Some thoughts on the World Cup Quarterfinals

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Well those were dull, weren’t they? A series of grinding, low-scoring quarterfinals that saw Germany, Brazil, Argentina, and Holland progress to the World Cup semifinals. Here’s some thoughts written at 35,000 feet somewhere over the American Rockies.

1: Poor reffing harmed Colombia-Brazil, but the loss is firmly in Colombia’s hands.

We were all expecting Brazil-Colombia to be a beautiful, technical, offensively-driven spectacle between two teams who lack the viciousness of the rivalries between Brazil and Argentina or Chile. Colombia have been one of the revelations of this World Cup, with Jose Pekerman’s side playing with the same energy, creativity, and verve that their fans have brought to the World Cup. James Rodriguez has been one of the revelations of the World Cup* with six goals in five games. Given the difficulty that Brazil had in dispatching Chile in the octofinal, many expected a free-flowing Colombia to beat Brazil in an entertaining game.

We got the exact opposite. We got a tense, tight, and extraordinarily violent 2-1 win for Brazil. We got a game that saw an absurd fifty-four fouls, and those were only the ones that the ref called. Fernandinho, David Luiz, and Paulinho all put in their best impressions of Mark Van Bommel, throwing rogue elbows and trailing knees at basically every opportunity, particularly at James Rodriguez. Philippe Auclair summed it up rather well on twitter regarding the Brazil strategy:

Much of this blame must surely lie with the referee: James Rodriguez was kicked to pieces in the opening fifteen minutes. However, it was made abundantly clear that, short of Fernandinho beheading Rodriguez in the centre-circle, the Brazilian hatchet-man wasn’t going to get booked. Indeed, Fernandinho committed seven fouls yet received zero yellow cards – Rodriguez was cautioned for protesting more than Fernandinho was cautioned for trying to assault him. Carlos Velasco Carballo, the Spanish referee, is known for this sort of style: he prefers to let games flow without throwing cards left, right, and center. That works if you’re watching Barcelona v. Dortmund, but it doesn’t when one team is intent on kicking the shit out of the other. It meant that the game’s level of violence quickly escalated, and became a case of Brazil seeing who they could kick more – Rodriguez or Cuadrado.

Yet ultimately, much of the blame for the defeat must go to Colombia themselves. Pekerman was cautious in his formation, opting to leave Jackson Martinez on the bench – it’s still unclear to me why this happened, barring an injury or unknown tactical intent. If it was the latter, then it didn’t work. Colombia looked overawed by the occasion. They have not beaten Brazil in more than twenty attempts in the last three decades, and it showed in their play: they looked as though they firmly knew their place in the hierarchy of South American football. Cuadrado’s passing was extraordinarily poor, while Rodriguez looked cowed by the level of violence being unleashed upon him and without his former Porto teammate Martinez to provide an outlet. Frequently, Colombia would give up good goalscoring opportunities in order to look for the slightly more perfect ball. Unless you’re 2010-11 Barcelona or 1989-90 AC Milan, you don’t get to do that. You have to take your chances when they come, and Colombia didn’t.

2: The loss of Thiago Silva and Neymar are enormous blows to Brazil, but they can only blame themselves for both.

Let’s get Thiago Silva out of the way first, because that’s the easy one: What in the flying fuck was Brazil’s captain thinking when he clattered into the Colombian goalkeeper, thereby guaranteeing that he’d miss the semifinal through suspension?!?! Silva has been a superb captain for Brazil for the last three years: he’s defensively astute, great at set plays, and willing to shout at David Luiz enough that he avoids going on his kamikaze runs into the opposing half (though not Dani Alves. That, tragically, is beyond any captain in history, let alone Thiago Silva). His header for the opening goal was superb, and his partnership in the back line with Luiz, Marcelo, and one of Alves/Maicon has been excellent throughout the tournament. But the whole thing has been undone by one moment of utter stupidity whilst retreating from a failed corner kick. Dante is a good defender, but he isn’t Thiago Silva, either in terms of leadership or defensive judgement. They will miss their captain immensely in the upcoming game.

