The second round of games has started and we are beginning to see what teams’ true strengths and weaknesses are and which teams are capable of adapting for different opponents.
Many commentators seem concerned for the Netherlands after its narrow win over Australia, but I don’t think we learned anything from the event we didn’t already know; as it showed against Chile, the Socceroos are an energetic and physical side that’s willing to give up goals as long it gets it own opportunities. Australia was fortunate to get the handball call for a penalty, and the Dutch have never been the best defensive team, so the 3-2 final score was not too surprising.
Cameroon midfielder Alex Song leaped with his elbow towards the back of his Croatian victim and landed in the locker room after getting the most entertaining red card so far (the red card itself was just a normal card, but Song’s WWE maneuver seemed to promise a subsequent folding chair smack-down that unfortunately never came). In what was already a lopsided matchup, Croatia easily broke down the shorthanded Cameroon for four goals.
Ivory Coast impressed by maintaining possession and patiently developing effective attacks, but Colombia was simply the better passing team and made less errors.
For the second time, I came away from watching England feeling hopeful about its future and concerned about its present; the team has creativity, speed and youth in its attack, and it had the depth to make a run in the tournament. It’s problem against Italy and Uruguay was that was never comfortable enough with the ball or dangerous enough around its opponents’ penalty area to compensate for its lackluster defense. Also, its defense was, well, lackluster.
1. Defense is the best defense! In each of their games, Greece and Mexico showed well-spaced and intelligent defensive units to shutout opponents that should have easily scored. Against Brazil, Mexico faced a more talented team with better passing and more quickness than itself. Yet with its 5-man backline, El Tri allowed no holes while pressuring Brazil when it had possession to force it’s players into making quick decisions. At the heart of that unit, Rafael Márquez made sure his comrades were inline and not overly spread at all times.
In the 38th minute of its match with Japan, Greece seemed to have already lost when Kostas Katsouranis was sent off; a team as unselfish and organized offensively as Japan was certain to exploit the man advantage. But Greece allowed no such edge, as it brought its midfield back and forced Japan into long-range shots. It also helped that all four Greek defenders proved to be exceptional on-ball markers, giving up no room to Japan’s players dribbling inside the penalty area.
2. Jorge Luis Pinto guiding Costa Rica. After watching Costa Rica run over Uruguay, I reasoned that one team had simply aged and lost motivation while the other was quicker and more focused. Although those observations were mostly true, Costa Rica proved against Italy that it’s more than just a passionate squad. Coach Jorge Luis Pinto has his five men in the back playing as intact as possible; one of the hardest parts of using a 5-man defense is keeping them all on the same page, but Costa Rica’s defense was as solid of a straight line as a Twix bar. In addition, the team picked the perfect times to attack, pressuring Italy in the middle of the field and pushing numbers forward when the Italians seemed the least prepared for it. Overall, Costa Rica was incredibly organized and disciplined in not giving up room to Italy on counterattacks.
1. Brazil’s attack. On Tuesday, Brazil and Mexico began the second round of games in the group stage. In this next set of games, we start to see which aspects of a team’s first performance we paid too much attention to and which aspects we overlooked.
With regards to the host nation, we overlooked the ineffectiveness of its short-named striker and its longhaired left back, perhaps paying too much attention to the three goals Brazil managed against Croatia. As Hulk was unfit, Luiz Felipe Scolari moved Oscar out wide and added Ramires to the attack, with Neymar behind Fred in the middle.
While Neymar was impressive in attacking Mexico’s defense, he doesn’t look to create for his teammates as much as Oscar does; likewise, Oscar does not have the abilities that Neymar does on the wing. I understand that Scolari tried to compensate for Fred’s ineffectiveness by sticking Neymar behind the striker, but that didn’t change Fred’s ability to involve himself off the ball nor Neymar’s willingness to make opportunities for others. Add that with putting Ramires on the wing and Scolari had a few players who were in uncomfortable positions.
Marcelo was a fine option supporting Oscar on the wing, yet Marcelo gets distracted by pushing forward and tends to put less energy into defending.
2. Swiss midfield like Swiss cheese! Ha! Yes, Switzerland’s midfield was excessively holey during its game on Friday, but France deserves credit for applying pressure in all areas of the pitch. Plus, the French is an above-average passing team with up and coming stars talent in its own midfield. Yet it’s important to note the Swiss’ shortcomings in the midfield since that is supposed to be the team’s strength; the X-Men, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, are a spark offensively, but they, and their teammates on the attack, put little effort on the other end in cutting down France’s room with the ball.
Moreover, the Swiss midfielders constantly refused to run back during French attacks, leaving their defense on its own and vulnerable against a skilled offense. It’s true Switzerland doesn’t have the sharpest set of defenders, but look at the good defensive teams in this tournament and notice that they all bring their midfields back to help defend.
Best XI (Second round of group play)
Goalie: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Defense: Rafael Márquez (Mexico) Mario Yepes (Colombia) Júnior Díaz (Costa Rica) Vasileios Torosidis (Greece)
Midfield: Mathew Leckie (Australia) Charles Aránguiz (Chile) Gervinho (Ivory Coast) Edigio Arévalo Ríos (Uruguay)
Attack: Daniel Sturridge (England) Olivier Giroud (France)