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Monday, 16 June 2014

World Cup 2014: End of a Trend

The problem with traveling during the World Cup is that everything moves so quickly - you get on the plane for ten hours, and when you get off again the footballing world has been turned on its head.

Or not. But it is true that I'm now three days behind, and haven't had the chance to regale you with my thoughts on England v Italy, or any of the other matches that have taken place since then.

That said, part of the flight was spent productively, listening to the Guardian's Football Daily podcast, hosted by James Richardson and chums. I may have mentioned it before (it's usually weekly, but goes daily for the big tournaments), but it's a great collection of footballing insight and terrible puns. The timing of the matches means that they have to stay up really late to record it, and some games go missing (like Ivory Coast v Japan). However, I was happy that at least I caught the one where they talked about England v Italy, and that amazing Netherlands v Spain match.

In any case, while listening to the episode about yesterday's matches, one of the gang made an interesting observation, namely that we hadn't had any draws so far. I had, in fact, noticed this too, so I was intrigued when they said it was probably the longest stretch since 1990 that a World Cup has gone without a draw.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and so it proved today when Iran met Nigeria.

Bliss, followed by ennui

The day started rather promisingly. Germany, whom several of James Richardson's cohorts had written off, due to injury problems and the lack of strikers, decided to roll over a strangely quiescent Portugal. Although Portugal did manage to get Pepe sent off, for hitting and then (lightly) head-butting Thomas Müller, so they weren't that quiescent, I suppose.

I don't have a burning hatred of the Portuguese team, so the result didn't give me the warm glow of satisfaction I got when seeing Spain get humbled. It may be because Portugal never wins anything. But it was satisfying to see such a complete demolition of one team by another (and seeing Cristiano Ronaldo, whom I do loathe, made unhappy also helped).

I'll admit I didn't have amazingly high hopes for Iran v Nigeria, but it didn't take me long to realize that neither team actually knew what it was doing. Both were so cagey that they couldn't seem to get more than one man forward at a time, although that made no difference, because they also couldn't string together two passes to save their lives.

Now, I've become concerned lately with the question of all the teams that come to the World Cup but don't win anything. Realistically, in any given World Cup there are maybe four or five teams that can win it, and they always come from Europe or South America. It's great that teams from Africa, Asia and Oceania now participate regularly, but it's hard to come up with any scenario that involves one of them winning. Iran v Nigeria was a masterclass in why that should be.

On the other hand, Ivory Coast v Japan was more lively, and featured goals - I just didn't get to see it because it was on so late. My understanding, though, is that as soon as Didier Drogba came on for the Ivory Coast, Japan fell apart, which hints at a vast gulf between the respective footballing philosophies of both continents. It would just have been nice if the teams that played today had shown any kind of philosophy, or interest in tactics. Hell, it would even have been interesting if they'd had the balls to at least kick each other a few times.

USA! USA! USA!

Luckily, we were straight back to winning ways with USA v Ghana, although that game was also not without its problems. The US did well to score early - I missed the goal, so I don't know how they built up to it, but there can't have been much build-up because it came in the first 30 seconds or so of the match. But that just meant Ghana were chasing the entire time, and an equalizer was inevitable.

Ghana had 62% of the possession, and took 21 shots compared with the US's 8. At one point, Univision showed the difference in passes completed, which was also illuminating: Ghana had managed around 280, while the US was at 180. Seeing that stat, and the fact that Team USA couldn't string together multiple passes, made me wonder what exactly Jürgen Klinsmann is doing as their coach - surely he and the players understand that the passing game is king? This is why Spain has won three tournaments in a row, and England hasn't won anything since 1966.

It was clear, watching both the US and Ghana, that neither team was particularly good tactically. If the US was let down by poor passing and ball control, Ghana suffered from an inability to finish - according to the BBC, despite their enormous number of shots they managed fewer on goal than the US did. Given how rampant Germany was earlier this morning, I find myself a little worried for both the US and Ghana about how they'll cope - I don't think I'd like to see either of them ship more than two or three goals.

On the other hand, they should be fine against Portugal...

Great Expectations

Speaking of which, I said above that Portugal was quiescent, and none more so than Cristiano Ronaldo. This is just continuing proof of the fact that he and the other big names of the moment still have yet to make much impact in key tournaments. Lionel Messi is one example, given that his first World Cup goal came 8 years ago, and his second was yesterday. I don't want to take anything away from the achievement, of course (even if one of the guys from the Guardian suggested, perhaps with a touch too much glee, that it might be taken away from him and listed as an own goal), but given the expectations that always surround Messi, based on his performances for Barcelona, you'd think he could create magical goals out of nothing a bit more often, no?

Wayne Rooney, of course, is even worse - in three World Cups he's scored not a single goal. Part of that may be the bizarre insistence of three separate England managers on playing him out of position; but it's likely also related to the lack of players in key positions. One thing that no one seems to remember is that, back in 2008, before England had failed to qualify for the Euros, then-manager Steve McLaren paired Rooney up front with Emile Heskey, and the team all of a sudden looked fluid and dangerous again.

I'm not such a fool as to suggest that Heskey was an amazing player, but it is true that since 1998 England's game hasn't been that exciting. Someone else on the Football Daily podcast said something about managers choosing the best individual players rather than those who fit together best as a team, and attributed the generally low quality of World Cup football to that tendency. It sounds like a good explanation as well for why the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Rooney have failed to live up to their own reputations (to say nothing of people like Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o, who probably fails because his entire team doesn't like him and refuses to pass to him).