Neymar’s fractured vertebrae is far more tragic, both for Brazil and the tournament. Yes, he broke our Hit the Deck Counter on the first day of the World Cup, but he’s been brilliant the whole time: he’s relished the pressure of delivering Brazil’s sixth World Cup on home soil, and has provided the overwhelming majority of the team’s offensive spark, guile, and creativity, given that Oscar is exhausted by a long Premier League season and Fred and Hulk are marginally less useful than Fernando Torres. And now he’s out of the World Cup, and quite possibly the start of the La Liga season, after a poor challenge from Zuniga. While it was definitely a risky challenge, it certainly wasn’t malevolent – Zuniga was firmly focused on the ball until the moment his knee made contact with Neymar’s back, and the cries for his banning or punishment or summary execution are wildly over the top. So are the calls proclaiming glee at Neymar’s injury, either because it knocks Brazil’s chances against Germany significantly or because he’s a diver who goes down flailing at the slightest touch of a breeze (in truth, I actually thought he had just dove when it turned out he had fractured his vertebrae in the 89th minute): a brilliant young player with the weight of the world’s sixth largest country on his shoulders is out of the defining World Cup of this age of Brazilian football. Brazil will probably play even more aggressively in the semifinal (though I’m unsure of what good it will do them against a team as canny as Germany).

But Brazil should take some of the blame for Neymar’s injury, regardless of whether Zuniga’s challenge was reckless or deliberate or premeditated: when you kick the shit out of an opponent for ninety minutes, largely with impunity, and take every opportunity to feign injury and roll around on the ground in pain, it is natural that your opponents will respond in kind. This does not mean that Zuniga deliberately went for Neymar’s back, but it does mean that Colombia’s players were probably okay with being less cautious in their challenges, with giving the Brazilians a taste of their own medicine. Ultimately, Brazil’s chances of lifting their sixth World Cup on July 13th are considerably diminished, and the fault lies largely with them.

3: Experience matters (in more ways than one)

Germany beat France. What a stunning change from two thousand years of history between the two nations. Hummels’ header off a German free kick in the 13th minute was enough for the Germans to defeat France 1-0. On the one hand, this result came as a bit of a shock: France were far more clinical in the group stages and octofinals than Germany were, while seven players in the German camp were reported to have suffered flu. On the other hand, however, it’s not particularly surprising. On paper, Germany are the better squad, and moving Lahm back into the defense proved an adept move that allowed Germany to be far more balanced in possession, defensively sound, and have a width on the flanks that their previous decision to play a goalie sweeper, four centre-backs, and six central midfielders sorely lacked.

But it ultimately came down to experience at the business end of the tournament: This is Germany’s sixth semifinal in seven major FIFA and UEFA tournaments. This core of players, led by Lahm, Muller, Klose, and Neuer, have now made five semifinal appearance in a row – hell, the Germans refer to making the semifinal of a major tournament as “going home”, such is their experience with deep runs in world football. France, by contrast, are relative newcomers in this regard: only a handful of players remain from before 2010, and even they had only experience in catastrophic team implosion and hating Raymond Domenech. Pogba is brilliant, but he’s young and new to the world of international football (an entirely different beast to club football); Valbuena and Varane and Giroud and Greizmann are all inexperienced at deep tournament runs, and it showed in their lack of composure in finishing their chances against Germany. Ultimately, the Germans proved to be cannier operators and smarter tacticians than the French. Nevertheless, les bleus can go home with their heads held high: they reached their objective of the quarterfinals, playing some amazing football en route. In Deschamps, they have a manager who has united a dressing room rife with feuds and factionalism, purged the most toxic elements (Nasri and Ben Arfa), and has a solid foundation to build on for France to be a major force when they host Euro 2016 in two years’ time.

Also, Germany have a long history of dominating France in international play: they beat them in 1982 and 1986 to advance to consecutive World Cup finals. France view Germany much the same way England do: a better team who they consistently have trouble against. In the same way that Germany have never beaten Italy in a competitive game, France have historically struggled against the Germans. That complex takes a long time to go away, as evidenced by it taking Spain ninety years to beat Italy for a second time competitively, and it showed in the way that Germany bossed large portions of the game.

I could make a really obvious joke about France’s tendency to lose wars here, but it’s been overdone by everybody (me included). Congratulate me on my restraint.

4 Argentina actually can defend.

This has been the great myth about Argentina for the last…well…forever: their list of attackers is insane, their midfield is balanced, and their defense is shit. It’s always been identified as their primary weakness going into this World Cup, as the sort of “yeah, but…” to every single explanation of Argentina’s chances: yeah, they have Messi, but who’s ever heard of Federico Fernandez or Marcos Rojo? The narrative stood out in Argentina’s group games: silly defensive errors led to two of the goals conceded against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria, and very nearly cost them the game against Iran before Messi dragged his country back into World Cup contention.

