The is the second edition of my World Cup recap; the first part can be found here.
Since Saturday, the world’s two best players have debuted in Brazil, two underdogs have had to play with 10 men, and ESPN was struck with the brilliant thought that goal line technology may not be necessary after every goal (it has, though, continued its series of zoomed in slow-motion shots of players’/coaches’ faces as they let out deep sighs so as to capture the vibrating waves on their cheeks – no complaints here, it’s awkward and awesome).
Sunday had two games from Group E, the latter including the favorite of the quartet, France, in its matchup with Honduras. Honduras deserves credit for staying steady defensively before Wilson Palacios was sent off, but the Hondurans were committing reckless challenges throughout, so it wasn’t surprising when the red card finally came. It doesn’t do much to analyze a France team that played with a man up, but they looked strong in its central positions, and Antoine Griezmann is no shabby replacement for injured Franck Ribéry.
To the delight of the many Americans who turned on their TV’s Monday expecting golf and instead got this weird other sport played on grass, the U.S. finally defeated Ghana in the two teams’ third meeting in as many World Cups. It was a dramatic match, with Ghana looking more comfortable possessing the ball but unable to create much of threat in front of the U.S. goal. The American defense was under more pressure for most of the match than the Ghanaian’s, yet the U.S. was tough in the back with help in the midfield from Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman. The Clint Dempsey goal was a phenomenal display of the kind of irrational aggression that catches defenders off guard, and it demonstrated why the few seconds after a kick-off are when underdogs are most capable of scoring. It was a fine strategy from Jurgen Klinsmann indeed.
But while we Americans were busy high-fiving each other outside our painted red, white, and blue Hummers, we seemed to look past the epidemic of fatigue that spread through the Yanks’ on the pitch. Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler, and Alejandro Bedoya all had to be substituted after some type of muscle strain.
With that said, here are the best and the worst from the last three days of football madness:
1. The Fightin’ Bosnians! They’re actually called the Dragons, but they put up a formidable battle against one of the tournament favorites, Argentina. Bosnia was unlucky to give up an own goal in the opening minutes, and Argentina never seemed a threat to pile onto the score. A lot of that is due to a much improved Bosnian defense, led by center back Emir Spahic, who stayed active throughout, making tackles to stifle progression in the opposing attack. The Fightin’ Dragons (a compromise) played like a side ready for the knockout stage; aware that Argentina was the better team, Bosnia still pushed the ball down the wings on the counterattack and made an effort to control the ball in front of the Argentines (Bosnia ended up 45% of the possession). Senad Lulic was Bosnia’s most capable player with the ball, taking on defenders aggressively and eventually playing the perfect pass to set up the team’s lone goal. Argentina is aware that it underperformed in the game despite the win, and that will need to find new ways to create meaningful chances up front. Regardless, Bosnia showed that it is the second best team in the group, and it did so without much contribution from star striker Edin Dzeko.
2. Germany’s excellence. As I said with France, it’s hard to praise a team’s effort against a 10-man side, but Germany looked ever so deserving of praise against Portugal. Even before Pepe was sent off for rubbing temples with Thomas Müller, the Germans had a 2-0 lead and showed the best ball movement of any team so far; everyone was unselfish, made quick runs off the ball and made quick decisions with the ball. They looked like Spain before, well, now. Germany has so much depth in the midfield, and they have perfected how to use that to its advantage via the false 9 formation; the problem teams have when they stack up midfielders into their formation is that each midfielder tries to fill the same space and the team gets too bunched together with the ball. Yet Joachim Löw’s set of midfielders has figured out how to occupy and shift into different spaces simultaneously, creating openings for passes in between the defense.
And let’s now agree that the notion that this was “group of death” is dead wrong; Germany showed it’s far better than Portugal, and I don’t see how either the U.S. or Ghana can expect a better outcome with the ability of their defenses. So far, I think Germany is the most balanced and impressive side in the tournament, but I think it’s formation presents two problems: first, Philipp Lahm is extremely composed with the ball and can make tough tackles, but his size makes him more fit for being a full back and stronger midfielders may be able to overpower him. Second, the formation essentially includes four center backs, none of whom are very fast, and they could struggle to stop quick, counterattacking offenses.
