Colombia 2 Uruguay 0: Reaction

Though depriving Uruguay of their chief attacking weapon was always going to lead to some deterioration in their quality of play, it could not perhaps have been predicted that they were going to be as impotent as they were in their Round-of-Sixteen match against a vibrant, much-feted (rightly-feted) Colombia side. Though public opinion in Uruguay has fallen firmly on the side of the otherwise-anathematized Luis Suarez (Oscar Tabarez’s resignation from FIFA’s technical committee being the most obvious public example of this outcry, an apt reminder of just how much cognitive dissonance is obviated by patriotism), one would hope that somebody somewhere in Uruguay would remind the general populace that, irrespective of one’s opinions regarding the harshness or otherwise of the ban, Suarez deserves just as much condemnation in Uruguay as he does elsewhere. His inability to control the Hydeian aspect of his personality is partly responsible  for the toothlessness of Uruguay’s attacks tonight, and the general lack of inspiration and composure around their performance. Excluding a few deliveries of high quality into the box, some strikes from long-range and a ludicrously optimistic penalty appeal, Uruguay provided an excellent case study of how the de casibus narrative structure dating back to Chaucer is equally applicable to modern football teams. Outstanding in 2010, with Suarez bolstered by Cavani and Forlan in achieving a fourth-place finish, they have been consistently underwhelming this time around. Those lauding them before the tournament had even begun could not, of course, have countenanced a freak event such as that provided by Suarez, but, even without the luxury of retrospection, tonight was entirely predictable. Italy are a solid but uninspiring side, so harbouring reservations about how much credit should be given to Uruguay as a result of their narrow victory was entirely sensible, and they were dismal in a 3-1 defeat to Costa Rica. Their decline since 2010 finds its best synecdoche in Diego Forlan: Golden Ball winner in 2010 and, until recently, all-time record goalscorer for the Uruguayan national team, but almost inconsequential tonight, unable to get a sight of goal, tentative in build-up play, and lax in his movement.

The paucity of Forlan’s performance was highlighted not just by the quality of Suarez’s single performance against England, but by the performance of Col0mbia’s forwards tonight. South American sides have been characterised in this tournament by a high-tempo style of play: Chile earlier earned plaudits for a high-tempo pressing style redolent of Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side, but Col0mbia added to this with an equally high passing tempo, with some breathtakingly quick interchanges between midfield and attack. This was facilitated by the fluidity of Col0mbia’s forward players, who deserve all of the praise bestowed upon them.

James Rodriguez will grab most of the headlines: he was cited as a player to watch prior to this tournament and he has, like Neymar and Lionel Messi, delivered. Tonight’s double brought his tally to five goals, also giving him a slender lead over the aforementioned forwards in the race for the Golden Boot. As stated in earlier posts, there is always a danger in extrapolating from a player’s World Cup performances, but there is much to appreciate in James Rodriguez. People will inevitably focus on the quality of the first touch and technique in the strike, but I advise readers to watch ITV’s (singularly perceptive) analysis of his movement prior to the goal; it was only possible to engineer the space to take the touch and strike because of continuous movement in the fifteen or twenty seconds prior to the goal. The first goal was an indication (as, in all honesty, was the second) of the fact that, though movement is certainly an art, that constant running in and around the box is frequently as profitable as a single well-timed diagonal dart across a defensive line. The quality of Rodriguez’s movement – or, rather, the assiduity of it – deserves especial attention in comparison with other big-name forwards in this tournament. Aside from a briefly fruitful half an hour against Holland, Diego Costa has been unforgivably static for the duration of this tournament, as has Romelu Lukaku. Though these forwards have many of the same qualities of Rodriguez – and in abundance – Chelsea will be concerned by their lack of positional nous displayed in this tournament.

In breaking down defences, relentless running is one way to unsettle defenders, but having players willing to carry the ball is an equally important part. The principles here are basic – drawing men out of position, winning fouls in dangerous areas, giving team-mates time to support an attack – but they are not sufficiently instilled in English footballers. This is, like my previous reflections on the anathematization of the ‘individual genius’, a cultural problem. Excessively intransigent emphases on teamwork mean that one frequently hears a fan – or Neanderthal parent – scream at a ball-carrier to ‘pass the bloody thing’, or ‘release it’. Such invective, launched at footballers from both frosted park pitches on a Sunday morning and the terraces on a Saturday afternoon, are indicative of and conducive to a notion that dribbling is unforgivably individualistic, the actions of one who is ‘greedy’ or ‘self-absorbed’. This, amusingly, is an accusation made even when the ball-carrier is sedulous in ensuring that an end-product comes of the action.

If one is skeptical about these claims, examples that prove this inherent cultural problem abound. One must ask themselves how many players England have able to carry the ball at speed, and have the confidence to do so consistently? Raheem Sterling is the obvious example, so no points can yet be given for citing him. Rooney and Wilshere have ironed these iconoclastic tendencies out of their game since they burst onto the scene – though redolent remnants remain in Wilshere’s game – whilst talents like Adam Johnson and Joe Cole were criticised for being ‘flashy’ and ‘overplaying’. These accusations had some basis in reality, and neither ever managed to unite their dribbling abilities with the decision-making qualities of Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, but I suspect that this is not because they were allowed to ‘express themselves’ too much, but because they were actively discouraged from doing so. One hopes that Sterling and Sturridge do not have this extremely positive propensity erased from their game, because the performances of Rodriguez – and, to an even greater degree,  Juan Cuadrado – indicated how much a side can be damaged by the iconoclast ball-carrier. The latter’s four assists in the tournament indicate the obvious but oft-overlooked fact that dribbling is perfectly compatible with end-product. England – members of their scouting department, as well as Roy Hodgson, will be sedulously watching the tournament – will have seen much that is instructive in sides like Chile and Colombia as well as Argentina, Brazil, and the Netherlands. The value of dribblers should be one such thing.

