Days nine and ten: Hypothetically speaking

Once again, I wasn’t able to put up a diary yesterday, so here’s an extended thought for today to make up for it.

When Portugal eliminated Sweden in the playoff stage of World Cup qualifying, football fans around the globe realised the tournament in Brazil would be missing one of the world’s most talented stars. Cristiano Ronaldo, voted the best player in the world that season, would be there; Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not.

With Diego Costa’s decision to snub the Seleção still fresh in the memory, some Brazilian columnists asked sarcastically: “Can’t we get Zlatan to play up front for us?”

The sentiment, of course, is purely comical, but you feel that the only piece missing from the Brazilian national team puzzle is a technically gifted centre-forward. Fred, despite his physical presence and natural eye for goal, is an extremely limited striker. He is static, sloppy and sluggish. He does not have the skill to link up play and bring in others around him and he is only there for his positioning in the penalty area.

Fred had a great Confederations Cup, but mainly because the rest of the team was functioning well around him. He wasn’t needed to create play, drag defenders out of position, make intelligent runs or work back to defend. The rest of the team did all of that for him and successfully gave him the ball in and around the penalty area, where Fred flourishes.

In Brazil’s opening games, the rest of the side has not been functioning properly. Not enough chances are being created, not enough space is being made for forward runs of Neymar, Hulk, Oscar or Paulinho. Against Croatia and Mexico, Fred was a passenger, his presence notable only for the laughable penalty he won in the opener in São Paulo.

Imagine Zlatan Ibrahimovic was playing in that central attacking role. His tremendous technique and intelligence could make the Brazilian offensive unit unstoppable. But, of course, that’s ridiculous. International football does not work that way and neither should it. In club football we can see teams formed by players from different countries, with different backgrounds, educations, styles. Barcelona can build a marvellous side using only homegrown players, but if they lack firepower up front they can always splash out on a foreign No 9.

At international level, nations have a defined pool from which to choose. If country X have not produced any talented goalkeepers, there is no amount of money or bargaining tool that can get them one, they have to field the best goalkeeper they have, no matter how terrible he is in comparison with the rest of the team.

I was reminded of this Zlatan hypothetical on Thursday while watching another excellent day of World Cup football. England lost to Uruguay in dramatic circumstances in São Paulo, waving goodbye to their chances of progressing. Later that evening, Japan failed to score against 10-man Greece in one of the competition’s most frustrating games. If each national team were permitted to swap one player with another country, England and Japan could have been more successful.

Against Uruguay, England were narrowly beaten on the scoreboard, but comprehensively beaten in the midfield battle. This was understandable considering their shape: Hodgson went with his familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with the midfield line of three (Sterling, Rooney and Wellbeck) playing very high up the pitch. Their defensive line, worried about Uruguay’s pace in attack, were hesitant to step up, leaving a vast space between defence and attack with England’s central midfield pair, Gerrard and Henderson, the only ones to occupy it.

Uruguay changed their system (a feature of Oscar Tabárez’s Uruguay sides is their tactical versatility) and played a midfield diamond with Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani in attack. Egídio Arévalo Rios, their stocky, ankle-biting defensive midfielder, kept Rooney quiet for most of the match while their other midfielders, Álvaro González, Cristián Rodríguez and Nicolás Lodeiro swamped the middle of the pitch with their constant energy and pressing. Cavani, always willing to work back, also played a crucial role in closing down Gerrard.

The result was England’s two central midfielders, those responsible for creating attacking moves, were watched by four tireless Uruguayans. Gerrard, the closest thing England had to a playmaker, spent most of his time passing the ball to Glen Johnson, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill – the England back four.

Ideally, England need someone to drop off the front four and provide a creative source in the attacking third of the pitch. They have the objective and dangerous attackers – Raheem Sterling in particular was a breath of fresh air against Italy, taking on defenders and getting shots on goal – but they have no one to feed them, no one to knit their side together.

Imagine if England had Shinji Kagawa of Japan in their team, the nimble playmaker that dazzled at Borussia Dortmund but has never really been given a chance at Manchester United. He would sit in the No 10 position, providing a link between Gerrard and Henderson and the three deadly forwards. Rooney could play closer to goal, perhaps coming in from the left as Benzema did yesterday against Switzerland, with Daniel Sturridge at centre-forward and Sterling as the deep winger on the right.

England get a lot of stick, even from their own fans, but their matches against Italy and Uruguay have been among the most entertaining in the group stage so far. They have the talent and the threat in attack, but in both games I have been left with the sensation that they are missing one player in attacking midfield.

If Japan were to cede Kagawa to England, they would be well served by bringing in any one of England’s front four to replace him. Japan have played twice, winning only one point and scoring one goal. In their opener against Ivory Coast, they started well and took the lead, but quickly lost control of the game and their goal was subjected to an Ivorian onslaught for the remainder of the match. They were perhaps taken by surprise at the manner in which Ivory Coast turned the game around, with two goals in two minutes, but in truth Japan never looked like winning.

Their match against Greece on Thursday evening was particularly frustrating: Greek midfielder Konstantinos Katsouranis was sent off after only 38 minutes, leaving Japan against ten men for over 50 minutes of play. They passed the ball around well, with around 75% of possession and 90% pass completion, but they failed to test the Greek goalkeeper more than four times, all shots from outside the penalty area.

Their creativity was not the problem, they were finding their attacking players in good positions and spreading the ball around when they needed to, probing and looking for gaps, but their forwards were hesitant upon receiving possession. Instead of being objective and going for goal, they would take an extra half second to survey the situation, seeing if there was a better pass available before they took the shot themselves. This delay allowed the Greece defence to close them down, and it is hardly a surprise so many of Japan’s shots on goal were blocked in and around the penalty area.

I was once told a Japanese proverb that would go some way to explaining this flaw in their playing style, it was translated to me as: “the stake that sticks up gets hammered down”. I do not know how poignant this is to Japanese culture, but if this idea was to prevail during the formation of young Japanese athletes then it would result in what we see from the national side today. They are a mechanical team, skilful and technically gifted, but also very creative. In Keisuke Honda, Kagawa and Yasuhito Endo, they have at least three playmakers with excellent vision and intelligence. However, when they reach the final third of the pitch, no one seems hungry enough to take responsibility and have a shot on goal without overthinking.

If Japan could add just one player to their squad, perhaps Raheem Sterling, Wayne Rooney, or Daniel Sturridge, someone to take up good positions and be objective and hungry for goals, they could have six points instead of one.

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