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.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Weekday World Cup Musings - June 16


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Spain 1 - Netherlands 5: The 'Roja' Wedding
It's painful to see Iker like this.
This would be perhaps the most shocking result of the WC thus far. The shock does not come from the fact that the Dutch won, but from how badly they destroyed Spain. For the few who don't follow the HBO series Game of Thrones, the 'Red Wedding' is an infamous scene in the series that sees major protagonists get massacred whilst attending a wedding. Well, we were all geared up and in a festive mood to kick off the events for Group B in the world cup until we saw the World and European Champions get butchered.
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I had predicted a 2-1 Spain win but advised a friend (who gets the betting man's disease when the WC rolls around) that the odds for a draw would probably be good and that would be worth a punt. So, when Van Persie equalized with his 'salmon leap' header, I thought that 45 minutes would be plenty of time for my anticipated result to pan out.
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And then it happened.
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Let me say this: all the goals that Spain conceded were the result of individual errors particularly by Iker Casillas, Gerard Pique, and to a lesser extent, Sergio Ramos.
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The Van Persie's first goal was a result of Pique dropping too deep and playing Van Persie onside. Robben's first goal was Pique's fault too: coming too late, he forgot what the entire world already knew: that Robben would cut to his left foot and shoot, he sealed off Robben's right foot instead and duly got turned. The next 2 goals would be on Iker. De Vrij's goal was very similar to the once Casillas conceded to Diego Godin in the Champions League final: flapping and misjudging a cross and getting punished for the loose ball. Ditto for Van Persie's second, where Casillas had a 'Paul Robinson moment' (remember him!?!?! I'm embarrassed to put the 2 names in the same sentence!). Robben's second goal was a repeat of his first: this time with Casillas making the mistake. Pique was trying to seal off Robben's left foot - what was Casillas doing trying to dive at the Dutchman's right? When did the best goalkeeper in the world, Real Madrid's all-time greatest goalkeeper become Calamity Casillas?
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Whatever happens to Spain in this WC, Casillas must look himself in the mirror and admit that the time has come for him to let David De Gea take his place as Spain's #1. I would in fact, not mind seeing the change happening in the next match. Yup, you just heard that from a Real Madrid fan.
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As for the rest of the team, Del Bosque I think needs to have a tactical re-think. The team's width comes almost exclusively from the fullbacks alone with the 2 supposed wide midfielders (Iniesta and Silva) drifting inside. This makes the team predictable, and less incisive, especially with Xavi unable to single-handedly control the match with his passing any more. A real winger with pace (Pedro?) is needed. Diego Costa needs someone who he can be in synch with on the pitch too, so perhaps Koke ought to be considered. The temptation is great to stick to the old guard, but we must all know when the time has come to make changes.
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Here's another thought: the second-placed team in this group will play the first-placed team of Group A, likely to be hosts Brazil. Is this the WC where we will see the Spanish Armada get shipwrecked?
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England 1 - Italy 2: Guilt
I have to admit that I really enjoyed watching this fresh young and fearless England side vs. Italy
I have NO idea who to support in this WC. Many Filipinos have always had an affection for Brazilians during World Cups, and I am no different. I supported the Romario-led Brazil in USA 94, had Zidane break my heart in France 98 and went crazy with a pack of strangers when Ronaldo redeemed himself in Japan-Korea '02. I never got over the heartbreak caused by the implosion of Brazil's 06 side and thus went on to cheer for Spain in 2010, dancing on my bed at the sight of Iniesta scoring.
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Before this tournament began however, I had already decided I wasn't going to be cheering for Spain. I told myself that I'd watch the group stage games and make my mind up from there. And here's where my guilty confession comes in: of all the games I've seen so far in this WC, no team has entertained me as much as England.
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Props must go to Roy Hodgson for letting majority of the old guard make way for the fresh and fearless youngsters in the team: Sturridge, Sterling, Welbeck, Henderson who all gave good accounts of themselves against Italy. They lost to an Italy side who showed the frightening savvy of a side who understands what it takes to win this competition: tactical nous (Prandelli), calm and clear-headedness (Pirlo), grit (Marchisio, Candreva), ruthlessness (Balotelli) and verve (Darmian). Did we just see the sort of performance that makes this team a dark horse for the title?
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Either way, I find myself covered in guilt as I feel as if I'm getting myself sucked into becoming an England fan (no offense to England supporters out there). At the end of the day however, I truly believe that if they play with the sort of verve, energy and fearlessness that they displayed vs. Italy for the rest of the competition, I have no doubts that they will make a dent in Brazil.
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Ivory Coast 2 - Japan 1: Elephants Trample on the Samurai
Honda's Karate Kick goal gave me hope Japan could pull it off, but the Ivorians' power was just way too much for the Japanese to handle.
