Note: I get a lot of requests to write on my website, mainly from people who want to promote things like hotels in Barcelona or a new website about forming a travel community. They usually start, “Dear Dromomaniac Team…”. This is the first guest post on my website from a friend of mine, Peter Nagy, whom I reached out to since I appreciate his analysis when we are watching soccer games on his couch in Budapest at 2am on a work night. It’s long, and it might be a bit much for those not passionate about soccer, but give it a chance. I edited out the British English (shudder).
Last night I watched the first half of Game 3 of the NBA finals again for the third time because there were all kinds of things you expect from a great sporting event. I am a fan of football, so why did I do that? What I saw there is the reason people sit down and watch way too many games of this year’s world cup. We will definitely bump into a few classics among the many garbage games that you can only sit through because you watch it with friends and a lot of beer.
But the classics will be great.
So this is a world cup preview from a Hungarian who likes football. Not a crazy person, just a fan. I am not pretending to be an expert, but I do know what I am watching for my own entertainment. I’m not a writer either. These thoughts and impressions are random, just throwing them out there, not to start conversations or to find things to agree or disagree with.
So here are a bunch of games for a month, and we all have different viewing habits. I usually do not watch all the games there are, but if I find one while surfing channels, I always end up watching it.
(“Rarely…but always.” – Peter Esterhazy)
The games begin today, and I don’t even know what time kick-off is. Sometime late, that’s for sure, but I don’t really need to know. The match will be there, it will find me. Some friends, for whom a game is just another reason to have a few drinks, will probably be calling before, so I will know where and when I have to be. (Can P’s terrace with the jacuzzi and the projector enhance viewer experience? We’ll have to test.)
Who’s playing tonight? It’s always the host nation, this time against… oh, yeah, Croatia. This could be a great matchup in cold weather and a cool, sharp Croatian side doing what they can. Strong, tall, skinny Croatians with a good fighter’s mentality and good skills, built like the Germans but less disciplined. They have it in them to cause an upset against any team, but in Brazil the atmosphere might be very different and they might just be overwhelmed and blown out of the stadium. I wish for an upset, as always, but the first 30 minutes will tell who is worthy of my sympathies.
So, will it be a great world cup of classic games, a few upsets, the best winning in an epic final? Who can provide the excitement? Who are the contenders? The dark horses? Will there be hysteria? Drama? Stars on the rise? Stars falling?
No answers here. All I care about, personally, is good matches. What are the new tricks to fight possession defense? Who will impress me? For the fun of it we should run through the list.
Even those who are not into football adore team Brazil’s energy, their carefree presence, the fluency of the movement. Yes, they are professionals, but judging by the expressions on their faces, they are having more fun then anyone. If they were a tattoo, they would be bright colors, organic, flowing lines. Like this:
Their system is like the organization of the whole world cup. “We’ll be fine. Everything will be ready on time, don’t worry, we’ll pull it off.”
They might, it is possible, but it requires superhuman effort from everybody on the team, and there is no room for mistakes. Can you imagine a Brazil team with no mistakes? I can’t.
The good thing is, we can rely on their inability to not have fun, and that is a guarantee for fun games. Everybody is in attack mode on that team, and that raises your pulse if you are watching. Ruiz and Silva make the highest risk passes at the back and frequently take part in bringing the ball up midfield, which makes it more exciting to watch, especially if you are their coach. They are incredibly tough in one-on-one situations and are a threat at set pieces.
The two wing defenders Alves/Maicon and Marcelo are a huge part of every attack, drawing defenders to the sides and creating space in the middle for some quick changes of pace, dribbling, getting past defenses. Too bad Alves has not had a decent cross all season at Barca. Not for 2 or 3 years, in fact, but his passing is impeccable in tight little triangles to keep possession and to have a flick of a pass to Fred or Hulk to explode into a tight lane.
Scolari is working hard to make them play with discipline, he does not punish, might not even discourage the higher-risk moves, and they will enjoy themselves taking those risks. There is no way around it. It will be best in those small things they do: a flick of the ankle, a spin on the ball that you only see in tennis, an unexpected, off-rhythm turn that makes a whole defense shift the wrong way for one second, and that wrong shift will create a small opening on the defense for someone to step into and it will end in something that makes the Brazil players wink at each other, and the opposing players to lose some confidence and be more hesitant on the next possession. Be ready for those.
That same thing could be the reason they will not win it all. Any of those moves are higher risk moves. If they work, they are fun, they will bring the house down. If there is a mistake in the execution, then the whole effort was not carefree but careless, may result in a bad turnover and a counter attack. And if they lose, their fall will be spectacular. The intensity with which they enjoy themselves is the same as the anger and frustration when they go down. Look out for that, too.