However, it would be wrong to simply characterise Colombia as an anarchic high-tempo side, as though they were a typical Sunday League team. They were equally able to slow the game down when necessary, and this was due to the composure of Yepes, Martinez, and Gutierrez, who combined the high-tempo triangles with moments of returning back to the defensive line, and, on one occasion in the final quarter of the match, a volley back to the goalkeeper from Uruguay’s half. To do so slows the game down to walking pace, and is the sort of nous that England require at the top level. They were not composed enough after equalising against either Uruguay or Italy, and the mental ability to control a game in the period after scoring would have been absolutely invaluable to England in this tournament. Such is frequently a useful surrogate for technical ability.

Final praise must go to Colombia’s goalkeeper David Ospina, currently plying his trade at France’s Nice. Though not quite exposed to the pressure that Mexico’s Ochoa faced against Brazil earlier in the tournament, his performance was arguably of a higher quality, highlighted by one outstanding punch and a few excellent saves from Uruguay’s distance efforts. His save from Cristian Rodriguez deserves especial attention, because of the way in which he punched the ball to his left away from the play, thus negating the possibility of any immediate response. Contrast this with Tim Howard’s parry against Germany, down the middle of the area to Thomas Mueller, who dispatched as expected. Again, caution is to be exercised with every good World Cup performance – with goalkeepers just as much as goalscoring forwards – but Ospina deserves note for the manner in which he commanded his area and showed all of the decision-making qualities as valuable in a goalkeeper as in a striker. The punch adduced above was of the ilk that ends catastrophically if mistimed or misjudged, but when the moment is chosen correctly all pressure on the penalty area is alleviated.

Thus, few people will truly miss Uruguay, or suggest that they warranted going further – with or without Suarez. That Italy and England are shadows of their former selves is just as much a reason for their extended progress as any great quality they possess. Colombia will, when they finally depart, be missed far more. English fans will be aware of the dangers in naming a side a ‘Golden Generation’, but Colombia have a squad superior to their previous ‘Golden Generation’ of 1990 and 1994. This squad has already progressed further than that side managed (Round of 16 in 1990 and Group Stage in 1994). To go even further, they must beat pre-tournament favourites Brazil. One would be well advised to refrain from predicting who would progress. After watching Brazil’s listless performance earlier, and noting how unsettled they were by a high level of pressing, Colombia will rightly feel that they match Brazil as equals, not underdogs. For Uruguay, however, they will need to accept their defeat by a superior side, and consider whether Suarez really deserves to be shielded as so many there seem to believe.



USA 2 Portugal 2: Reaction Part Two


Therefore, whilst my previous post made much of the performance of Cristiano Ronaldo, it is worth noting that stifling the World Player of the Year had as much to do with an excellent USA performance as it did the factors mentioned previously. When the groups were drawn in December, it was predicted by many that Portugal and Germany would saunter through. I confess I interpreted USA’s victory over Ghana last week in this vein, attributing it to Ghanaian limitations rather than any outstanding American quality. This was misguided, because not only were the American side able to make Portugal fight for a point, Ghana were also impressive in a 2-2 draw against Germany. In fact, I believe that both Ghana and the Americans put in performances that warranted victories: Germany were unconvincing (at some point before the knockouts I want to write a piece justifying my conviction that Germany will not win the World Cup) and Portugal in no way justified the widespread assumption of superiority bestowed upon them prior to the tournament.

It is true that the USA started poorly. Portugal took on an ascendancy in the early stages that involved both possession and territorial advantage, and, as so often happens when a team starts on the front foot, the Americans looked panicked. The first goal came from a dreadful individual error, an erratic effort at a routine clearance from Geoff Cameron that allowed Nani to open the scoring. Incidentally, few people seemed to have picked up on quite how many goals this tournament have come from inexcusable individual errors; a pattern that begun with the first goal of the tournament, continued through the goalkeeper error that saw Akinfeev allow South Korea to lead Russia briefly, and perpetuated once again last night. Of course, for the neutral viewer, these sort of mistakes have led to a higher number of goals and therefore ‘more entertainment’, but it is an intriguing aspect of this World Cup beyond that. I would suggest that the high number of goals are due to international sides having less time to adapt as a defensive unit – I believe that, in general, forging a decent defence requires more time and coaching skill than reaching a reasonable level of cohesion as an attacking unit. Yet the World Cup in 2010 saw 2.27 goals per match, whereas this World Cup has seen 2.94. Evidently, defending was somewhat less of a problem four years ago. It is not quite satisfactory to suggest that this is due to the conditions in Brazil – though heat and humidity might reduce the amount of defensive running wingers and attacking midfielders might do later on in a match, such fatigue has, I believe, also reduced the amount of attacking that full-backs have done. However, it is, I suppose, possible that concentration is more difficult in the high temperatures of Brazil, where dehydration reduces reaction time and cognitive functioning. For this, there appears to be some evidence: (see citations for Nielsen et al. 1993, and Galloway and Maughan, 1997)

Either way, it seems as though specific, easily avoidable defensive errors have contributed more to the high number of goals at this World Cup than outstanding attacking play, and the same held last night.

