Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Global Grind, Part 2
My general ramble on the worldwide decline of progressive football continues…
Teams that have adopted a more thoughtful, open approach in World Cups have not fared too well in recent times. Mexico, for instance, have consistently played intelligent, pleasing football at the last several tournaments, but have typically fallen early, succumbing to more pragmatic sides.
Their exit from the 2002 tournament was particularly instructive; despite garnering 70 per cent of the possession against their bogey team of the time, the U.S. (since supplanted by Argentina), they conceded two simple goals on the break, and never really looked like scoring.
Should we be up in arms about results such as this? In a sense, no. Midfield artistry and thoughtful build-ups count for nothing if you don’t have sufficient sharpness up front and sound organization in defence. Mexico in 2002 had neither. And I might add that the U.S. coach, Bruce Arena, had marshalled his forces extremely cleverly in that second round game.
Yet there have been contemporary World Cup teams that have maintained a progressive approach yet covered the other bases as well.
My picks for the best all-round footballing teams (not necessarily the most effective teams, please note) at the last four World Cups, the only ones I’ve watched sufficiently closely to make a judgement, would be these. Argentina in 2006, Spain (the best of a very bad bunch) in 2002, Holland in 1998 (by a whisker from Brazil), and Romania, with Gheorghe Hagi at his magnificent best, in 1994.
And on the basis of the little I’ve seen of the previous two tournaments, I’d nominate Italy as the flag-bearers in 1990, and Tele Santana’s Brazil in 1986.
You will notice that all six of these teams have something significant in common.
That’s right. They were all knocked out of their respective tournaments on penalties.
Coincidence? Perhaps. Insignificant? Well, perhaps…but I think it’s a point worth making.
I’ve argued in the past that the penalty shoot-out is, in many ways, an anti-football procedure, and should be replaced by a tie-breaking system which takes the previous 90 or 120 minutes into account in some way.
The fact that it has served to eliminate some of the most attractive national teams from the World Cup in recent times is surely food for thought.
And this leads us back to the peg upon which Les Murray hung his original article (which I have subsequently and quite shamelessly used as a peg of my own): Brazil’s success at the 2007 Copa America.
Argentina won through their semi-final against Mexico 3-0, in one of the best displays from a national team you are ever likely to see. But Brazil…needed penalties to get past Uruguay.
And in that penalty shoot-out, their ’keeper Doni indulged in that favourite pursuit of modern goalkeepers, strolling off his line before the opposition kickers could get to the ball.
That’s right, another shoot-out rendered farcical by deliberate (and, of course, unpunished) flouting of the rules.
And thus are major titles won and lost, and often major trends initiated as well, these days.
I don't think these types of teams losing on penalty shoot-outs is entirely coincidental. I think there is some degree of correlation between a nation's football (or at least a team) being positive, thoughtful, etc. but somewhat mentally frail when it comes to penalties or just not made for them. Teams which have their backs against the wall are more up for penalties and usually win them.
But it's a big ask to go through the knockout stage (particularly with four games nowadays) by winning every game inside 120 minutes. I think back to Brazil 1970 and while there weren't PSOs then (just coin tosses!), they won all three of their knockout games inside 90 minutes and were the only team in the last four not to go through extra-time in the Mexican heat. For mine it's significant that the last genuinely entertaining WC winner was so good it won every knockout game (as well as the group games) outright.
So it's probably going to take one hell of a genuinely entertaining team to buck the trend of not just recent World Cups but modern top level football as a whole. Is this all that new though? Didn't Brazil 1970 buck the trend of the previous two World Cups?
I wonder if history can repeat itself but I also wonder if (not to sound overly dramatic) time is sort of running out. Teams at the WC are becoming more and more similar (European), and I wonder for how long there will be teams (particularly the strongest ones) trying to buck the trend. I'm tempted to think Argentina's the last real hope so here's to Basile's team and Messi being fit for WC 2010.
PLaying the game more forward and pressuring teams more quickly than before, using the wings, and sticking to a simple 442.
I'm not sure if this approach is necessarily unpleasing to the eye. However it depends how its implemented.