Any team with a half decent defensive scheme should stifle this side. Neymar is a genius, but he is a coach’s nightmare. For a neat turn he will sacrifice the simple pass and that takes the momentum out of the attack, probably frustrate a few teammates and cause them to put in less effort at the next possession. If an opposing team has a strong identity with players who know their roles and know what to make of Brazil’s flashy clowning around, they can crush Brazil.
Have I mentioned Scolari is overrated? He is a buffoon. If his players can pull this off, like in 2002, it will be a miracle, and he will claim all the credit. Pathetic.
Back then he had a more solid, sober bunch of with Cafu, a real leader at the back, and Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho in front, plus only in the final did they play a stronger team, and they beat Germany on Oli Kahn’s errors. OK, just one error. But this year’s team in not as strong as 12 years ago, and the opposition is stronger than ever.
Who else is great? Germany
The Germans are massive with a beautiful flow like this:
Germany has changed from being the Star Trek BORG of international football to being one of the entertaining teams. They used to have a fail-safe system: no risks, precise execution all performed by great athletes who are executing well-defined tasks to perfection. They destroyed everything that was good and lovable in football. They went creative and remained effective.
Being German, they are having a ball just by being effective, but there is more to it now, the culture has changed. The German kids realized over the years, that it was not cool playing the German anti-style any more. Following some bitter tournament victories, they were left with ambivalent feelings, being internationally hated for destroying the game of football (something about which Jose Mourinho should have long conversations with his therapist).
It started with winning the 1990 World Cup with the most boring performance in the history of football. Instead of a country exploding in joy, there was probably a modest hum. The bier-drinking part of the country cheered in oblivion, but the minority of real fans had to feel the shame.
The 1994 rule that forbid goalkeepers to handle the ball if it was kicked back to them by their own team kind of started the changes, but my guess is they started to feel jealous of players with style and grace and all kinds of energy other than being content with systematic destruction. The internet must have helped young kids in learning about how to be appreciated by fans, how to become a star, and a product for sponsors, and they are the ones playing on the Nationalelf now.
They stuck to selecting the tall, athletic players with solid fundamental skills to win 90% of all 50-50 situations, but they allowed the system to take some calculated risks, and designed a choreography that was intrinsically entertaining.
They have become a team with exciting geometry. They designed neat triangles and squares where fast, skilled strikers end up making cuts and get witty through-balls from witty midfielders who twist and turn to slice a defense and move them in ways that create openings. These midfielders have awareness and vision that is reminiscent of Zidane, Laudrup and other greats.
They are most dangerous with a play that every team tries but very few can execute properly. 3-4 well-timed passes with in a triangle at the right or an Özil/Schweinsteiger long ball from the middle after lazy spacing on defense puts Lahm through on the right one beat ahead of the guy covering.
This is when he takes it to the baseline (a lot depends on his first touch), and the strikers’ first wave rushes at the goal to be in a position where only a slight touch – a shave of the ball – is needed to put the cross past the keeper. At the same time (if at the time of the through-pass the defense was pushed against their penalty area) 2 or 3 tall, pouncing midfielders as a second wave move into their spots around the collapsing defense, who are trying desperately to close down the lanes for the cross in the penalty area. This opens up at least 3-4 passing options and if all those lanes are covered somehow, then there are 1 or 2 more options for a lob and a header at the far side, because the keeper is watching the near corner of the goal.
With their height advantage and ability to occupy positions in the area, this is very difficult to stop. They might easily score with this play against lesser opposition, but good defensive teams will stop such attacks at the side before the wingers get behind their men.
This effort to contain the sides will stretch the D more, forces them to shift, and open up a little more space in the middle, of course, and such an advantage Brazil would more freely use, but Germany will be more conservative with that space and not try anything risky there. Kroos or Schweiny will sooner take a good shot then try to beat a defender one on one, or try the triangle with the striker moving up. Maybe… We’ll see.
They have learned timing, but in preparation friendlies we have seen players like Özil, Schweinsteiger and Reus think faster than their strikers and decent defenders might be able to take up a good positions on the play.
Breaking news: Reus is out with an ankle injury which is sad, sad news for Germany and people who like football over the world. One would think that the German midfield is strong enough without Reus, but he will be sadly missed.
He is as strong and fast as anybody around, and has rhythm and vision, which would have given Germany a badly needed option from the side on offence, while he is moving smartly as a defender, as well. He looks slender, but he is a very tough defender for a skinny guy. Kroos and Schweinsteiger are both strong two-way players with Khedira a brick wall of a stopper and Özil doing magical stuff on offence, but he is streaky and gets discouraged easily.
