I am not good at “blogging” both because I do not post regularly and because when I do, it is entirely too long. You might just finish reading this before kickoff.

The World Cup begins this afternoon, with only one game on the schedule: Brazil and Croatia at 4PM Eastern. Brazil are among the favorites to win the whole thing, which would be their sixth title. After they won the third, they got to keep the original trophy — which was actually a cup, and why the tournament is called the World Cup, even though the current trophy looks more like a couple of hands sensuously massaging a ball (or globe). If they win this year, they keep this one too. One can only hope the next one looks even more erotic, such is the sexiness of both the sport and the tournament.

World Cup soccer is actually not very sexy, unfortunately. The professional soccer season in Europe, where many of the best players in this tournament make their living, runs from August to May. The leagues play roughly 38 games — 20 teams playing one another twice each, home and away. In addition, there are domestic cup tournaments that could add another six to ten matches. The very best teams also participate in European competition, which can add on more than a dozen to the total. Real Madrid, Champion’s League … ummm … Champions, played 60 matches this season, with six players featuring in more than 50 of those matches, and 6 more playing in more than 40. Some of these dudes are going to be exhausted, having only gotten a month off since their club seasons ended.

Oh wait. Nevermind. If they’re playing in the World Cup, they are likely to have gotten maybe a week off, because of the second reason World Cup soccer is not exactly the most scintillating product: these teams don’t play together very often or very regularly. The players are committed to their professional club the majority of the year, and can only train with their national teams on certain “international weeks.” Rather than drilling with the same teammates for hours every day, month after month — such that each player knows everything about the others’ movements and tendencies, not to mention the coach’s tactics and strategy — national squads get a couple weekends to practice and then the three weeks leading up to the World Cup. It’s essentially a shitty custody agreement, where players live with Mommy for the bulk of the year and then have to figure out the kitchen cabinets and TV remote at Dad’s, only finally mastering it all just as it’s time to pack up and go home.

In short: Tired players who are unused to their team mates and coaching don’t regularly produce scintillating, attractive soccer. If you want that, you can watch soccer any other time of year. What you’re going to get over the next month is often sloppy and disjointed soccer punctuated with moments of absolute brilliance and stunning incompetence that will leave you, the players and the coaches shaking your head in bewilderment and bemusement. Sixty minutes of aimless meandering and passes to no one will suddenly turn into three minutes of beauty and/or calamity, making all that came before it entirely worth it. Don’t hate it because it’s not beautiful, love it for the mess that it is.

There are teams that have played together long enough, with the same players and coaching style (if not the same coach), that transcend this. We call these teams “favorites.” Brazil, Spain, Italy, Uruguay, Germany and Argentina can deploy some of the world’s best players, and have trotted them out together often enough that they almost look like they know what they’re doing, with a cohesive mindset and determined strategy. Their skill and their tactics set them above the teams that have only one — or in Australia’s case, neither.

But enough of all that. Let’s talk about today’s game. Brazil are heavy favorites because, as ever, they have some of the best players in the world. They have wizened veterans across their defensive backline in Dani Alves, Maicon and Thiago Silva, who might have lost a step but make up for it in their experience. They have two of the best young players in the tournament, and the sport: Oscar (22!) and Neymar (also 22!) to spearhead their attack and retain possession so the old guys can catch their breath. And they have some guys who are simply in their prime, like David Luiz, Fernandinho, Willian and Hulk. They are very good. But they always are.

Luiz nominally plays a centerback position, which means he should be ever playing near his goalkeeper as a last line of defense, tethered to the other centerback, within spitting distance of his own penalty box. Somehow, no one ever told him about this expectation, so he caroms and barrels up the field with the ball at his feet, past people who assume that he is not quite so stupid to just lumber up the field and leave his defense exposed. Newsflash to Brazil’s opponents: DAVID LUIZ IS PRECISELY THIS STUPID. And it is glorious. When a midfielder or striker makes a run from deep in their own half, they call it slaloming, as the player weaves and bobs his way through defenders like a skier down a mountain. When Luiz does it, it’s like filling a wonky wheeled grocery cart with ham and rolling it down an embankment. With fireworks buried in the hams. Luiz will do this three or four times a game. Someone will be covered in exploded ham and grocery cart shrapnel when the final whistle blows, but you cannot predict who.

Croatia, on the other hand, wear a shirt that looks like a picnic tablecloth. This is hands down the most notable thing about them to the outsider. People will root for them because of this. But there are other, better reasons to do so. Reasons like Darijo Srna, who will stab you several times and send the flayed skin to your mother if you do not. Also, Mario Mandžukić, who will certainly make Luiz reticent to go a-carting with his usual abandon, given Mandžukić’s ability to rifle in shots from seemingly desperate locations.

And, the biggest reason, the man who will be putting Mandžukić in those positions, leading the charge from the midfield and conjuring magic if given any time over the ball, Luka Modrić. Remember when I said Real Madrid played 60 matches, and some players appeared in more than 50. Meet Luka, who started 45 of those and came on as a substitute in 6 more, logging over 4000 minutes for his club. The only two players who saw more time on the pitch for Madrid were defenders, who have to do considerably less running than a central midfielder who is asked to defend and attack equally. Modrić is equally capable of pinging a 45 yard cross field pass over the head of a disinterested fullback and onto the feet of a hustling winger, dribbling past his counterpart to draw other defenders to him and open up space for his teammates, finding the smallest opening to release a shot so accurate it could shatter a tea saucer from 30 yards, and deftly picking off a ball from between an opponent’s feet. Full disclosure: Luka Modrić spent several years playing for my favorite professional team before going to Madrid and winning the Champions League. He is so good that this does not bother me, but I am happy for him. He deserves nice things. If anyone hurts him, I will fly to Brazil and be arrested trying to retaliate. No one hurt Luka please, I do not have the money for a plane ticket, let alone bail.

The game should be fun to watch, especially for a neutral. It will feature great players who have been playing with one another for a while and so play as a unit a bit better than most. Brazil are likely to be the better team, putting pressure on Modrić and not allowing him the time or space to get the ball to Mandžukić. Srna is now probably too old and slow to effectively stop players like Neymar and Hulk, but do not tell him I said that. The match could get pretty open, but both teams will likely devote much of their energy to stopping the other from getting into any kind of rhythm.

If Croatia can catch Luiz out of position and Mandžukić can capitalize on it, they have a chance. Those are pretty big ifs, but certainly not out of the realm of the possible. If the game is really fun to watch, that probably means Brazil is winning by a large margin, and David Luiz and his ham cart are exploding all over those tablecloth shirts, with Newmar and Oscar avoiding the splatter by putting the ball into the Croatian goal.

Prediction: Ham Cart 2 – 1 Luka Modrić and his Buddies

Back tomorrow with more …