3. The Power of the ‘fros! This stylish team is incredibly dazzling. It’s best player, Eden Hazard, doesn’t complain, shares the ball, and he plays for Chelsea. Oh wait, he plays for Chelsea. Well, nonetheless, this team is full of young, flashy components who have come together to revive a national side that doesn’t often succeed at the World Cup. Two of those components are Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini, the wielders of the hair clouds; the pair was key in Belgium’s opening win over Algeria. Witsel stepped into his defensive role in the midfield, making timely tackles to help transition the team into attack. Fellaini came on as a substitute in the 65th minute, but the way he became a target in the penalty area on crosses and put pressure on Algeria’s defense may convince coach Marc Wilmots to start Fellaini against Russia, especially given Belgium’s slow start in Tuesday’s game.
1. Ecuador’s evaporated defense. Ecuador vs. Switzerland proved to be an exciting engagement between two sides that will be jostling for second place in Group E behind France. While the Swiss were more poised on the ball, La Tri continually threatened down the wings, leading to Enner Valencia’s opening goal. Yet throughout the match, Ecuador’s defense seemed disorganized and slightly slow; Admir Mehmedi appeared to be unmarked with how easily he headed in the equalizer for Switzerland, despite a Ecuador defender standing right below him as he scored. Then, in the final minutes, Haris Seferovic latched onto a cross just in front of goal to put the Swiss ahead; no Ecuador defender saw Seferovic running in, and keeper Alexander Domínguez made no effort to block the pass that landed right in his area. Ecuador sadly won’t advance without more energy on that end of the pitch.
2. Portugal’s demise. Without the suspended Pepe, and now the injured Fabio Coentrao, Portugal will have to reach to its underwhelming bench for its game with the U.S. Not all is bad for the team, as it’s still a favorite against the Yanks and Ghana; each of the latter two teams will struggle defending Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, and João Pereira on the wings, and Portugal will likely be the better passing team in both games. The U.S. will challenge the depleted Portugal, yet, depleted themselves, the Americans will have to be extremely focused to earn a point in that matchup. Barring an upset, Portugal will still advance to the round of 16.
What is bad, though, is the team’s future. Portugal does not have the depth nor the chemistry to go far in this tournament, and this set of players will not make it together for the next World Cup; starting defenders Bruno Alves, Pepe, and Pereira are all in their thirties. Ronaldo will be 33 for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. In fact, not a single one of players in Portugal’s current starting XI will be under 30 in four years.
3. Belgium’s game plan. As appealing as this team is to me, a couple things worry me about coach Wilmots’ strategy: first, as with Germany, the team uses four center backs, which became a problem against Algeria; in the middle of the first half, Sofiane Feghouli ran past left back Jan Vertonghen to receive a cross in Belgium’s penalty area, before being tugged to the ground by Vertonghen and receiving a penalty that put Algeria in front. The problem there is that Vertonghen is not naturally a left back, and it is not surprising an opposing wing player so easily got past him unmarked. Vertonghen is superb defender, and there aren’t any great options to play left back on Belgium’s roster, but I think Thomas Vermaelen may bring better speed to that position.
Second, Wilmots used five midfielders and one striker in the formation, which is a popular setup and works for a lot of teams. Yet often in the game against Algeria, Belgium stood idly with the ball around Algeria’s box without its midfielders trying to slip behind the defense. This led to the ball being passed around the perimeter without any action, and it put pressure on lone striker Romelu Lukaku to be the main target for the midfielders. Wilmots made the right adjustment later on, putting in Dries Martens as a second forward to move around Algeria’s defenders and give Belgium’s midfield more room. It worked out in the end, and hopefully Wilmots will stick to that alteration in Belgium’s next games.
Best XI (since games played on 6/15)
Goalie: Rais M’Bolhi (Algeria)
Defense: Emir Spahic (Bosnia) Mats Hummels (Germany) Kwadwo Asamoah (Ghana) Toby Alderweireld (Belgium)
Midfield: Valon Behrami (Switzerland) Senad Lulic (Bosnia) Jermaine Jones (U.S.) Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Attack: Karim Benzema (France) Thomas Müller (Germany)