Despite the mediocre start, I was very impressed by the American reaction. In contrast to too many England performances, which involve a loss of composure and attacking nous when chasing a game, the Americans settled into an excellent rhythm. Around the half an hour mark, they begun to get behind the Portuguese defensive line, with the intelligent movement of Clint Dempsey a large contributing factor towards this. Dempsey is a rather underrated footballer. As when he played for Fulham, last night demonstrated that he is a footballer who instinctively understands attacking movement and the importance of the well-timed diagonal run: the moment in the first half that saw him strike into the legs of Beto after escaping Portuguese attentions demonstrated this (see between 00:38 and 00:45 in the BBC highlights video):

He also came close with a free-kick, and drifted well into the space between the defensive and midfield lines: again, an important piece of movement that players like Walcott have never quite grasped (though Lallana and Sterling seem to, which is why I am so excited about their development). 

Equally impressive – in fact, more so – was central midfielder Michael Bradley. He is a player with whom I was unfamiliar before last night, and previous World Cups (especially 2002, and the misguided signings by Liverpool of El-Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao) demonstrate the footballing axiom that bandwagons are things best avoided. However, part of the reason why the USA were able to attain such an impressive, confident passing rhythm for the majority of yesterday’s match was due to the technical proficiency and vision of Bradley. I mentioned in the antecedent post that Joao Moutinho dictated much of Portugal’s play: Bradley was the USA’s equivalent, and actually had outdone Moutinho by the time the match finished last night. He created more chances and was a more inventive, incisive passer in the final third, and was unlucky not to score the crucial goal in the second half; a miss instantly attributed to an outstanding piece of defensive play. The clearance was excellent, but had Bradley scuffed his shot a little across the goal rather than getting a clean contact, he would have scored. Furthermore, though his performance was praiseworthy, he was culpable in losing the ball, a betise that resulted in the Portuguese equaliser. However, he is a player who I am looking forward to seeing more of, and I suspect that Premier League clubs would be right to take an interest in him. He seems somewhat wasted at Toronto. 

The other noteworthy American performance was that of Tim Howard. Unfortunate that lax marking and a panicked clearance led to two goals going past him, he was otherwise excellent, commanding his area authoritatively with some good punches from crosses, and one outstanding double save was a particular highlight. Perhaps the only countries that produce high-quality goalkeepers than the USA are Germany and Italy, and Howard is part of that strong tradition. He may be playing at his last World Cup, but he and his side demonstrated last night that they would be worthy of at least one knockout tie.

Despite this, and despite a performance of generally high quality, the Americans still have much to do in order to both progress and convince doubters. Both of their goals, as aforementioned, were the result of poor defending, and if they are to play Belgium – I do not see them winning the group for obvious reasons – they will need to concentrate rather better. Similarly, they were extremely keen to shoot from long-range last night. Perhaps this was due to a belief that Beto was vulnerable from distance, and it paid dividends with their first goal – their distance shooting was excellent throughout, emphasised by the lack of quality in Portugal’s shooting from range – but distance efforts are seen as speculative for a good reason. Jones’s goal was a fantastic hit, even more so for me because of the lack of backlift in the effort, but it would be foolish to expect that numerous goals will come via that avenue. They will also have to get a result against Germany in their final group game to be assured of progressing, though I suggest that this task is made less daunting by the fact that Ghana may well get a result against a dreadfully mediocre Portugal side. This is not an unrealistic goal for the USA; Germany demonstrated their vulnerability two days ago, and though America are a poorer side player-for-player than ten or eleven sides in this tournament, they have shown that they are a cohesive unit: a quality that may just see them qualifying from a very difficult group. Last night’s team performance, and the understanding between Bradley and Dempsey, mean that I would be extremely content to see them face Belgium in the Round of 16 on the 1st July.




USA 2 Portugal 2: Reaction Part One


There will come a moment in the careers of numerous sportsmen and women when they will be compelled to make a difficult choice: whether or not to play through injury. For some players, this will be a rather straightforward choice, having to miss a dead-rubber or single league game. For others, however, this is more difficult: say, for example, for Cristiano Ronaldo. For Ronaldo was criticised widely tonight for an at best indifferent and at worst singularly poor performance. On certain forums I frequent, tonight’s performance was cited as the conclusive piece of evidence in the interminable Messi-Ronaldo debates; a game that proved that Ronaldo is nothing more than a narcissistic preener, overrated by many. The unfairness and vacuity of this viewpoint should be, one hopes, obvious to many, but it is still worth considering the 2013 Ballon d’Or winner a little further.

For the majority of the game, Ronaldo irked me to the extent when I was questioning the sagacity of his continued presence on the pitch. He was careless in possession from the first few minutes, erratic in a routine pass out to the right. This continued throughout the game, and his finishing was no more praiseworthy, hitting one long-range effort yards over the crossbar and striking an effort into the near-post stanchion when every coaching textbook would instruct a striker to go across the goalkeeper in that situation. His free-kicks, which are perhaps the sole aspect of his footballing constitution which is feted beyond all logic, posed no threat to the American goal whatsoever. In short, it was a frustrating performance that seemed to promise little end-product. Other viewers will no doubt desire me to discuss his ‘poor body language’, and his failure to celebrate the first Portugal goal. I shall acquiesce, but in the manner of a contrarian.