But as it turns out, that myth has been exposed in both of Argentina’s elimination games so far. Against Switzerland, Marcos Rojo was the best player on the pitch for large portions of the game, working tirelessly up the left flank to pen back Shaqiri and Lichsteiner and prevent the Swiss from starting attacks. He was suspended through card accumulation against Belgium, but that only meant that the makeshift back four of Zabaleta, Garay, Demichelis, and ______ stepped up in his absence. Mascherano was immense in defensive midfield – easily man of the match in my mind. He stopped everything that Belgium’s considerable attacking talents through at him, while Garay and Demichelis mopped up anything that the squad’s vice-captain missed. Zabaleta did a superbly effective job on Hazard. As a unit, they worked extremely well together too: Belgium were caught offside no fewer than nine times – a highly successful offside trap that prevented their opponents from catching them off guard. When Romero was called upon, he did exactly what he needed to do.

The only real criticism one can have of Argentina’s defense in the knockout rounds is that, except for Zabaleta, they aren’t big names playing for major European contenders: Garay just completed a move from Benfica to Zenit St. Petersburg, Rojo plays for Sporting Lisbon, while Fernandez plays alongside Raul Albiol at Napoli. Demichelis plays for Manchester City, but has an inflated reputation for making silly mistakes (none of which he made today). But look at the big-name defenders to have played at this World Cup: Cahill was run ragged by Mario Balotelli and Luis Suarez; Brazil’s all-star defense has looked porous on many occasions throughout; Belgium’s two hundred big-name centre-backs (more on them later) allowed Messi and Higuain to run riot during the opening half-hour of today’s match. Big-name players don’t guarantee results – how many times have Argentina’s star-loaded squads been proof of that in the past? You just need a back four who are competent, effective, well-drilled with one another, and who have a team in front of them that’s willing to contribute where necessary and shield the defense. Argentina were all of those things against Belgium, and it’s why they’re in their first semi since 1990.

5: Belgium lacked width and tactical nous

I still don’t get why the hell Belgium were fifth favourites for this World Cup. They never convinced me in the group games, and were shaky for the final twenty minutes of the USA match. For all their talent in midfield, they’re also missing some key components: it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Mexican bar I was watching the game in probably had more top-class fullbacks than the Belgian squad does.

This is where manager Marc Wilmots proved himself unable to match the tactical nous of Louis Van Gaal, Alejandro Sabella, or Joachim Low: If you don’t have fullbacks, don’t play a formation that requires fullbacks. Play a back-three with free-roaming wide midfielders, rather than trying to crowbar central defenders into positions that don’t suit them – particularly with a team who are as good on the flanks as Argentina are. Kevin De Bruyne and Marroune Fellaini were awful for large parts of the match, yet it was Mirallas and Eden Hazard who were subbed off while the two largely ineffective midfielders were left to toil against an Argentina who knew exactly how to deal with what little they offered.

These are all realities that Belgium will develop corrections to over time: this is the first international tournament for a very young squad, and they will get better as they age and gain experience at club and international level. But they’re things that the Belgians lacked this time, and anyone who thought they could develop them overnight by having flashy, big-name players in the Prem in time for their first tournament in a decade was kidding themselves. Today, we saw why.

6: Cross-continent flights without on-board TV should be considered a violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

I didn’t get to watch Netherlands-Costa Rica, as I was in transit from Puerto Vallarta to Alberta (4.5 hours in the air) at the time. I could have watched it if my plane had given me the customary satellite TV that all Westjet flights come with, but this one didn’t have it for some reason. You read that correctly: an Armchair writer was stuck in a cramped aluminium tube at 35,000 feet while a World Cup quarterfinal game was on. Without TV. Yes, it means I got to write this, but it also means I missed a World Cup game. Inexcusable. I’m discussing the matter with my lawyers, and The Hague can expect to hear from me in the coming weeks.

What, were you expecting erudite and nuanced analysis of a game that I didn’t even get twitter updates about, let alone watch? I may be good at this, but I’m not that good.

Fine. Subbing your starting goalkeeper for your backup penalty expert with two minutes left in extra time is evil genius-level stuff.

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