Sunday, July 11, 2010

Final Thoughts

Well, the World Cup is over and Spain are champions. Good. Balance is restored to the universe. The best team playing the best style managed to win.

The final itself kind of sucked. Holland avoided any semblance of trying to play with Spain. Instead, they must have decided that Germany lost because they were too deferential to Spain's midfield, and therefore that the proper strategy to counter that tendency was to foul like motherfuckers for the entire match. It started just 45 seconds into the match, when Van Persie raked the back of Busquets' knee with his cleat and barely avoided a yellow card; and it didn't even end when Heitinga got sent off with a second yellow for dragging Iniesta down from behind when he was through on goal in the 109th minute -- hell, they got two more after that for good measure, a total of nine (!) cards in all.

The English ref Howard Webb handed out a record 14 cards in the final, and he is going to get a lot of stick from the Dutch fans for favoring Spain. But believe me, he did a reasonably good job responding to an utterly cynical Dutch strategy, and while he missed a couple of calls both ways, he basically got it right. I was pissed that he kept slowing the game down with his constant whistles, but to Webb's credit, he really did his best to keep this 11v11 for the full 120 minutes in very difficult circumstances. He could easily have sent De Jong off after half an hour for his WWE move on Alonso; probably could have sent Van Bommel off a couple of times, and probably should have sent off the histrionic Robben, who, at one point, chased him halfway up the pitch to complain because, for once, he didn't go down when Puyol fouled him on a break and Webb let the play continue. The Brazilians must have loved that one.

Holland were just awful. But, to their credit, the brutal hacking strategy did disrupt Spain's rhythm, and, it almost -- almost -- got them the win. Had Casillas not gotten a foot on Robben's first break-away strike (as he dove the other way), had Robben taken his chance when he stayed on his feet after beating Puyol, you could have seen the Dutch steal this one 1-0. Their goalkeeper was excellent and kept them in the match. But for the fouling, they had a pretty interesting tactical response to Spain, pressuring them, interfering with passing lanes to break up Spain's short passing game, and they really neutralized Xavi. Pity they couldn't do it without eight cautions and a sending off.

Spain were not brilliant, not by any stretch. I thought they came out brightly, but lost their edge under the weight of the Dutch negativity. The early second half sub of Jesus Navas for Pedro was inspired, and he managed to get a lot more movement on the right wing. But I thought the 87th minute sub of Cesc Fabregas for Alonso won the game for Spain. He provided a Xavi Hernandez-like spark to the Spanish attack, and created at least three good chances in extra time, including Iniesta's winner.

Anyway, Spain won, and they celebrated emotionally. This is a very big deal for Spain. It was cool that they changed into their red jerseys for the cup presentation. Here are two of my favorite YouTube vids, first, Spanish TV announcer Camacho on the goal call:

And, a little cute, but a choked-up Casillas interrupting his insanely hot girlfriend's attempt to conduct a professional interview with him:

When the dust settles, and I've had a chance to reflect, I'll do a summary of the tournament. But for now, I'm really happy with the result. Espana, campeones!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Good Reads on Eve of Final

The New York Times has a piece on the Cruyff connection.

Jonathan Wilson at The Guardian dissects the prevalence of the 4-2-3-1 formation at the World Cup, and contrasts the two examples of the formation on display in the final.

Zonal Marking has their preview of the final up (well, part one of it), and it's as thoughtful and detailed as you'd expect. Full of interesting links.

For a little homer nostalgia, here is Grant Wahl interviewing Landon Donovan on his World Cup experience. Happy to see him give props to Clint Dempsey.

And finally, Gawker's hilarious look at World Cup winners and losers.

By the way, that third place match between Uruguay and Germany was fantastic. Pity we probably won't see a game that open in the final. The lead changed three times, and Forlan almost equalized on the last tick of added time, his direct free kick striking the crossbar. His 51st minute goal, struck high on the volley, skipping off the wet grass and into the net, demonstrated his unbelievable quality at this tournament.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Final

While I am delighted that Spain and Holland are in the final, I'm personally a bit conflicted about who to support.

On the one hand, for familial reasons, I'm for Spain. My wife's parents -- now naturalized US citizens -- came to the US from Spain in the early '60s. My son is a big Spain supporter. I've heard so many stories about Spanish football in the '50's from my father-in-law, and we watch a lot of Barcelona and Real Madrid during the club season together. I'm going to Spain in a couple of weeks to visit the family, and it would be great if they were riding the euphoria of winning the Cup.