I have little to no problem with Ronaldo’s frequent demonstrations of irritation. He spent a lot of the game waving his arms and hands around angrily, striking the turf after one erratic shot and lambasting his team-mates for stray passes, it is true. But the outcry against such frustrations is indicative of an excessive collectivism underlining how we as Britons view football. It is expected that a team-mate respond to a poor pass with a shrug or clap of appreciation, but this has always bemused me. It is not a choice between launching a tirade of expletive-ridden abuse at a team-mate, or unequivocal appreciation with ‘the idea’. It is, in certain situations, perfectly legitimate to show frustration at errors that may cost one’s team a match. Whilst freely and readily conceding that this principle holds less well in the amateur game, where standards are lower and mistakes are to be expected to occur more frequently, at the very top level, I fully understand Ronaldo’s behaviour. A demonstrative moment came in the first half, when Ronaldo had made an excellent run that only required the through-ball to be weighted properly for Ronaldo to be in on goal one-on-one. Joao Moutinho – otherwise, I believe, excellent in possession – underweighted what was, for an international midfielder, a straightforward through ball, and the chance was lost. Such an error was symptomatic of Portugal’s quality of final ball, and Ronaldo’s mediocre performance was certainly mediated by the poor service he received. For a player of his calibre, who is bearing a colossal amount of expectation from his team-mates and from his nation, this is undoubtedly going to rankle. Simon Barnes, columnist for The Times, wrote a year or two (I forget the date) ago about English football’s – English sports’, Barnes argues – disdain for the genius; the maverick: its rejection of the individualist with the talent to alter a game with a moment of genius. Though not foolish enough to suggest that this explains England’s continued sporting failure, Barnes suggest that a reluctance to encourage individualism in sport from grassroots upwards is partly culpable for the lack of creativity in England sides. Barnes sees such an attitude exhibited in the oft-ambivalent attitudes to Kevin Pietersen; in the mystifying reluctance to acknowledge the talent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic; in the treatment of Andrew Flintoff; in the constantly hostile opinion of Wayne Rooney; and I believe that such is exhibited when people are so ready to dismiss Ronaldo as not worth the hype. Of course it partly stems from the brilliance and (ostensible, perhaps) humility of Ronaldo’s alter ego Lionel Messi, but I argue that it also has a few roots in a dislike of a figure who displays characteristics so inimical to the English conception of the ‘good sport’. I propose that, as far as football is concerned, such an attitude has been demonstrated to be hardly conducive to success.

This slight tangent aside, back to tonight’s game. Of course Ronaldo’s performance underwhelmed. Yet he had, if reports are to be credited with credibility, been told only days before that to play on his injured knee might result in the premature end of his career. Leaving the obvious fact aside that he was not fit, one should also take into account the effects this might reasonably be expected to have on Ronaldo’s psychology. It has already been noted that he is bearing the burden of carrying an extraordinarily mediocre side, one who, were it not perhaps for Ronaldo, would deserve no higher an estimation than Chile, the USA, Ghana, or, dare I say it, England. Thus he could have expected criticism from numerous quarters for self-interest, pusillanimity, and a plethora of other nonsense had he put himself first and opted not to play. Yet he was also criticised tonight for playing when not fit, for endangering his career.

But this is a strange thing to say. There is no abstract entity that is a player’s ‘career’ distinct from the tournaments they play in and the games they affect. A player’s career consists of these things. For an explosive footballer like Ronaldo who I suspect will not reinvent himself a la Gerrard, Scholes, and Giggs, he may expect to have two World Cups in which he is at the peak of his powers. One, I believe, was in 2010; the other is now. Ronaldo is twenty-nine, on the verge of his fourth decade, and he will be thirty-three in 2018. Given the not inconsequential probability that this is his last tournament at his peak, his desire to play even when unfit is entirely understandable and forgivable. It is why Diego Costa was happy to play in the Champions League final this year, rushed back from injury; it is why Ronaldo da Lima did not pull out after his fit in 1998. It is why John Terry freely admits that he has few qualms about playing on injections, pushing his body to its limits irrespective of the post-career consequences. It is because football is not a career that one of Ronaldo’s age can protect themselves for, ageing gracefully and slowly. Steven Gerrard’s international career may be ending tomorrow; if Hodgson elects to try the youth out, it may already be over. There is frequently no easy Indian summer, no last blaze of glory – and I suspect no footballer in Brazil would rather gradually deteriorate without a World Cup or Champions League between thirty and thirty-six, than win a World Cup on painkillers and have to retire afterwards.

Leaving Ronaldo aside, it became abundantly clear last night that Portugal will not win the World Cup, with Ronaldo on painkillers, Ronaldo on EPO, or Ronaldo on MDMA. They were exposed as lamentably average by a USA team that, whilst never going to experience the thrashings that some quarters predicted, are indeed a limited side. Whilst the generally excellent USA performance earlier deserves analysis, it shall have to wait until the next post in a few hours. Until then, it is worth concluding by noting that despite all his travails (I have omitted to mention the rather rough treatment Ronaldo received at the hands of the USA), he still provided a moment of quality to assist Varela at a moment around about the time when Gerrard and Rooney were spooning or overhitting crosses in the Italy and Uruguay games respectively. It was a telling contribution, and one indicative of a player who, even half-fit, is undroppable.