So we have to wait two more years for Reus to make his breakthrough at an international tournament, but we have to say a few things about Schweinsteiger. He is every bit a German: ginger hair, pale face, athletic build, great work ethic, schooled moves, disciplined play, great timing, great positioning. Everything about him says he is the most German of all players on that team, and still, the guy is so different. He has a soul. He is sensitive, fragile, but he is in control, remains tough and fights through it all. Do you look at faces? You should. Read his. He really is affected by a good or a bad play. If there is a person to feel for, that’s him. He might just be Hungarian.
You know who else run a different version of the aforementioned play to perfection? Spain. The key agents are Alba, Iniesta and Pedro on the left side. They are surrounded by safety options behind them. Busquets has such great awareness of where everybody is that he can shift from defender to midfielder and back in an instant. Their ability to pass the ball around with their eyes closed is amazing.
No other team can spend the amount of time practicing defensive schemes as what Barca-based Spain had put into perfecting the possession game. Remember: the best defense is not turning the ball over.
You have to admire what they can do to keep possession and work the defense to create that one opening. This is always the juicy part. They do not usually make room around the outside like the Germans, but through the line of defense with one striker moving up into a gap. There should be a switch with the defenders at this point, but the striker (let’s say Villa) comes up from behind the defenders who would all have to see each other in order to be able to synch their movement and contain the play. Since the Spanish all see each other facing from the corners of a square, and the one defender facing Iniesta always has his back to his teammates, there is a weakness to exploit.
The moment Villa gains two square meters of space, the machine is in motion. Villa takes his position, Pedro makes the cut inside, Alba makes the run down by the sideline behind Pedro, and Iniesta follows his pass up to Villa. With the pass Iniesta does a few quick changes in direction as the spacing of the defense dictates and that usually puts his man off balance.
The defense has to switch on Pedro to take on Iniesta and follow Alba, but that requires a shift from the inside. If the spacing is a bit off, there is enough space for Pedro or Iniesta to move into, or Villa to make a turn with the ball. If any of them is a beat off, or defenders do a good job of containing the move, Villa will make a safe pass back to Busquets, who will work the ball around to Martinez or Pique, and the possession continues. The safe pass is always there (only Villa’s defender could go for the steal, and that means taking off early which leaves an empty space on the collapsing defense) and Villa, or the attackers facing the goal will see and punish that.
If the Spanish timing is just right, and one defender with no sight of which way everyone is moving misses a beat, then Villa has four good options, all of which will cause an opening for the shot, the cross, the cross to the second wave of finishers, or to the far side attacker closing in from behind the collapsing defense.
Italy, the great hair and beard team
They will never disappoint on that front.
Always solid on D, physical and edgy on O, often just a big balloon of empty threats, an over-confident bunch of stars, and they are rarely graceful in losing. They do, however, have history to build on. That is important for their whole culture and for the players’ mentality as well. They have great role models and those behavior patterns and footballing know-how soak into them early.
It starts with solid fundamental skills and strong will. Almost like passion, but they are not Argentina. They want to win badly, they want to have it all, but that is not passion yet, It is just selfishness with a lot of emotion. If they are content with the roles they are given, and trust each other, they can be lovable team, but the always sky-high expectations from the Italian public tend to bring out the worst in them.
Somehow they always play classic, conservative football even in trying new stuff. They have not done anything revolutionary in their game for decades; there is no evolution, only different degrees of being Italian. There are good and bad sides to being Italian, and the collective proportions of the two will determine their performance at a tournament.
They used to have the hardest working players in Gattuso, Totti, Cannavaro, and now Rossi and Chiellini are just as inexhaustible.
They had the icons of football IQ in Baggio, Del Piero and Totti (they say football IQ was the only kind Totti had), and now they have Pirlo. The problem with him is, that he is not as fast and strong as the predecessors. He can be taken out of games, and than Italy is a rock solid defense with not much else to go on.
Of course the richest history they have is with psychopaths starting back with Caligula and Nero, followed by Gentile and Gattuso and now the evolution has produced the ultimate in… Balotelli. Take away the psychopathic aspect, and this team is not nearly as strong as teams of the past, but the massive defense can take you a long way. Can it take you to the semis, though? Not likely.
How about a tattoo picture to illustrate Italy?
Uruguay are great, but Chile…
Chile is like a bottle of Hungarian palinka (brandy): raw, clear, unsophisticated, but it hits you hard. Chile has a good-looking blitzing offense. They do not stop to think for one moment. If a teammate is running for possession, then he is getting the ball. No hesitation, no cute moves, just rushing through midfield and playing the first thing that comes to mind. Make the defenders chase you, and minimize their chances of putting you off balance, off tempo.
