By Andrew Papadopoulos
The 2014 World Cup is over, and the tournament again threw up a few surprises, though the footballing status quo has remained largely the same. Major nations disappointed, and underdogs punched above their weight.
Here The Offside Rule takes a look at how the big teams did, from under-performing giants to the new world champions.
Every competition has its favourites. For this summer, the pre-tournament odds favoured hosts Brazil, and reigning champions Spain- two teams who, in almost opposite ways, failed spectacularly.
The Brazilians ground their way through to the semis with a direct, aggressive approach that was very much against the tradition of ‘beautiful football’. Though they ended the group stage with a very respectable seven points, few were left convinced by the standard of their play. Against Croatia in the opener, the defensive naivety of their wing-backs was exposed, as it would be even more brutally by the Germans five games later. But through a combination of favourable refereeing, Neymar, and a one-pass move for Oscar to net right at the death, the hosts managed to scramble a win. The pattern continued all the way up to their eventual elimination.
This was not a vintage Brazilian performance. In fact, there’s a strong argument to say that it was the worst Brazilian team ever to play at a World Cup. This was a speculative side that relied on harrying opponents into mistakes, rather than building their own moves through skill and control – a complete desertion of their national footballing ideal. Add to that the diving tactics, the refereeing bias they seemed to enjoy, and the baffling repeated selection of underperforming players such as Fred, and the Brazilians ended up not only enduring a historically humiliating exit, but also losing a lot of the neutral love and respect that has allowed them to become the world’s pre-eminent international team. At least one can draw from the positive that the team’s two best players, Neymar and Thiago Silva, were notably absent from the semi-final debacle, and thus probably won’t carry as much of the burden of public scorn in the future.
Spain were a different story to Brazil. Key players such as Xavi Hernandez, Iker Casillas, Diego Costa and Xabi Alonso looked lethargic for the most part, pressed beyond their limits by intense performances from the Netherlands and Chile. The Spaniards looked shell-shocked by their early elimination, as was the watching world, which surely hadn’t expected such flaccid play from the side that had exemplified energetic football for the past three international tournaments.
Merciless pressing from the Dutch and Chileans, who man-marked all of Spain’s midfield, seemed too much for the veteran side to handle. The lack of movement from Xavi, and two rather woeful performances from Alonso exemplified the problems Spain had, but the sluggish Diego Costa, who to be fair wasn’t at 100 per cent at any stage, killed their hopes. The 3-0 win over Australia showed a flicker of the class the Spanish are capable of; expansive passing from Alonso, composed dribbling from Iniesta, but it was too little, too late. If anything, though they were a bitter disappointment this time around, for the majority this has only helped to cast the magical Spain performances of the last few years in an even more positive light. The side will see the retirement of some key players before the next World Cup, but is already re-tooling with the likes of Koke, Thiago, Isco and Alberto Moreno, none of whom saw much (or any action) in Brazil, but who promise to keep the country as relevant as ever by the time Russia 2018 rolls around.
Speaking of youngsters, the Netherlands were pulled up on a website not a million miles from here for the lack of experience in their squad coming into the tournament. Well, their litany of young defenders and midfielders now have a few extra caps to their name, as well as a very credible third place finish.
Louis van Gaal enhanced his reputation no-end in Brazil, man-marking opponents in the midfield and piloting a three man (or five man) defence as well as anyone. It was a case of safety-first from Holland, who always seemed to want an extra man at the back. Despite that approach, they took part in some hugely entertaining games. The 5-1 thrashing of Spain was a wonderful appetiser for the bedlam of the Brazil-Germany semi-final, and their other group games against Australia and Chile were also pretty entertaining thanks, mostly, to counter-attacks led by Arjen Robben, whom the Dutch seemed to want to get the ball to as often as humanly possible. This left 2010’s star man Wesley Sneijder high and dry; he was a peripheral figure because the Netherlands didn’t seem interested in gradual build-up.
Robben’s deadly pace and dribbling ability were the key enabler for the team’s counter-attacking game. The Dutch may not have found the net in 240 minutes during their quarter and semi-final matches, but the scintillating one-man dribbling shows he put on were a fine tonic for the defensive endeavours of Bruno Martins-Indi, Ron Vlaar, and, well, Dirk Kuyt. With Louis van Gaal locking down the midfield area using man-marking, the Dutch leaned heavily on wing play from Robben, but also Memphis Depay, Jeremain Lens, Kuyt, and the excellent Daley Blind to see them through. It wasn’t a classical Dutch approach, but they worked as hard as any side, and have to be happy with beating the beleaguered hosts to third spot.
