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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Scrambling for spots

With Tuesday’s dead rubber draw between Peru and Bolivia, the South American qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup came to a close. Compared to that of other continental confederations around the globe, the current qualifying system used by Conmebol is the most entertaining, the most competitive and it serves as the best preparation for major tournaments.

All ten of Conmebol’s member nations (nine this time around, with Brazil qualified as World Cup hosts) compete in one group, and the guaranteed fixture list of home and away games provides a stern test for the better nations and a superb chance for development for the weaker nations. For proof, one needs look no further than Ecuador and Venezuela, once the continent’s whipping-boys. Ecuador has now qualified for its third World Cup since 2002 and although Venezuela narrowly missed out on qualification, their steady progress makes them strong candidates to make the 2018 finals.

In the absence of Brazil, Argentina unsurprisingly topped the group. Seeing as they will be the “home” team in most of the southern venues at next year’s tournament, and considering their wealth of attacking talent (including Lionel Messi, someone you may have heard of), Argentina must be considered among the favourites to win in Brazil.

Colombia finished in second place and qualify for their first World Cup finals since France 98. Much has been made of this Colombia side (with good reason when you consider their front three of James Rodríguez, Teo Gutiérrez and Radamel Falcao), but comparisons with the golden generation of the early 90s are unfair and invalid. Not only did that team have more quality in more areas of the field, they also had to deal with inhumane external pressure that culminated in the tragic murder of el Caballero del Fútbol Andrés Escobar after their elimination from the 1994 World Cup.

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Speaking exclusively about matters on the pitch, the current Colombia team is undoubtedly talented, but also dangerously imbalanced – a trade-off for having the superb Radamel Falcao in attack. While Falcao is probably the world’s best penalty box finisher, he is often only as good as the service he receives. When Colombia’s Argentinian coach José Pékerman started to fill his side with attacking options to feed Falcao, they started winning. However, this onus on attack leaves them vulnerable in defence, even more so with their creaking centre-back corps.

The 3-3 draw against Chile in Barranquilla was a microcosm of this current side. Pékerman started the match with three central defenders in an attempt to contain Chile’s attacking threats, but he still selected James Rodríguez and Teo to support Falcao. The result was a completely disjointed team, isolated forwards and a back line that Chile’s forwards repeatedly outpaced, racking up a 3-0 lead by half-time.

With the Barranquilla crowd spurring them on, Colombia came out fighting for the second half and overloaded Chile, playing a physical, high-intensity style. Amazingly, they drew the match 3-3.

Chile, who qualified in third place, suffer from many of the same problems. Under Jorge Sampaoli they play the most attractive attacking football on the continent, but are frequently undone in defence.

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Sampaoli rose to prominence as the coach of Universidad de Chile, who entertained the continent in 2011 and -12 with their relentless attacking and haphazard defending. Sampaoli – a cross between Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola and a furious chimpanzee – has translated that system word for word to the national team, and they are sure to be the neutral’s favourite next year.

Looking at World Cup 2014 odds, Chile could be a good outside bet for reaching the semi-finals.

Perhaps unfairly regarded as a surprise entrant, Ecuador sealed the fourth and final automatic qualifying spot. Their Colombian coach Reginaldo Rueda has built a solid unit capable of causing problems to any team, spearheaded by excellent wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero.

With the tragic death of Cristián “Chucho” Benítez earlier in the year, Ecuador had to overcome a particularly tough hurdle in order to qualify. Besides being a close friend to many of the squad and an irreplaceable dressing room presence, Chucho was also crucial to Ecuador’s style on the pitch.

Playing as a second striker behind Felipe Caicedo, Chucho would work the channels and frustrate defences, often creating chances out of nothing. Ecuador have no-one else in that mould, and while they struggled to adept emotionally and technically, they very nearly lost their place in the top four.

Current Copa América holders Uruguay finished in fifth place and will play off against Jordan for a spot in Brazil. Despite a disappointing campaign, I fully expect them to qualify, but I will talk more about them another day.

With teams around the world scrambling for places in the group stage draw, hosts Brazil and their coach Luiz Felipe Scolari are putting the finishing touches to their preparation. The Seleção played two friendlies during this international break, two 2-0 wins over South Korea and Zambia in the Far East.

It is clear that the side that won the Confederations Cup in July will form the base of their team at the World Cup, with several fringe players fighting for the final spots in the 23-man squad. These friendlies have more or less confirmed the presence of Jefferson and Diego Cavalieri as back-up goalkeepers, Dante and Dedé as the reserve centre-backs and Maxwell as Marcelo’s understudy at left-back.

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Liverpool’s defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva made an excellent return to the national side, and he may be in with a chance of a starting berth ahead of Luiz Gustavo. It doesn’t look like good news for Lucas Moura or Alexandre Pato though, as both were disappointing, slated by Brazilian journalists and will probably miss the final cut.

By my reckoning, there are only two available spots in Brazil’s World Cup squad: a centre-forward (most likely Fred on his return from injury, possibly Diego Costa) and a reserve attacking midfielder. If I were Felipão, I would be looking at either Liverpool’s Phillipe Coutinho or Atlético-MG’s Diego Tardelli.

Atlético Nacional 3×0 Peñarol: Verdolagas continue to impress

After a brief pause in operations, Game of the Week returns to run the rule over Tuesday’s Copa Libertadores Group 8 clash between Atlético Nacional and Peñarol in Medellín. After an impressive start to their group campaign, the home side just needed to avoid defeat in order to seal qualification to the knock-out stages, while the underachieving Peñarol were already eliminated going into this match, looking to exorcise the demons of the 0x4 home defeat in the reverse fixture.

This turned out to be yet another admirable performance from Santiago Escobar’s Verdolagas as they secured a comprehensive three-goal victory in front of their home fans, securing their qualification and putting them atop Group 8 with eleven points in five matches. Continue reading Atlético Nacional 3×0 Peñarol: Verdolagas continue to impress

Manure-handlers, projectiles and Hamilton Ricard: South America update

For the past few months, you would be forgiven for thinking that ILFM solely focused on football here in Brazil and nowhere else. However, the fact is that I aim to write about all types of South American football, Argentine, Uruguayan, Venezuelan… You name it, I have a passion for it.

The remarkably exciting 2011 Campeonato Brasileiro season certainly took centre stage here on this blog, but now that it has been concluded, allow me to bring you up to date with everything else that’s going on in this beautiful continent. Continue reading Manure-handlers, projectiles and Hamilton Ricard: South America update

World Cup 2014: The Road to Rio begins

With just over 1,000 days until the Final in the Maracanã, CONMEBOL’s nine nations (excluding Brazil) begin their march towards the World Cup with the first round of qualifying matches taking place this week. With every side in action on Friday and again on Tuesday (even Brazil have friendly matches on those days) we have plenty of thrilling football to look forward to. Let’s take a look at Friday’s four qualifiers, and cast a quick glance over the 2014 hosts and their friendly in Costa Rica.

Continue reading World Cup 2014: The Road to Rio begins