They try to be just as edgy on defense, and forwards will play two ways. They all cram the area and hope to do the counter attack.
They have to do that. They are skilled and short, with low center of gravity but have no chance against big forwards or defenders at either end. So they have to run them in the ground. They do need one midfielder other than Vidal to be the link after gaining possession and throwing the ball into attack. Someone like Zidane in ’98.
It is tiring for both teams, but Chileans must think they have the legs. Still, this game is designed for one elimination game but not the group stages. And not for the Brazilian weather. The team with the highest chance to cramp up by game two is Chile. If they do get through, they are a threat to any team, though.
Who will underachieve?
The Netherlands are always a good bet. Talented, physically and technically sound, tall, strong, and bitterly conceited players.
Somehow they always beat themselves. Not many teams can beat them, but they can lose to any. Cruyff pointed that out in the 2000 home European Cup against Italy, but it has been true ever since. Holland were so strong that Italy had zero chance, but they came through on penalties, because Holland were too Holland. They missed 2 penalties in the game and another few in the penalty shoot-out.
They have everything but some of the most important stuff. Humility is one. “I am bigger than this game, this team, this world cup.” If they get lucky and find some rhythm together, they can do anything, but they won’t. That would be too “Belgian” for them, probably. The Dutch are too pragmatic, too logical, too selfish.
Playing for each other just does not suit them either. Having unity, a team identity, being disciplined would be giving up too much of themselves. They each have their personal identities, but they do not gel, they are too cool to have that.
Sometimes they have something close to, but not quite what you call passion. That strange language has words very similar to English, but they always mean something slightly different. “Brutaal” for example does not mean “brutal”. They use it to describe their national character as in straightforward, honest, outspoken, tough. They must have the Dutch equivalent for the word “passion”, but whatever the little difference is in the meaning, is the biggest thing missing.
You know who else can beat themselves? Argentina. As a default they are a disciplined, sharp team with the Serbs’ mental frame (this means strong, very strong, with the aptitude to snap), Brazil’s capacity to entertain, plus some tango, plus Messi. This is the plus side, but there is a huge minus with about 60% of the players being capable of snapping mentally any time. Leading the way is Di Maria with an 80% chance of being sent off in a close game, Mascherano is a distant second with 40%, but if he has to take the role as the last defender standing at a fast break, and he is pissed at a mistake by a teammate, it jumps up to 99%.
When they play as a team, and they are all happy in their roles, they are a joy to watch. They have so much more energy than any other team. They just sweep through the pitch with fast runs and precise passes of sometimes 20-30-40 meters to start with and shifting the weight of the attack never missing a beat. Messi and Aguero are killer finishers, I expect so much of these guys, that I can not really put it into words. They have passion. The real thing, but if they turn on each other, that is the end of it. It is amazing how easy it is for them to become a bunch of angry psychopaths.
The problem is their roster is not as strong as four years ago. The defense is shakier without Zanetti, who was not only a solid defender with great contribution on the side to the offense, but also the real leader. The midfield is also weaker, but they have the best strikers to chose from. Too bad they can’t all play at the same time.
Messi? This could be his big tournament. He is at his prime, but Barca is beaten. Nothing worked for them all year, Messi loses the Ballon D’Or to arch rival Ronaldo, a poster boy, a fashion model, a contender that believes himself to be just as good.
He is stronger, faster, taller, but Messi owns him. Messi has better control, better vision, better awareness of the teammates, better rhythm, but Ronaldo is so strong and fast, that if he gets a little space, he gets his momentum and is deadly.
Messi is convinced he is the best, and he is, but he wants the whole world to know.
A few footballing principles
It is not enough to be the better team. Being better by at least a goal is more difficult than in other sports. Spain in 2010 beat almost every opposing team 1-0. They were several goals better, but their offense, which in actual fact is possession defense (focusing on minimal turnovers) depends on such delicate plays that they only go for it 2 or 3 times a match. If they tried it every five minutes, the opposition would learn to adjust. You have to be patient, wait for the mistake and then strike. It is a beautiful process to see just how finely tuned all the moves are, how they are waiting for a tiny mistake.
Having the best player on the team does not help. You have to have the ten that work together best. Scoring a goal is probably the most difficult in football when you have evenly matched teams. This is why the best teams usually play low scoring games. It is not because they play badly. It is because they do not make mistakes.
The beauty of these games is not in huge spectacular plays, but in the way the ten move together not making mistakes, keeping the spacing, shifting the defenses precisely so that it takes big risks from the other team to try to get close.
