Friday, June 20, 2014

Football in Sickness (and In Health)

So my health has finally caught up with me. I started showing symptoms of the flu last Monday and here I am wheezing, sneezing, snorting and sniffing my way through the day. Having caught the flu though, my wife has now kicked me out of the bedroom lest I infect her and the 2 kids. So behold my new mistress: football. Here are a couple of thoughts on the last 2 matches:
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Belgium 2 - Algeria 1
If they're not going to entertain us with their football, they should at least do it with their hair. Come on Mark Wilmots: play the all-afro midfield of Witsel and Fellaini!
I looked forward to seeing the hipster's choice for the tournament. They have the best young goalkeeper in the world (Courtois), one of the best CBs (Kompany) and 2 of the best young attacking players in the world (Hazard, Lukaku). They were in turn surrounded by plenty of great players whom almost much every nation would like to have in their team (Witsel, Fellaini, De Bruyne, etc.). What Belgium don't have however are fullbacks, and it is this weakness of theirs that I think will be exposed... and that's exactly what happened when Jan Vertonghen (a CB made to play as a LB) conceded a penalty to allow Algeria to take the lead.
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Playing CBs as fullbacks usually means that the opposing wide player will be facing a slower, less-mobile man when going forward. On defense, it also means that the team in question will have a limited ability in spreading the pitch open as most CBs deputizing as full backs have neither the pace, nor the crossing ability to threaten you. All this was exposed in the game vs. Algeria.
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Belgium also lacked that much-needed zing going forward. De Bruyne didn't give Belgium the much-needed spark that a '10' brings while Lukaku's first touch and passing was a let down. Too often, especially in the first half, Eden Hazard was given the ball (or his team mates let him have the ball) in the oddest parts of the pitch as if expecting him to turn into the Lionel Messi of 2-3 years ago (who could dribble his way into, around and through a defense at will) to create a scoring chance. Trouble is, Hazard is no Messi.
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Belgium in the end had to resort to 'Route 1 Football' tactics: relying on Fellaini to open the scoring and using a counter attack to win the game. They will still get past the group stages. Their stock as the hipster's choice however is rapidly taking a nose dive.
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Brazil 0 - Mexico 0
Here's the shocking bit: Brazil lack creativity. Instead of a legend-class striker to lead the line (e.g. Romario, Ronaldo), they have the functional, feigning Fred. And behind him are Brazil's 'only' have 2 creative players: Neymar and Oscar - whom they are way too dependent on to create and score. Faced with a plucky organized team, they will struggle. And struggle they did against Mexico whose GK Guillermo Ochoa played the match of his life. Credit must not go to Ochoa alone though. We must remember that in the London Olympics (where many of this Brazil and Mexico team played), it was the Mexicans who walked away with Gold.
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Spain 0 - Chile 2
Marca's painful and poignant cover marking an end to the era of the Spanish National Team's dominance. 
The problem is NOT that Tiki-Taka dead.
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The problem is that Spain's ability to play Tiki-Taka well has died.
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The ‘Tiki-Taka’ football that saw Spain win Euro 2008, 2012 and the World Cup in 2010 was built around the ability of the team to retain possession at an enormously high level. And when the ball was lost, the team would then expend incredible amounts of energy to press the opponent into surrendering it back. It was these 2 elements in their play that saw Guardiola’s Barcelona and Aragones + Del Bosque’s Spain reach the highest quality levels in possession play.  At its zenith, ‘tiki-taka’ football as we know it, functioned both as a vicious attacking strategy (see Barca’s 5-0 mauling of Mourinho’s Madrid) and as an effective (albeit boring) defensive strategy (see Spain’s Euro 2012 performance, except for their performance vs. Italy in the final).
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Here’s the thing about tiki-taka though: like any other tactical strategy in playing any sport, when played badly, the strategy is shit.
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Spain is out of the World Cup not because it played tiki-taka. It is out of the World Cup because it played tiki-taka BADLY. Bereft of a midfield engine who can choreograph play, construct space and dictate the tempo of the game as he sees fit, Spain could no longer command possession of the ball in the manner it used to. That midfield engine, that choreographer was Xavi Hernandez. He is 34 now and clearly no longer has the same engine as the midfield conductor of Spain’s Euro 2008, WC 2010 and Euro 2012 Xavi. He was off the pace against the Netherlands, and wasn’t even on the pitch against Chile last night. Without Xavi in his prime, Spain in possession are still a great team, but they are not at the level of the seemingly immortal Spain (or Barca) circa 2008-2012.
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To make things worse, this Spain team no longer hunt in packs like starved wolves for the ball once it is lost. A lost ball or a broken attacking play from Spain is now an immediate opportunity for the opponent to start an attack. La Roja’s opponents no longer look over their shoulder in fear of being blindsided by 3-4 red shirts when they are in possession of the ball. They instead are able to push the ball forward at pace to start a counter attack which in turn catches the Spanish’s high defensive line (a tiki-taka staple) flat footed and vulnerable.
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And once you add all that to a goalkeeper who was once the source of the team’s absolute confidence, and is now instead the subject of the team’s insecurities (Casillas) – the result is fatal.
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Tiki Taka isn’t dead. Bayern Munich will terrify us all with it at club level again next season, and perhaps Spain will do so again with their new young crop of players.
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The only thing that has died (or has passed on) is the era of this Golden Generation of Spain’s national team. I for one, am just glad that I was a witness to its greatness in all its pomp. Perhaps one day in the future, my son will gush about some great team able to dominate ball possession, win multiple titles and strike fear into the hearts and minds of the rest of the football world. And maybe, just maybe, my reply might be: “yeah they’re great… almost like Spain 2008-2012. But not quite there yet.”

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