England 1 Uruguay 2: Reaction

Hello, England’s initial World Cup performance against Italy provided optimism; yet it was an optimism tempered with a caveat that the brief moments of youthful exuberance and creativity shown against Italy would not only need to occur more regularly against Uruguay, but also to occur alongside an increased level of defensive – namely positional – nous. Unfortunately, the former is more easily attained than the latter. Whilst England created a reasonable number of good opportunities – two of them clear-cut and falling to Rooney, another less clear-cut but incredibly close effort from a free-kick also falling to Rooney – it was combined with a lack of concentration to defensive duties that has resulted in England being left on the verge of exiting the World Cup at the earliest stage. In the report for England’s last game, I noted the loss of concentration on Gary Cahill’s part that resulted in Mario Balotelli’s second half goal. Cahill has come on a colossal amount both on and off the ball since his move from Bolton in 2012, but the difference between centre-halves of the very highest calibre and players like Cahill and Jagielka is partly down to concentration – the ability to refrain from ball-watching for an entire ninety-minutes. Three of England’s four goals can be attributed to these momentary but incredibly costly lapses in concentration: the Balotelli goal mentioned above, and both Uruguay’s goals last night. The first goal was evocative of Balotelli’s, England failing to close down a cross, and Jagielka failing to focus on the run of Luis Suarez. The second goal resulted partly because of Gerrard’s poor anticipation on the Muslera goal kick, but also because – again – of the lack of awareness of Jagielka and Cahill, neither of whom tracked the run of Suarez. Suarez, like his counterpart Sturridge, is successful partly because he is perpetually aware of potential openings in a way that Cahill and Jagielka were not. For all their improvement from their early- and mid-twenties, neither player has covered themselves in glory in this tournament, and it partly makes one yearn for the days in which Rio Ferdinand was at his peak. Equally, England’s double pivot raised questions about their quality. Jordan Henderson has  made huge strides forward over the past twelve months, and probably warranted a start because of his positive attributes, but he was wasteful in the final third on numerous occasions last night and occasionally left the centre-halves exposed when Uruguay counter-attacked. As the game wore on and England’s moves lacked the composure of the earlier stages, he ended up (and was not alone here, in all fairness)delivering one or two aimless deliveries into the box. The question here is one that affected the majority of England’s team  – a lack of awareness about how to chase a game. It was a problem against Italy, and it recurred once again tonight. Similarly, Gerrard launched a few desultory crosses into the box, and though he has reinvented himself far more successfully than Frank Lampard, he still lacks quite the level of vision and composure possessed by the very top holding midfielders around the world. He has been passed by somewhat in what is likely to be his final World Cup, and he has failed to impact the games substantially. His set-piece deliveries were generally of a reasonable quality – especially the one that resulted in Rooney heading onto the crossbar, but this ability will not be sufficient to justify his continued exclusion in 2016. This means that England must search for somebody to pick up Gerrard’s mantle from hereon in, and the options do not look promising, irrespective of the quality elsewhere. Wilshere’s career has stagnated dreadfully as a result of injury, and he was rightfully omitted by Hodgson: irrespective of the aforementioned reservations about Henderson’s tactical game (of course his inclusion is justified by very different, and strong, abilities), he has the physical capabilities to affect a game against sides of Uruguay and Ecuador’s ilk in a way that Wilshere does not: he still has the propensity to be bullied. This conundrum is symptomatic of what might be termed the quintessential English problem: to combine the abilities of Henderson and Wilshere would create a complete top-level midfielder, but such abilities seldom seem to manifest themselves in the English midfielder. Wilshere is England’s next best hope, but he, like Henderson, still has some way to go if their early promise is to be fulfilled. Furthermore, options in this department seem limited otherwise: Barry and Lampard are no longer international footballers of consequence, and players like Chalobah and Will Hughes have not been tested at Premier League level yet, let alone international level. Josh McEachran is no longer likely, it would seem, to be a top-level midfielder either. In fact, the lack of depth in the England squad became painfully clear last night, as they turned to Ricky Lambert when searching for a goal. He is a good Premier League-level striker, and has made so much of what ability he has – so much more than, for example, players like Gabriel Agbonlahor – but his inclusion was justified more as a result of England’s dearth of options than his outstanding case to be included. In the striking department, too, it is difficult to look beyond Sturridge for future options. Welbeck is still young, but I am never convinced by him. He is a skillful player forging a decent international career, but lacks the intelligence to make the most of what ability he has. One also gets the sense, a little, that he would be far more comfortable in the centre than on the wing – but does not have the goalscoring instinct that would warrant his playing there. Rooney has been – I believe wrongly – panned in the media, but he was again disappointing last night. Though he scored the equaliser, he was profligate and flitted in and out of proceedings. He no longer seems able to affect a game in the way that he used to be able to in his early years. Rooney will be a strange case when it comes to interpreting a player’s career. Though he will, most likely, end up as England and Manchester United’s record goalscorer, playing at three or four World Cups and winning every top-level club trophy, there will, I believe, always be a lingering sense of unfulfilled promise. This is undoubtedly strange and is perhaps testament to the unrealistic and quixotic expectations that were placed upon Rooney, but I believe that when one reflects on the destructive force that entered the footballing consciousness in the early millennium, this feeling is more explicable. It is not to say that Rooney – of course – wasted his career like Gascoigne or Best, but nor has he quite become the player one hoped. When he first joined Manchester United, he was undoubtedly the more accomplished player of he and Ronaldo. Yet Ronaldo has far, far, far outstripped Rooney. Part of this must of necessity be attributed to differing rates of development, the chance to join Real Madrid, and differing levels and manifestations of natural talent, and perhaps Rooney just developed too early: his boxing and natural build meant that he was far more physically accomplished and suited to the top level than Ronaldo was at the same age – but Ronaldo’s application has been infinitely superior to that of Rooney. When one sees Suarez and Aguero, players of similar stature, and compares them with Rooney, the difference is obvious: they are in an outstanding physical condition, whereas Rooney looks somewhat doughy. He still has the physical stamina – he ran well over ten kilometres in Manaus – but his lack of application will no doubt affect his ability to play at quite the same intensity as other players. This means that he may well be over as a top-level force by thirty-three or thirty-four. Rooney’s profligacy means that I do not believe that England should be downhearted about last night’s performance: they were far more composed in possession against a good quality of opposition, and created all of the best opportunities and forced Muslera into far more saves. The difference is as a result of the small moments of quality in vital moments that deserted Rooney, Cahill, and Jagielka, but did not desert Suarez. England still have some hope of going through, and it will be an extraordinary shame if they do not, because the potential last-sixteen game would be a very winnable one. To clarify: to do so would require Italy beating both Costa Rica and Uruguay – not at all implausible – and England winning their final game. In 2010, the public anger was because neither results nor performances provided one with any hope whatsoever. The consensus is that there are more reasons to be cheerful, but I feel that this needs to be tempered somewhat. Sterling has been the outstanding bright light, but even he has not provided more than a few quantitative impacts on the games (chances created, assists, goals, etc). Sturridge has scored one World Cup goal, which is all well and good. Hodgson’s style has been interpreted as positive, but it must be noted that this is relative to the singularly negative style with which England played in 2012 and the hopelessly banal efforts of 2010. They have endeavoured to retain possession and attack, but their style has hardly amounted to the way in which Rodgers’s Liverpool ‘threw off the shackles’. Barkley, likewise, has been seen as a bright light, but a couple of competent cameos cannot be interpreted as indicative of a future top-class footballer. The cases of Jack Wilshere and Wayne Rooney are instructive examples of the way in which early promise does not always translate to the expected careers public bandwagons bestow upon them. Regards, Jack NB: I will react to Spain – Chile at some point, but that may not be until after today’s fixtures.

