Smells Like Team Spirit
Individual brilliance did sparkle occasionally in the first round of the group stage, but it is the collective that is thriving at the World Cup in Brazil, says Sopan Joshi
Finally, a World Cup that not only lives up to its billing but exceeds it — with goals to spare. At the time of going to press, all teams have played once. The 16 games produced 49 goals and only one goalless draw. For the first round of the group stage, that is an average of more than three goals a game — at South Africa 2010, the average was 2.27 goals per game. The last World Cup with an average of more than three goals per game was in 1958 in Sweden. Of the 16 games in the first round, six were won by teams that came from behind.
Some say it is the Brazuca ball, which is a little heavier and behaves like balls of yore, with a conventional seam; not the terribly smooth surface and lightweight of the much-maligned Jabulani four years ago. Then there are those who see in this another positive sign for the sport. FIFA has been trying very hard to favour attacking football — in recent years, it has changed the offside law and come down heavily against the tackle from behind. Which is why smaller players with skills are thriving.
It is not too unlike cricket, which has become batsmen-centric, with big hitting becoming a norm rather than an exception. Which is why aggressive, attacking bowlers are so few and far between. Defenders in football are showing comparable symptoms.
Consider Spain, which began an era of domination by winning the European Championships in 2008. Its two centre-backs were Carles Puyol and Carlos Marchena, with Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila as full-backs on the right and the left flanks. The only difference in the back four two years later at the 2010 World Cup was: Gerard Pique replaced Marchena. When Spain defended its Euro title in 2012, Puyol and Marchena were gone, and Ramos had moved into central defence.
Pique’s best performances for club (Barcelona) and country came playing next to Puyol. Barcelona’s dip in form and their lack of a quality central defender has been exposed cruelly over the past two seasons, when Pique has stood as centre-back in Puyol’s absence. Ramos is a rising star and the crucial goals he scores off his headers in set-pieces cannot hide the fact that he is prone to several lapses, and has collected 19 red cards for Real Madrid.
Not a good time for defenders
In the Group B opening game on 14 June, Arjen Robben ran around Ramos to score his second (and the Netherlands’ fifth) goal to beat Spain 5-1. As much as the five goals resulted from the Dutch sparkle, they showed lapses from the Spain back-two and the goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Brazil has conceded only one goal, but its back four has not looked settled apart from captain Thiago Silva.
There are positives, too. France centre-back Raphael Varane looks a picture of composure and competence at the back. While Casillas floundered, Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa produced the goalkeeping performance of the tournament thus far in the Group A encounter with Brazil, holding the hosts to a 0-0 draw. The Dutch defence, mostly built with players unknown outside the domestic league, displayed a creditable show against the Spanish attackers.
All this has contributed greatly to a week of entertaining football. For football’s popularity is not because of great defenders; it is down to great goals. How many people remember Bobby Moore’s patient and well-timed tackle on Jairzinho in England’s 1970 loss to Brazil? Or Gordon Banks’ impossible save of a Pele header in the same game, when the latter had started celebrating his goal, only to realise Banks had tipped it past the post? All the same, great teams need great defenders and ’keepers. The contest will be no fun if the attackers run with it unchallenged.
Which is why, perhaps the most impressive game of the first round of the group stage was between Italy and England, two teams known for pragmatism and physicality. England, especially, has flattered to disappoint; it has something to do with the hype around the English Premier League, which thrives on foreign money and foreign players. When it comes to picking a squad for England, though, English football has had little to offer over the past two decades.
This time, manager Roy Hodgson has selected a young squad. The team showed no sign of reactive football, and the younger players showed little care for reputations. Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley were especially impressive, and one hopes to see a little more of Jack Wilshere than a late substitution in the second half. They seem as keen to create their moves as to counter-attack.
Horses for courses
Italy were even more impressive. Built around the subtle charms of Andrea Pirlo’s midfield artistry, this Italian squad appears well-drilled and supple. The defence is not what Italian teams have been known for. It looks good to survive unscathed the group stage, but the pressure in the knockout stage will be very different. It will get good support from the midfield, though, as was on display in the game against England. Manager Cesare Prandelli famously said he wants to win this cup with seven different formations for seven different games. Based on the first game, it is safe to say this is a team to watch.
Flexibility is what Louis van Gaal’s Dutch team also showed. Through his illustrious career with Europe’s biggest clubs, Van Gaal has favoured a 3-4-3 or a 4-3-3 set-up. Yet the first game showed a more defensive 5-3-2. The Dutch master known for flamboyance has made practical adjustments to suit the situation, as also a younger crop of players.
This adaptability was absent from Brazil’s two outings. Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has stuck religiously with the XI that won the Confederations Cup last year. The players are the same, but the team’s performance is not. Especially in the midfield, with Paulinho the biggest disappointment. Hulk failed to impress in the first game and got injured; his replacement Ramires looking listless, too. In the absence of any control in the middle, the idea is to somehow get the ball out wide to Neymar and Oscar — and then join a collective prayer for some magic, like in the Confederations Cup. It is the same Neymar and Oscar, but to produce comparable results, Brazil needs the others to do their job at a similar level — in fact, at a higher level, given the occasion.
They could take a leaf out of Germany, which made the strongest of starts against Portugal — even better than Holland’s, for the Dutch impressed only in the second half. Germany had the game from the beginning. Tomas Muller’s hat-trick, Mario Gotze’s marauding runs and midfield artistry from Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos. All this became possible because of the calm and composure Philipp Lahm provided in the midfield pivot. But with Lahm moving out of defence, this team doesn’t defend as well as German teams of the past — surprise, surprise.
Who said team sport?
Germany will be vulnerable to teams that defend well against their spectacular attack, and hit them on the counter. But then, which attack-minded team isn’t vulnerable to that? The Germans still proved that a great player — even one as ridiculously gifted as Cristiano Ronaldo — is no substitute for a good, well-oiled team. After one or two good moves early on in the game, CR7 became a shadowy presence. His moving to centre-forward from his customary left-wing position did not help. Once Pepe had earned his red card — nobody who has seen Pepe even intermittently over the years doubts his predisposition to mindless confrontations and rash challenges outdone only by his Real Madrid teammate Ramos — the game was settled fair and square.
That a team counts for more than an individual is bad news for Argentina. The first half of its encounter with World Cup novice Bosnia-Herzegovina showed a team not sure of itself, and waiting to be rescued by the divine intervention of Lionel Messi. In the second half, with a switch in formation and joined by Gonzalo Higuain up front, the team looked more settled. And Messi produced the one spell of magic that can settle a game. How many more has he got?
Contributions to a great first week also came from Costa Rica, which shocked Uruguay, and Colombia, which looked great in the 3-0 victory over Greece. A big question mark hung over Belgium’s talented team, which has had very little experience of playing together. In its first half against Algeria, the Red Devils looked comfortable on the ball but lacked penetration, going behind after a reckless challenge handed Algeria a penalty. Second-half substitutions brought new life; the team came from behind to claim the game.
France managed a competent outing against a Honduras team that planned to inflict physical injuries to Frenchmen, and would not have minded if it managed to play some football. The French team showed remarkable calm and completed a 3-0 demolition, with Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena showing promise. The French may yet survive talisman Franck Ribery’s absence due to a back injury.