You have to jeopardize a lot to be able to score. As in every team sport, it leaves you vulnerable to fast breaks. How do you score and not concede a goal? In a tournament you risk a lot less than usual, that is why football is boring to most who like the flashy kind of action and not the refined, skilled kind.
Since football is all do or die games, every mistake can be fatal and teams will take fewer risks. Therefore, you have to watch for the little things that lead to the mistakes on the other side. Spain are the masters, but can they pull it off again? It would be more difficult now than ever before. Why? They have been doing their thing for too long, and teams have had time to learn to play against it. Will they come up with something new? There are only so many plays to work the depth of that 30-meter-zone into which they cram the opposition, and the world has come up with the spacing solutions to most of the depth plays so far. Is there room for more? That is the question.
First of all, if you have not played soccer, I mean real soccer, then you can not judge a person rolling around on the ground. Saying things like “basketball is a physical game and you don’t see them roll around on the floor…” does not make you clever.
What if the soccer player gets up a minute later and continues to play? Was he just acting to get the ref’s sympathies, or get an opponent ejected? Well, yes, sometimes…but more often he just gets a kick in a bone, which will hurt for a minute before pain-killing hormones rush through his system, and let him play on. This happens, this is normal. Have you ever kicked a curb, or bumped your shin in the side of your bed? It hurts like crazy, you think something is broken, but two minutes later you walk on, don’t you? That simple. Later, of course, when you go home and take a shower, it will hurt like hell again, but nobody can see that.
One more important thing: defenders in soccer play dirty. Always.
Their job is not to play the ball, but to ruin the attacking player’s chances of playing the ball. They will shove you, bump, pull, elbow and kick you just to get you off balance at all times so that they can take away your speed or skill advantage and stop you from doing what you are there to do.
Is it fair, physical play? Hell no. Is it illegal? Hell yeah. Do refs call those? No.
The people who have made a career being dirty are all defenders on any Italian team, and each defender on any Real Madrid team. Even decent, football-loving Real Madrid fans blush and lower their heads when they think of their own defensive players, and would probably have an urge to slap Pepe if they came face to face. (I know I would.)
Those players are also arrogant enough to get in the refs’ faces when they are called for a foul. They act like they deserve special privileges in kicking small team strikers.
So what can you do?
One is to do the Zidane head-butt when you are fed up, and call it a career. I loved him for it. Yes, there had been some trash talk leading up to that moment, but believe me, that was just the last drop, and for a moment the football-loving part of the world felt joy. Then sorrow a moment after, because they knew what was coming, and what was coming to an end.
So this is one way to deal with the frustration of not being able to play fair, and another is take every chance to show the refs what is happening, and exaggerate every contact so that the ref has no chance but to call it. I prefer the Zidane way, but don’t you dare criticize players until you have played against sneaky defenders.
So, who’s best?
Can a feisty small team with a little luck beat great footballing nations? You have to adore them for trying. Just remember some of the small teams that surprised us in the past. They were always the best to root for. Denmark in ’86, Holland in ’74, who will it be in 2014? The climate is an important factor, and we have never had conditions like those expected, but even in Mexico you had three European teams in the final four. (Argentina did come out on top, though.)
For casual fans, do not fall for ignorant rhetoric like: “why don’t they shoot more or score goals?” It is like saying why don’t they dunk more in basketball? Why don’t they hit more home runs in baseball? Why not set more world records in track and field? The answer: they are working on it in many great ways. That is what you watch and like. If you know what is happening, you witness great things from great players. This is the only reason to watch sports, anyway.
Predictions (I asked Peter to make a prediction for the finals and was rebuffed:)
I don’t like predictions, I like teams to deserve what they get.
Chile deserve to go far and cause upsets.
Holland deserve to win it one day after being runners up three times. They deserved to win two of those. Can they hold it together till the end?
Spain have to do the most to prove they deserve it. They have to reinvent themselves because what they had been doing to perfection is probably not enough any more.
Brazil will get all the calls and all the support, so what they have to be to deserve it, is humble, and they should not try to play on those calls. It would be awful to see a controversial host nation win.
Germany are right there, you can not hate them, they are not giving you reason to, but this is South America, who knows.
I think Messi deserves it most, but will the team grow up to his standard and maintain it? Can he make teammates better? Can they play with passion and brains at the same time? It is possible. Those have to happen and then I will be happy for them.
Whoever wins, it has to be in a fashion that makes me say “Yes, they deserved it, I am happy for them.” I hope at least a few teams will play in a way that makes me say that. Then it will be a great world cup.
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