England 1 Italy 2: Reaction


The World Cup thus far has been a considerably more entertaining spectacle than its 2010 counterpart, with the average number of goals per game over three, and some poor defensive displays combined with sides appearing more inclined to attack than I recall them in major tournaments (excluding the obvious few) mean that a trend has, hopefully, been set for the remainder of the tournament. Roy Hodgson seemed happily inclined to continue with that trend last night, fulfilling English expectations in setting out with a more adventurous formation and attitude than in 2010, and by selecting Raheem Stirling to start against Giorgio Chiellini.

Stirling provides a useful place to start, as he was one of the highlights in the match last night. Over the past twelve months, he has shown a confidence one hopes remains with him throughout his career (a confidence that seemed to desert Owen, and, more recently, Rooney), exhibiting an exciting willingness to receive ball under pressure in central or wide areas and attack opposition defences directly. He continued in the same vein from the early stages last night, running twenty yards into Italian territory and striking a long-range effort into the side netting that briefly seemed to have hit the inside netting of Sirigu’s net. A tone was set somewhat, and it was – cliched as the term is – refreshing to watch England in the opening half an hour. All of the indications of a side looking to move forward were there in intention if not always in execution: the first of these was a willingness to attempt to get in behind a defence. This cannot be underestimated, as what has been immensely frustrating about watching English performances over the past decade is the way that build-up play has come to an abrupt halt the moment the team get within twenty yards of an opposition box. The lack of runners willing to attempt to go beyond defensive lines – especially from midfield – has resulted in England frequently resorting to perfunctory and unimaginative passing from left to right across an opposition box, before an inaccurate long-range attempt or mistaken touch ends the move. Last night, however, one was able to see Daniel Sturridge and Sterling move beyond the line of midfield cover and into areas where defenders dislike attackers being – in short, in behind them. One such link-up almost saw Sturridge free for a tap-in before an Italian intervention; another darting run down the left from Sterling saw an excellent low ball that Sturridge, had he the anticipation of a peak-form Owen, might have managed to reach. Again, however, this move was pleasing despite its lack of end product because it involved an English attacker not whipping in a hopeful cross from deep, but attacking the byline and putting a cross into the most dangerous area between the centre-halves and goalkeeper.

