Saturday, July 12, 2014

Their World Cup Runneth (Almost) Over: Jordan and Paolo Provide the Final Analysis

I've really enjoyed the 2014 World Cup, which seemed to be a bigger deal in America than ever before.

I didn't watch all the games, but quite a few and most of the major ones (though I can't deny writing blog posts, perusing nonsense on my phone and reading the newspaper throughout some low-scoring halves).

As I wrote or referenced in introducing their initial World Cup preview and their observations leading into the Knockout Stage, the avid interest of my close friends Jordan and Paolo have largely abetted whatever interest I've had in soccer over the years--and their insights, graciously shared here, have certainly heightened my appreciation of this World Cup.

With Germany v Argentina set for the final on Sunday afternoon at Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, preceded by a somewhat silly Third Place game between Brazil and the Netherlands on Saturday--now especially cruel for the host nation after their humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany--I've once again asked my pals to kick around their thoughts about the big game and the Cup as a whole.

Here's their Final analysis:

1. So it's down to Germany v Argentina. Your thoughts...

a. On what led us here:

Jordan: Argentina, though they have looked increasingly solid defensively, has never looked all that convincing, doing just enough to get through.

Germany started off on fire the first match, then showed some vulnerabilities in two of their next three. An illness for center-back Mats Hummels causing him to miss the game against Algeria did not help but the main problem was twofold; central defender Per Mertesacker looked awful and the German manager kept playing his world-class right back, Philipp Lahm, in midfield. When Germany reached the quarterfinal against France, Hummels was back (and scored the only goal) and Lahm was back in his best position and Mertesacker was grabbing bench.

Paolo: Obviously not the preferred final match, either for the Brazilians--who seemed unable to cope with the pressure of playing at home--or the Dutch,  who are still the best footballing nation not to win a World Cup. Germany has looked great most of the tournament, and Argentina has looked tenuous but has done what is necessary to get it done.

b. On the game itself and possible outcome:

Jordan: I don't expect a game as dire as Argentina-Netherlands but I don't expect a classic either. I have a hard time envisioning a scenario where Argentina wins. Germany is just better. They can play with the ball or play on the counter-attack. I would give Argentina about a 10% chance to win.

Paolo: The head says Germany wins it, as they have been the best side overall of the tourney. The heart wants Argentina to win on some magical Messi goal.

Angel di Maria
2. Germany clearly looked much better in its blitzkrieg of host Brazil than Argentina did in beating the Netherlands on free kicks after a rather lackluster 0-0 tie over 120 minutes (or even how the Argentines looked vs. Switzerland and Belgium). But two things may bolster Argentina's chances: the health of Aguero and Di Maria (and also Mascherano, who was rather banged up against the Dutch) and simply the possibility of Lionel Messi being game-changing.

a. Please address what you've heard about the Argentinean injuries and where things may stand on Sunday. Or aren't they as important as I may think?

Jordan: Aguero is not 100% fit and has not been for a while. He is in poor form and while he is a fantastic player when healthy he likely will at best be a late game substitution. Missing Di Maria is a bigger issue. I'm still not sure if he will play but if he does I doubt he will be anywhere near 100%.

Javier Mascherano concussed
Mascherano has been heroic and is possibly Argentina's most important player but I have a big problem
with the fact that he was allowed to continue playing after being knocked almost unconscious in their last match against the Netherlands. Alvaro Pereira on Uruguay was literally knocked unconscious against England in the group stage but was allowed to continue playing. It's outrageous that players who have been pretty clearly concussed have been allowed to continue playing. I blame Sepp Blatter.

Paolo: Mascherano is the heart of the defense, although not the best tactical defender. But heart has its place in the game, and I think he will play. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Lionel Messi
b. Is there anything tactically about the way Germany plays that may enable Messi to get better chances to find space, score and assist than it seemed he had against the Netherlands (and some earlier games)? It seems he not only has the weight of being "the world's best player" on him, but the weight of Maradona. What's necessary for him to be a difference-maker on Sunday?

Jordan: Mats Hummels seems to have an issue with a knee but I believe he is still expected to play. Even if Mertesacker has to play I don't think Argentina has shown enough attacking competence to make it an issue.

I expect Germany to alter their strategy just a bit to account for Messi. Either Schweinsteiger or Khedeira may be charged with keeping a close eye on him and will stay back more than normal. Though I am rooting for him I don't think Messi will be able to influence the game all that much.

Paolo:  The Germans mark forwards very well, and are very disciplined in keeping their defensive form. But Messi only needs a small amount of space to move in -- that is the genius of his game, My belief is that the truly great players rise to the occasion. I hope Messi can fulfill his legacy with a WC win. 

Thomas Müller with Sideshow Bob, aka David Luiz
3. Give me your Golden Ball (MVP) winner for the entire Cup, dependent, of course, on what happens Sunday. And perhaps a few runners-up and best goalies.

Jordan: Thomas Müller of Germany is the odds-on favorite. If Messi dominates and Argentina win he would get it.

Runners up for me: Toni Kroos (Germany), James Rodriguez (Colombia). Arjen Robben (Netherlands) and Neymar (Brazil) will get votes. Javier Mascherano (Argentina) has been heroic but as a defensive midfielder is not likely to be considered.

Several goalkeepers were awesome: Neuer (Germany), Ochoa (Mexico), Navas (Costa Rica), Enyeama (Nigeria), and Howard (U.S.A.) stood out.

It may be something of an anomaly but the goalkeepers for three of the four semi-final teams are rated as very sub-par. Romero (Argentina), Cillessen (Netherlands) and Julio Cesar (Brazil) are universally considered to be poor.