[Just an aside -- I was visiting the family in Tenerife in the spring of 1993. That year, Real Madrid and Barcelona were coming into the last day of the La Liga season positioned 1-2 in the table, Real Madrid 2 points ahead of Barca. Real Madrid played Tenerife away; I can't recall who Barca played. I couldn't go to the match, but I listened on the radio out on the balcony of my apartment. Tenerife surprised Madrid 2-0, denying them the title (Barcelona won their match), and further, the three points for Tenerife put them in the UEFA Cup, just pipping Athletico Madrid by a point for fifth place. It was pandemonium. The whole city exploded. They were fishing people out of fountains in Tenerife for days. Unforgettable. I went to Game 7 of the NBA Finals at the Staples Center in LA a couple of weeks ago, and was out on the streets of downtown LA after the Lakers won the title, and it didn't hold a candle to the celebration in this small, provincial town when their long-suffering team came in fifth place in La Liga.]

I picked Holland to make the final, and I have a soft spot for their swashbuckling football history. They should have won a title during the Cruyff years. They had an undefeated run through 2010 qualifying, and an undefeated run through this World Cup. I watch a lot of English football, and so I've seen a lot of Holland's World Cup squad play in England -- Van Persie at Arsenal, Kuyt at Liverpool, Robben formerly at Chelsea, Heitinga at Everton, De Jong at Man City.

Ironically, modern Spain are playing like the historical Dutch, and for good reasons. Johann Cruyff came to Barcelona as coach and implemented Dutch total football tactics, which persist today. The current Spain team is dominated by Barcelona players: Pique, Puyol, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquests, Pedro, and even new signing Villa. I've heard people joke that Barcelona are going to win the World Cup. Spain are the spiritual successors to the 70's Dutch style that revolutionized football. The current Holland team, on the other hand, are almost playing like the Germans of old -- efficient, physical, individually talented.

What can we expect on Sunday? The pundits' consensus seems to be another 1-0 win for Spain. Spain getting 60% of the possession again, wearing down the Dutch back line with their sharp tiki-taka passing game, and scoring just one goal while clamping down a weak Dutch attack.

I'm not so sure, and it kind of depends on two thing: 1) will the Dutch play the same style or will they vary their tactics?; and 2) will there be an early goal?

You have to expect the first 20 minutes are going to be very cagey and tentative. These are both pretty patient teams. If the Dutch try to replicate the strategy of Switzerland, or Paraguay, or even Germany and hang back, conceding tons of possession to Spain, trying to steal a goal, Spain will indeed beat them 1-0 or 2-0. Holland have to create some high pressure on the Spanish midfield. Germany dropped back into their half too quickly against Spain, which allowed Busquets, Ramos, and even Pique to bring the ball forward, giving Xavi, Iniesta and Pedro time to find seams in the German midfield in threatening positions. This is suicide against Spain. If you give Xavi and Iniesta space to play around the top of the area, they will kill you.

I think the Dutch have to attack early to try to get an early goal to stretch the dense-packed Spanish midfield. An early Dutch goal will totally open this match up for the good. An early Spanish goal would also open up the match, but very much in Spain's favor. I think if Spain score in the first 20 minutes, this might look like France-Brazil '98.

The Dutch can score goals. They know how to play attacking football. They put in two against Brazil and played brightly. Put in three against Uruguay, one of which, the Van Bronckhorst strike, is a candidate for goal of the tournament. They have good attacking players. Van Persie has been absent, but Kuyt has been excellent, Robben has looked good, and Sneijder has poached a bunch of goals. However, you could have said the same thing about Germany, and Spain just shut the Germans down and toyed with them like a cat in their half of play.

They key for me is Dirk Kuyt on Holland's left vs. Sergio Ramos on Spain's right. If Kuyt has to play deep to counter Ramos, the Dutch attack will be neutered. If Kuyt pins Ramos back, it will be a much different match.

The World Cup final can often be pretty dull -- teams playing not to lose, rather than to win. In '90, '94, and '02 there were no first half goals in the final. In '98 the French scored two and won 3-0 (three goals is the most scored in a final in the last five cups). In '06, it was 1-1 at the half, but there were no second half goals. This one looks like it's either going to be a super-tight 1-0 victory by Spain, or a wide open 3-2 match that either team could win. God, I hope it's the latter.

Monday, July 5, 2010

World Cup Up For Grabs?

I'm very excited about the semi-finals, because I think this World Cup hangs in the balance. There's less inevitability about these four teams than any cup I can remember. Any of these teams could win it. I'd put the Germans first on current form, fitness, and national football character; the Spaniards second on talent and guile; the Dutch third on efficiency and good luck; and the Uruguayans fourth, well, for a lot of reasons.