As an Asian, I will cheer the Asian teams by default, so I was cheering for the Blue Samurai when they faced the Elephants of the Ivory Coast. I had my father-in-law, who probably never saw a single football match in his life, cheering for them too. We both leapt off the couch when Keisuke Honda pulled off his Karate-kick shot to make it 1-0 for Japan. After that, all we hoped for was for them to hold on for the win.
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The analogy of Blue Samurai vs. Elephants was no exaggeration however. Japan fought and tried, but could not handle the physical power of their Ivorian counterparts. The Ivorians were too big, too powerful. The Japanese were mangled in pretty much every physical challenge. Exhausted, the Japanese had no answer for the energy and motivational boost that the Ivorians enjoyed once their 'King Elephant' (Drogba) turned up and duly conceded 2 goals in a matter of minutes.
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A word for Arsenal, who is rumored to be looking at Serge Aurier to replace Sagna (who joined Man City) as the team's Right Back: Sign him up!
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Argentina 2 - Bosnia Herzegovina 1: Pushing me towards England
Messi had the best goal of the tournament thus far but his team raised plenty of tactical questions.
A colleague asked me today if the reason I looked like a panda bear was because of the World Cup or if it was because of my newborn daughter. I had only gotten up to watch one match at an ungodly hour over the weekend (Spain vs. Netherlands at 3am). The others were at 12mn, or 6 in the morning, just an hour earlier than my usual wake up time. Argentina-Bosnia was on at 6am today and after the opening goal (a Bosnia OG), I dozed off for the rest of the first half.
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I have NO idea that Argentina were trying to accomplish with the 3-4-1-2 they started the game with (with what looked to me like Mascherano as a '10!'). In my half-unconscious state, I could hear the play-by-play commentator calling the game as if it was Bosnia-Herzegovina who were creating the scoring chances. Argentina couldn't string 3 passes together!
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I had to get ready for work by the second half. And so did Sabella, reverting to a more logical 4-3-3 with ex-Real Madrid player Fernando Gago in the central midfield. The front 3 remained unconvincing for me: with Messi playing as a false 9 means that striking talents of the team like Higuain and Aguero will be playing in the flanks. Yes, yes, yes, Messi might be the best player in the world when on song (and his goal duly demonstrated that), but in this situation, his role doesn't make full use of his teammates' talents.
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One of my picks to possible make the final remains unconvincing.
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Germany 4 - Portugal 0: Pepe goes mad. AGAIN.
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Pepe self-destructs AGAIN.
I cheered for the Germans in Euro 2012 but became a skeptic of theirs because they're essentially playing this tournament with a 36(?) year old striker (Klose). Loew's side looks slightly different this tournament though. They looked like a 4-3-3 with Lahm and Kroos sitting deep and dictating play from there: creating a weird situation of Sami Khedira freely receiving passes in advanced position with space to feed the front 3 (as if he was a #10). Ozil and Gotze, both natural #10s, played on the flanks with Thomas Muller playing as the striker. Muller scored a hat trick and the scoreline looked great for the Germans. 
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Here's my tactical critique though: playing with natural CBs as fullbacks (Boateng and Howedes) and with #10s (Ozil and Gotze) as wide midfielders, they're the sort of team that can get choked up against a team with a great defensive set up.
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Let's call it what it really is. Germany won so handsomely because Portugal's players had their minds in Mars when this game happened. Pereira's silly, early conceded penalty, Rui Patricio passing the ball directly to a German player twice and most of all Pepe having completely lost his mind (2 red-card offenses: fouling a player who might have a clear goalscoring chance, and headbutting Muller). Pepe might never set foot on a world cup pitch again because of this, and it's hard to argue that he didn't deserve it. His team played a man down for majority of the match and look to miss him (their 2nd most important player to Ronaldo) for the rest of the competition.
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Portugal Iberian neighbour Spain as having been butchered at the hands of a Western European neighbor (Germany, Netherlands).

Friday, June 13, 2014

Pre-Weekend World Cup Ramblings, etc. (Brazil 3 - Croatia 1)

Now come on. That was NOT a penalty.
I took in the game (4am Singapore time) whilst ironing a pile of dried laundry that consisted of my clothes, my wife's, my son's, my daughter's and my in-laws'. I didn't manage to finish the entire pile (the other half will be left for tonight's Spain-Netherlands match, 3am tomorrow early morning).
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I managed to download an excel file where you plug the scorelines of the matches of the tournament, which in turn update the rankings in the group tables and eventually fill up the brackets in the elimination rounds. In filling it up and exchanging notes with some colleagues in the office, I was startled by how the groupings allow Brazil a very good chance of making it into the finals and winning it all. In my 'excel simulation', they reach the final to face either Spain or Argentina.
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Opening matches tend not to be great contests (I didn't watch South Africa's opening match in the last WC, and saw Germany steamroll Costa Rica in 2006). Brazil-Croatia was a proper contest though. Croatia had enough quality players to bother the hosts and it really looked like that when the match started.