These were the positives of the early stages, and indeed of the match, and the goal came in a similar vein: Sterling finding a modicum of space in midfield, releasing Rooney down the left of the Italian defence; Rooney was able to play another cross in behind the centre-halves, and Sturridge finished well at the far-post on his right foot. This is the sort of move that England fans will want to see far more of, as it betrays a greater imagination and ambition than fans who have followed limited, tedious England sides over the last eight years will be familiar with. However, as one so often sees with experimental, adventurous sides who have not always been so, increased ambition can yield a concomitant loss of defensive nous, and this proved true last night. From the early stages, it was disconcerting to see how much space Chiellini was being given at left back, and how little Pirlo was being pressured when receiving the ball deep in midfield. Fears about Chiellini in particular proved misguided, as he is not a full-back of the Cole or Marcelo mould, but one would have certainly liked to see Rooney or Sterling have put more pressure on Pirlo; for all his age, he has lost little of his touch or vision. Perhaps Hodgson felt that allowing Pirlo room from deep so as to avoid being exposed were he to elude his marker was a compromise worth making, but it seemed for much of the game that England were torn between attempts at pressing Italy in their own half – especially from goal kicks, when Italy were wont to go short and play out – and inviting pressure in an attempt at absorbing it. For me, this is something that needs to be specified by Hodgson, as the result was, all too frequently, a single English player making a sprint to close down an Italian defender (or Pirlo). The Italians have extremely composed, intelligent ball-playing defenders, and one man closing down was never going to be adequate.

Pressing aside, equally disappointing was the ease with which the first goal was conceded. Planned and contrived it might have been, but the slowness with which England closed down once Pirlo’s dummy removed Sturridge from the equation was amateurish and unforgivable at a World Cup. The finish was impeccable, but that does not excuse the uncertainty and langour of the defending. The same can be said for the second goal, which was the accumulation of equally unforgivable defensive errors: Baines turning his back on the ball as a result of a rather simple dummy; Cahill losing his man whilst ball-watching; Johnson being laughably out of position: all these factors combined to make what was a fairly innocuous defensive situation a calamity.

And England’s defending was generally a negative: Cahill and Jagielka made a few reasonably perfunctory interceptions and deserve credit for keeping Balotelli anonymous in the first half, but as a cohesive midfield-defensive unit England were lacking. Johnson has been frequently criticised, and it is vogue for armchair viewers to make Johnson a scapegoat for England’s failings currently, but last night he did himself no favours. Defensively he made no glaring errors, but nor was he particularly able to inspire confidence; and going forward his failings were more obvious. His movement is stationary and impotent; in England’s rather narrow attacking formation, it is incumbent on him and Baines to try and get beyond Welbeck and Sterling, and this did not happen enough. Given Gerrard is willing to sit deep when England have possession, there is far less risk in playing a system that utilises the full-backs than there would be without such protection. Johnson (and Baines cannot be perceived as being guilt-free) did not do this. Far too frequently Sterling would pick up the ball on the right touchline, and be forced to either go inside to Henderson or Sturridge, or pass backwards five yards to Johnson. The result of Johnson failing to break beyond Sterling and the Italian left-back means that the move becomes ponderously slow: Sturridge, Rooney and Welbeck all have to drop deeper in between the midfield and defence in order to try and retain possession, and the box remains empty and unthreatened. If Johnson moves beyond the Italian left back, it pushes Italy’s centre-halves back, thus allowing England attackers to also move into the box. The same goes for Baines. One can appreciate Hodgson’s pragmatism, but there is nothing to prevent one of the two full-backs at any one time trying to move beyond the midfield in wide areas, for a lack of width dogged England at times, especially given Italy’s strength in central areas.

This links to another disappointing England failing: I spoke earlier about confidence and ambition in the early exchanges. In previous tournaments, England have frequently been in a situation where they needed to chase a goal. Each time, this has inevitably involved a loss of composure, desperate attempts to force a situation that cannot be forced, the loss of all attacking cohesion. The same thing happened in the last quarter of the game, as England became far too impatient to create opportunities. This resulted in a frustrating recrudescence of all of the failings of the past: Rooney took possibly the worst corner-kick I’ve ever seen in the professional game; Johnson and Sterling both hit crosses straight off for a goal-kick; Rooney begun panicking and shooting on sight. If England cannot find it within them to attack with some composure when behind or chasing a win, they will make it very  easy for opposition sides to defend leads or draws against them.

Some other individual performances will also cause disquiet. Assist and being part of a few neat exchanges around the box early on aside, Rooney was off-colour, and went through spells without trying to involve himself as much as one would like. One feels that he does need to start, but that this is a concession made nearly as much on reputation as it is on form. Henderson let the game pass him by a little, and did not do enough to make life uncomfortable for Marchisio et al. Barkley had the occasional bright moment when attacking, including one positive run from the left side that forced Sirigu into a save, but it is difficult to make a judgement on his merits for this level based on his cameo.

So where does this leave England? In a strange situation. In 2010, after a draw against the USA, I remember feeling rather downhearted by how dull England were after Robert Green’s error, creating almost nothing of note in over an hour. This was not the case last night; though Italy triumphed, there were sufficient signs of increased attacking ambition that actually made England enjoyable to watch – no meaningless claim after a a decade of uninspired performances. No fan will want to exchange results for excitement, and I think it has been made clear that a greater amount of tournament nous (in some ways due to the fact that even the older players in the squad (Cahill, Jagielka, Baines) have not had much tournament experience before) is necessary for the vibrancy of Sturridge, Sterling et al., to yield results. It is hard to call a defeat a step in the right direction, but the general mood last night seemed to be that last night’s loss bestowed far more credit upon England than the sterile 0-0 draw in the 2012 European Championships. Given Uruguay were exposed as far more limited than people would have had them believe last night, England’s chances of progression do not seem to be too badly damaged by last night’s events. Four points from the remaining two games, if one involves a large defeat of either Uruguay (admittedly unlikely) or Costa Rica, might be sufficient for England. Even if six points are necessary, the events in the two games last night should give one hope that this could be achieved. A step backwards, all in all, for England in the context of this tournament , but one that provides hope that it will be followed by a couple of steps forward.