Spare a thought, though, for the team that played more minutes than any other, but ended up with runners-up medals; Argentina. Though Lionel Messi won the Player of the Tournament award (which is backed up by whoscored.com’s average match ratings- his 8.77 over six games was better than anyone), Alejandro Sabella’s men as a whole were left ruing golden chances in the final that would’ve taken them to their first major trophy since 1993.
Over the 120 minutes of the 2014 World Cup final, Argentina had at least two absolute gilt-edged chances to take control of the game; one for Gonzalo Higuain off Toni Kroos’s nightmare back-header, and one to Rodrigo Palacio after Mats Hummels misjudged a deep cross. Both ended up off-target. In fact, Argentina didn’t have a shot on target in the entire game. The side also scored only twice in the knockout stages, never winning any game by more than a goal. Does that mean they should be considered unworthy finalists?
Well, not exactly. The job that Alejandro Sabella did with Argentina’s defence, especially in the latter stages, was something to be admired. Argentina didn’t concede a goal after the group stage until Mario Götze’s tournament-winning strike in the 113th minute of the final. Defending was seen as by far the weakest aspect of the side, which makes the achievement even more impressive.
Despite there only being five shots on target in the entire 120 minutes, Argentina’s semi-final with Holland was probably their most competent performance. Pablo Zabaleta and Marcos Rojo barely went forward at all during the game, such was the side’s willingness to keep Arjen Robben at bay. It was a disciplined if unspectacular performance from both fullbacks. Enzo Perez also looked very sharp in relief of Angel di Maria, and Javier Mascherano, cementing his reputation as one of the best holding midfielders of the 21st century, gave the complete defensive performance. His game-saving block on Arjen Robben with just minutes to go in normal time was probably the most memorable moment of his tournament.
It’s a shame that neither he nor Perez brought that great form to the final. Instead, the albiceleste relied, unsurprisingly, on Lionel Messi for survival. It was a tactic which failed right at the very end. Though we rarely saw ‘vintage’ Messi in Brazil, the little man had his fair share of moments which made you realize he was potentially a cut above the rest, making players miss with regularity and becoming the tournament’s most successful dribbler (6.5 per game) by a distance. But he wasn’t able to help Argentina capitalize on their final opponents’ one major (possible) weakness.
Which brings us neatly to the new world champions- Germany. The Germans were probably the most entertaining side at this World Cup, their matches against Ghana, Algeria and Brazil being some of the most memorable of all the 64 games. The Germans pressed in midfield and kept their defensive line extremely high for almost the whole tournament- a risky strategy considering centrebacks Mats Hummels and Per Mertesacker lack pace. This gave them major problems against Algeria, a game in which Manuel Neuer was forced to make a number of emergency clearances a huge distance from his own goal.
In the final, too, it looked like Argentina would be able to cause the Germans problems attacking in the space left behind by Benedikt Höwedes, the inexperienced centreback turned fullback. Both Messi and Ezequiel Lavezzi had some joy against Mats Hummels on that side of the field, as the imposing defender was forced into races with the smaller, more agile Argentines. But, poor Argentinian build-up and some heroic performances from Jerome Boateng and Bastian Schweinsteiger proved just enough to prevent the South Americans from wrestling control of the game.
Germany’s high line told an interesting story in itself. Their playing style of controlling possession and probing for openings with ground passes was reminiscent of Spain’s (and, to be fair, their own method) from 2010. It’s not identical, of course, but in removing Miroslav Klose at the 88th minute for attacking midfielder Mario Götze, Joachim Löw signalled, not for the first time, that his team was not afraid to operate without a target man. It certainly seems to have worked out for them. They scored more goals than any other side in Brazil this summer, and out-possessed Argentina in the final 67 per cent – 33 per cent.
For those who have followed the journey of this generation of German players, their victory can’t help but be a satisfying conclusion. Six players who started the U-21 European Championship final (a 4-0 win over England) in 2009 were central to this campaign. That is a terrific turnover from U-21 to senior level, a group that has finally won it all after two successive World Cup semi-final defeats in 2006 and 2010. The Germans are creating effective international-standard players, and the production line doesn’t look like it’s slowing down. Joachim Löw’s assertion that his country could dominate international football in the near future does not look like an empty statement.
You can find part 2 of Andrew’s World Cup review here very soon.
But for now, read more from Andrew right here!