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Brazil need to sort out how their fullbacks bomb forward. They can't just be all gung-ho about it because soon enough, someone will exploit them for it. Before Marcelo's 'opening (own) goal', Olic had already raided Brazil's right flank and sent in a dangerous cross as a 'warning'. Brazil didn't heed it and duly paid for it with Olic creating the tournament's first goal.
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The match for me was pretty balanced afterwards even after Neymar's great equalizer - and this was a great way to start the second half. Let me say it though: it was NOT a penalty. Lovren barely touched Fred who in my opinion should have been yellow carded for simulation instead. The decision altered the game completely. Oscar's goal (to make it 3-1) wouldn't have been possible if Croatia had not gone into full attack mode to get the equalizer - making the 3-1 scoreline too harsh. 
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A few things that bothered me about Brazil:
1.) Defensive coordination is a joke. When a fullback bombs down the flanks, the defense needs to adjust to the space left behind, it will be exploited by good teams and Brazil can end up paying a dear price for it.
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2.) The CB partnership isn't solid. This will be next season's PSG CB partnership... and it looks shaky. Luiz doesn't convince on clearances, last ditch interceptions / tackles, etc. Thiago Silva does NOT look like the world's best CB out there. A team with a great #9 can give this CB partnership problems if they carry on like this.
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3.) Center of midfield is dull. Gustavo and Paulinho offered no dynamism. No great passes, no ability to keep possession in advanced positions, no dynamic runs. There is way too much reliance on Neymar and Oscar alone to create. 
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My Man of the Match: Oscar
Everyone will be talking about Neymar for sure. Given the #10 shirt, he's the undisputed star player of Brazil and scored 2 goals in the opener starring for his country on home soil. That #10 shirt however, should have gone to the real #10 in the team instead: Oscar.
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He ended the season poorly for Chelsea but I have to say that I really like what I saw from the baby-faced playmaker last night. Without the ball, he was all over Modric, refusing to give Croatia's chief creator any time or space to create anything. This aggressiveness without the ball is what saw him barrel through 3 Croata players to send the ball into space for Neymar to tie the game. His tireless running is also what saw him create and capitalize on that half chance to seal the game 3-1. 
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He's got a great knack for finding a pass to open up the defense and create a scoring chances it was there for all to see last night.
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Final Thoughts: Cesc to Chelsea? Really???
Cesc wears 4 as a tribute to his idol Pep Guardiola. He instead should probably have selected #8 jersey Frank Lampard left behind.
My wife will be mighty pissed off to see this. I'm honestly surprised that this happened and a few questions / criticisms come to mind.
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1.) This is a real 'egg-in-your-face' moment for FC Barcelona. Today's bandwagoner fans of FC Barcelona will probably not remember that their club's bandwagoner fans of the past were at a state of righteous indignation when Arsenal were trying their hardest to hold on to Fabregas. They argued that it was some sort of birthright of Barca for Fabregas to return (which IMO is ridiculous). A Barca player of the time (I forgot who) even suggested that Cesc was being treated like a slave. Now they let him go to the club managed by one of their mortal enemies.
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2.) This tells me that the Fabregas signing was a tactical failure, just like like the Ibrahimovic signing (speaking of which, I read his autobiography, and it's magnificently entertaining). They signed Ibra to have a proper striker leading the line for them, only to throw money into the ocean when they decided to allow Messi to lead the line and use their most expensive signing (at the time) as a spare tire - selling him to Milan on the cheap. In a similar vein, they signed Fabregas presumably as an alternative to Xavi, or as some part of their midfield 3 but just couldn't make it work. The price paid for this process of forcing this tactical intent to work was the loss of Thiago Alcantara to Bayern (who looks much more convincing as a Xavi alternate). Cesc has instead seen plenty of time as part of the front 3 (where Barca have plenty of choices). The signing of Rakitic from Sevilla looks more likely for Barcelona now. It might turn out to be a Croatian vs. Croatian battle in midfield for the next clasico.
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3.) Is Fabregas going to become Mourinho's new Frank Lampard? Mourinho's Porto and Chelsea both made use of a 4-3-3. Having been gifted with genius-level #10s in Inter (Sneijder) and Real Madrid (Ozil / Kaka), he then found himself using a 4-2-3-1 after. Now that he has dispatched Juan Mata to Man U, the only #10 left on his team is Oscar, who has the work rate for a midfield place in a 4-3-3 and can play as part of a front 3 (like Joe Cole during Mourinho's first spell at Chelsea). Having signed his new Makelele (Nemanja Matic) in last season, while closing in on his new Drogba (Diego Costa), will Cesc become the new Frank Lampard in Mourinho's re-booted 4-3-3 in Chelsea?