Paolo: Nothing to add, Jordan's  list is complete
4. Without simply belittling a poor effort, can you address the destruction of Brazil vs. Germany? To me, they hadn't looked superior throughout the whole World Cup, and unfortunately Neymar--their best player--was hurt in the waning minutes of their quarter-final game against Colombia. Perhaps that shook their confidence going in against Germany, but they--and especially their defense, which has little to do with Neymar--folded like a cheap suit after the first goal.  

Any explanation?

Jordan: Brazil was not good throughout and their effort against Germany was shocking. Theoretically the loss of Thiago Silva, their captain and best defensive player, should have been at least as concerning as the loss of Neymar. I think there are three factors to explain the way Brazil played:

1) They weren't that good a team.

2) They were under a ton of pressure.

3) They were completely overcome by emotion. (this being partly related to #2)

Many of the Brazilian players had been criticized for weeping earlier in the tournament but the lengths they went to to commemorate Neymar before the game against Germany was ridiculously overboard. As many people have pointed out they seemed to be acting as if Neymar had died. They completely lost their heads. Germany lost one of their best players (Marco Reus) a week before the World Cup started but you didn't see them wailing and gnashing their teeth at any time.

I would, however, like to take this opportunity to do some belittling. Marcelo and Fernandinho were exceptionally and implausibly terrible but I am saving the knives for one of my least favorite players, David Luiz (also known derisively as Sideshow Bob). He was the captain of the team with Thiago Silva out and he played like a complete freaking idiot. He was meant to be in the center of their defense but went charging around the field like a chicken with his head cut off leaving chaos and empty spaces where he was supposed to be. 
And if you'd like to have a visual example of why I have a problem with David Luiz, take a look at this:

For context, this heinous assault was committed off the ball and was committed against a 19-year-old player, Jake Reeves, on a team in England's third division (called League One) in the dying minutes of a game that Chelsea was winning 4-0 in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

David Luiz is a dirty, dirty player and a bad person. His tears at the end of the game against Germany made me happy. Screw him.

Paolo: Completely agree with Jordan's assessment. The Brazilians didn't have to qualify for the Cup so they did not play a tough competitive schedule and I believe missed the opportunity for the team to bond under that process. What I saw was a lack of on the field chemistry and cohesion.

Plus, as mentioned before, the pressure of playing at home (and all the backlash over WC expenditures) just discombobulated them. Once they were down 2-0 they gave up. I'm surprised they didn't lose by more.

5. Somewhat facetiously, should Brazil show up for the Third Place game vs. the Netherlands? And more literally, will they? I can't help but sense another blowout.

Jordan: I don't think there will be a blowout. No one cares about this game, not even the players. The third place game shouldn't even be played.

Paolo: I respectfully disagree with Jordan. This is Brazil s opportunity to show the world and its fans that the semi-final was an aberration and that they can win playing their type of game. I pray they win. Losing, and or losing badly, would further wound the world's greatest footballing nation -- and that would be a tragedy. Some semblance of dignity needs to be restored to the nation, I hope they play great and win. 

6. Though we discussed last time that this has been a very competitive, well-played and entertaining World Cup, it's not hard to imagine that it will be recalled primarily for Spain's disappointment, Suarez' bite and Brazil's humiliation. Why should World Cup 2014 be remembered for more than that?

James Rodriguez' goal against Uruguay
Jordan: It should be remembered for the Suarez bite and for Brazil's humiliation. That doesn't mean it
hasn't been a really great spectacle. Though the games seemed to get less exciting after the group stage there have been plenty of fantastic performances and moments.

The goals by Van Persie (against Spain), Cahill (against the Netherlands), James Rodriguez (against Uruguay), and Jermaine Jones (against Portugal) were all worthy of all-time World Cup commemoration. I'm not enough of a World Cup historian to be in a position to compare it to other World Cups but I think the consensus is that this has been the best one since 1998.

Paolo: Also, because finally even non-football fans in the U.S. have to at the very least admit that the World Cup is the greatest sports tourney in the world. And U.S. fans coalesced around a team that they learned to love. 30 years from now this tourney and squad will be cited as the defining moment in U.S. soccer. 

7. From this World Cup, how do you forecast International soccer in years to come, leading up and into World Cup 2018, which will be held in Russia? Which teams' stature has substantive shifted, for better or worse?

Jordan: I don't have a forecast. The gap in quality does seem to be narrowing between the traditional powers and some of the smaller countries. Brazil's stature has been shattered. They need to regroup.

Paolo: I think that CONCACAF proved it deserves a 4th qualifying team. Africa and Asia also need more teams in the tourney. I think the US has proved it can play with anyone, as well as Costa Rica.  

8. Anything else you would like to add...
Jordan: Someone should do something to stop Sepp Blatter and get rid of the corruption of FIFA but I'm not holding my breath. (See this 2013 article from The Guardian.)

I especially like how FIFA says they are opposed to racism and discrimination yet have awarded the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar. Great job, FIFA.

The popularity of soccer in the U.S. is certainly increasing. Being able to watch so many games of the European leagues (Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, League 1, Portugese Liga, Champions League, Europa League, etc.) can only increase interest.

Paolo: Yes, the 2022 Cup needs to be moved to the US!

As with before, thank you very much for your time and great insights. 

Any time dude. 

I don't know about you, but I think Jordan and Paolo warrant a regular gig, or perhaps their own blog, analyzing international and club soccer around the world. But enjoy the Final, and may  your Cup runneth over.

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