World Cup 2018: A battle of skills and wits
Winning moves—or mistakes—in the quarter-finals will come from managers on the sidelines as much as from the players on the field
Bengaluru: When England captain Harry Kane peeled away from his Colombian marker Wilmar Barrios and earned a penalty, as he wheeled into open space to receive the ball from a corner kick, it was by design, not chance. This was the third penalty Kane converted and the fifth goal for England from set pieces in this World Cup, which is already more than what they achieved in the previous three World Cups combined.
A set piece play, usually from a corner kick or a free kick that can put the ball into the penalty box, is something players and their managers can plan in advance. But these moves have become predictable. Recent innovations in football have come mainly in the flow of the game, such as in the Spanish tiki-taka to hog ball possession.
England manager Gareth Southgate decided it was easier to make an impact with strategies and drills for the unsexy set pieces that had become routine for other managers. Instead of relying only on moves that had worked in the past, however, Southgate crossed the blue ocean to basketball territory in the US. He spent time with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, learning how positioning and moves are used in basketball to create space for an attacker to shoot a basket. The best illustration of applying this in the Fifa World Cup came in England’s 6-1 thrashing of Panama.
Two English players moved backwards in the penalty box, drawing their markers with them, as a corner kick was taken. Another attacker moved forward as if to head the ball, with three defenders in tow, but it was a dummy. The ball was actually aimed for the space that opened in the middle of these three attackers moving outwards. John Stones stole into that space from the top of the box to head home the goal, even as another English player “screened” his marker to give him free play.
So, watch out every time England get a corner or free kick near the box when they go up against Sweden in the quarter-finals on Saturday. But here’s the caveat. It’s one thing to zap Tunisia, Panama, and Colombia with set pieces. Against a dour, defensive, European side like Sweden, it will be harder. The Swedish manager, Janne Andersson, doesn’t care if his team doesn’t get written about for smart plays or superstars. He just wants to win, not entertain.
It’s the Brazilian manager Tite who spends most of his time at media appearances answering questions about Neymar, the top-ranked footballer left in the tournament after the exits of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But the bigger reason Brazil have done so well so far is really its defence, which has let in a solitary goal in the opening game with Switzerland.
While England’s Southgate went to the NBA in America, Tite spent a year with European football clubs to understand how to build up the Brazilian defence. This solidity at the back now frees up the Ginga of Neymar, who impressed in the win over Mexico not only with his finish but more so with his assist for the second goal.
If Neymar can combine with Philippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, and Willian, tempering his ego and moderating the focus on himself, like he did against Mexico, the Brazilian attack can thrive, secure in the knowledge that the fort is locked down at the back. That’s something Argentinian manager Jorge Sampaoli lost sight of in his eagerness to implement attacking plays that had worked for him earlier as the manager of Chile.
Brazil faces its toughest opponent, however, in the quarter-final encounter on Friday. Belgium has a squad with the exceptional talents of Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard up front. The team has scored 12 goals, more than any other team. And by coming from 0-2 down against Japan to score three goals in the last 21 minutes, they’ve shown the resilience to go all the way.
In Roberto Martinez, they have a manager who thinks on his feet under intense pressure. The first Belgian goal from Jan Vertonghen off a loopy header might have been fortuitous. But the next two came from smart substitutions.
Marouane Fellaini, who mostly warms the benches for Manchester United, was an unlikely hero. But a beanstalk is exactly what Martinez needed to drive home the height advantage against the Japanese. So it proved as Fellaini headed home the equalizer off a Hazard cross.
Nacer Chadli, an unknown player who turns up for West Brom, was an even more unlikely substitution. He was there for the sprint which came in the final minute as Belgium scored off a counter-attack. Two bulls-eyes for Martinez!
The other quarter-final on Friday is a battle of heavyweights, between former champions France and Uruguay. One of the highlights of the tournament has been that Luis Suarez, who got red-carded out of the previous two World Cups, hasn’t picked up a single yellow card in Russia under the tutelage of Uruguay’s 71-year-old manager Oscar Tabarez. Can he keep that going, or will the occasion get the better of Suarez?
Tabarez’s other contribution has been to build up the midfield of a team known mainly for mean defence and counter-attack via the spearhead Suarez. A more active and proficient mid-field has allowed Suarez’s childhood football companion Edinson Cavani to play in tandem on the forward line instead of having to fall back.
That created magic in the win over Portugal, but what a shame it would be if Cavani’s injured calf doesn’t heal in time for the quarter-final with France. It would be an inversion of the tragedies in previous World Cups when it was Suarez who went AWOL and left Cavani to fend for himself.
The last quarter-final between Croatia and Russia might seem one-sided. But that’s what Spain thought and look what happened. Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov did not try anything fancy even after going a goal down, or equalizing. His one-point plan is to go into penalties. Croatia’s talented attackers will have to overcome a raucous home crowd to prevent that. Otherwise we may have the lowest ranked team of the tournament in the semi-finals. That’s how unpredictable this World Cup has been.
Sumit Chakraberty is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru.
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