Germany absolutely dismembered Argentina in the quarter-finals. Crushed them. Argentina over-relied on individual dribbling and Germany just closed them down. Schweinsteiger was huge, both defending Messi et al., and coming forward. Despite what some lazy commentators have said and written, it wasn't a cliched "well-oiled German machine"; it was something much more fun to watch than that. They move off the ball incredibly well, so there is always someone in space ready to receive a pass. They create space with their pace and good ball skills. They have a number of excellent finishers. And they are really young and bright; one of the youngest teams in the tournament. They are scoring a lot of goals.

Coming into their semi-final with Spain, they are going to be without Muller, who has been awesome. They probably have multiple adequate replacements for him, but I think they will miss something psychologically and also tactically. He's been making a lot of chances in front of goal and finishing with confidence.

Spain, meanwhile, looked pretty ordinary against a tough Paraguay they barely beat. You could argue that Paraguay beat themselves, with the missed penalty, the conceded penalty, and several missed chances in front of goal. Once again, as against Portugal, they got one moment of brilliance (Xavi springs Iniesta, who finds Pedro on the right), and Villa once again gave them the slimmest of victories. They have a tactical choice to make: do they play Fabregas on the left instead of Torres, and move Villa in toward the center; or do they bring in Llorente as a straight swap for Torres? In any event, they have to get Torres out of there -- Spain have looked much better when he's out.

Germany won't have the same advantage against Spain they had against Argentina -- Spain have much better midfielders and much better wide defenders, and they pass rather than dribble. I think this comes down to some key matchups: Lahm and Ozil vs. Capdevilla and Pujols; Podolski counter-attacking on the left when Ramos comes forward; and Xavi/Iniesta vs. the German central defense.

On the other side of the bracket, the Dutch have to be very confident going into the Uruguay match. If anything, they may be vulnerable to thinking ahead to a juicy rematch of the '74 final won by the host Germans with Beckenbauer 2-1 against Johann Cruyff's total football Netherlands. Certainly, they believe they have a great shot at the final. Contrary to a lot of the punditry, I thought the Dutch played pretty well against Brazil. Brazil dominated the first half, but after the own goal (now credited to Sneijder) they fell apart and Holland threatened them multiple times. After the second goal, the Dutch dominated. Brazil's strategy of hacking Robben down backfired -- Holland got multiple free kicks and ultimately, got Melo sent off.

[There has been a hue and cry about Robben's "simulation." I think this is bullshit. He sold it when he was legitimately fouled -- he wasn't diving. This is a daily activity in the NBA. Ok, he made it seem like he was getting killed, when perhaps he was just the victim of some physical play, but it wasn't cheating. ]

That's not to say Holland are without flaws. Their back line looked really old and slow at times, and without De Jong (out on suspension) there to win balls upfield, they will be vulnerable to Forlan charging forward from his deep positioning. They still haven't fully involved involved Van Persie in the attack.

Who knows what is going on with Uruguay after that crazy quarter-final against Ghana. I didn't give a shit about either of these teams, and I was freaking out at the end of that match. The 120th minute surge by Ghana, the sending off, the missed penalty, and then the shoot-out ending on that cheeky chip. It was nuts. By the way, Suarez didn't cheat, either. He intentionally handled a ball in the box, and got sent off for it and a penalty awarded. That's the rules. Now, should he have gotten a long ban to avoid incentivizing others in the future? Absolutely. If I ran FIFA, I'd ban him for the rest of the tournament and maybe more.

Uruguay are playing much better than it looks. They are tight at the back and creative up front. I just think they are really going to miss Suarez against Holland. They need someone to complement Forlan up front. But Forlan himself is probably one of the best strikers in this tournament. He provides something that Holland doesn't really have in this tournament.

I think Germany beats Spain 2-1, but I'd actually be sad if that happened, since I don't want to see the Germans in the finals, despite how attractively they are playing. I want to see a first-time champion, and the Germans in the final complicate that possibility. Regardless, I think this is going to be a total chess-match.

I think Holland beats Uruguay 1-0. This could be a very negative match if the Dutch don't have a strong cutting edge in attack. I could see this one going to extra time. The wild card for me is that I think Uruguay are playing with the house's money at this point in the tournament -- they'd go home to a hero's welcome even if they lose. The Dutch public is smelling the cup -- a chance to reverse their historical legacy as the best team never to win a World Cup. They are under a lot more pressure. I think that will even the odds considerably for Uruguay.