Mexico 1 Cameroon 0: Reaction


Neither Cameroon nor Mexico have gained much faith from the general public regarding their chances of getting out of Group A, and in the wake of an impressive (though ultimately futile) Croatia performance, and the expected inevitability of a Brazilian progression, both sides would have had to put in singularly impressive displays to convince others that they might last long than three days in the tournament. Sadly, neither did. A compelling opening to the game was primarily made so by the weakness of Cameroon’s defending: defensively suspect full-backs have been a feature of the tournament in its nascent stages, and that continued today: Cameroon were exploited down their right flank in the first twenty minutes on numerous occasions, a high line causing them frequent problems. Fortunately for them, the quality of final ball from Andres Guardado was inevitably disappointing, and thus Cameroon escaped lightly. Brazil and Croatia, one suspects, would not have been so forgiving, especially when one reflects on the high quality of delivery seen in yesterday’s fixture. Should Cameroon defend as they did in the opening half, even the infuriatingly wasteful Hulk might gain some joy in the final fixture of Group A. Similarly, profligacy on the part of Peralta and Dos Santos masked a performance that left one fearing for Cameroon when they face Neymar.

In midfield and attack, Cameroon are not perhaps bad; they are more just disappointingly limited. Samuel Eto’o had opportunities at moments – and Mexico’s inability to defend set-pieces will be an area that Luka Modric should be able to exploit – but the openings he had were squandered. He is clearly a level above his team-mates, but he is no longer a player who can take a game by the scruff of its neck single-handedly. Nor is the service to him of a sufficient quality. He is sharp, yes, but there were few moments at which that sharpness and enthusiasm could result in a tangible end-product. They were not quite as exposed after half-time as they were previous to the interval, but increased stability did not yield increased productivity in attack.

Mexico, then, were superior to Cameroon, but it was a limited superiority. Some promising combinations in the opening stages broke down as a result of either poor crossing or wasteful finishing; though Peralta scored his general performance was erratic and tentative. One wonders why Javier Hernandez was left on the bench for such a long time; in fact, one wonders why he did not start. He is a player who, I believe, is grossly underappreciated by both his club and his country. His minutes-per-goal ration has always been incredibly high, and a record of thirty-six international goals in sixty-three games is admirable, if not quite as good as Neymar’s. It is currently unfashionable to be a ‘pure finisher’; a player who can remain unnoticed for long stretches of play before scoring; somebody whose focus is to net, and nothing more. This is, I believe, a sad mistake. There is no talent more valuable for a forward than being a clinical, reliable goalscorer; and Hernandez’s movement, pace, and finishing make him a necessary starter for Mexico. It is indeed true that he failed to impress when he came on, but I feel that a player of Hernandez’s character would flourish when given time to adapt to the rhythm of a game.

One should not be too hard, however, on Mexico’s unconvincing victory. If erratic full-‘backs’ were the first theme of the World Cup, poor refereeing is certainly the second, as Mexico were prevented from racking up a more impressive scoreline – and one more reflective of the chances that they created – by incompetent refereeing; Giovanni dos Santos, of erstwhile Tottenham and Barcelona fame, saw two legitimate goals disallowed, both due to incorrect offside calls. The first was marginal – yet the official decided to maintain the perpetual reluctance to give an attacker the benefit of the doubt – ; the second was extraordinarily poor.

This is frustrating because the solutions are so simple. To give a free-kick against offside requires an intermission in play in any case, all the more so if it is accompanied (as it so often is) by defenders and attackers acting as though a referee’s mind will be altered by protesting over a decision. (Fulham against Arsenal around eight years ago aside, this has never to my mind happened, making protests against referees all the more ludicrous.) Given this inevitable break in play, using a video replay – one that can be acquired in the space of a couple of seconds – is the strikingly obvious and almost childishly simple remedy. Recent news suggests that the bumbling fool that is Sepp Blatter has suddenly become more amenable to the idea of using a limited number of video replays, with managers allowed a certain number of challenges throughout a game, in a tennis-esque system. This, I believe, is eminently sensible, but it does not detract from the fact that it is preposterous that this debate is still necessary. Should Mexico be knocked out of the World Cup on goal difference, last night will obviously not be the only cause (a truism that needs to be stated, as some would suggest that it were so) but they might rightly feel aggrieved. Those who venerate ‘human error’ as an integral and valuable part of the game are dewy-eyed, nostalgic, and refuse to accept that fewer officiating mistakes would make football infinitely better, not worse. (And this links in with what was discussed yesterday: that one of the fears I have heard cited from those who enjoy ‘human error’ is that it provides ‘something to discuss’).

So Mexico were probably slightly better than the scoreline suggests, but defensive lapses and attacking profligacy mean that one imagines that Croatia should be able to dispatch of them. Coming through the group in second, similarly, would involve the likelihood of playing either Spain or the Netherlands, both of whom would end Mexico’s campaign. As a result, I imagine viewers will not be seeing a lot of either of these sides. Nor is this something to lament. As the game that followed this demonstrates, there are more competent and entertaining sides around Brazil at the moment.




Spain 1 Netherlands 5: An Elegy on Tiki-Taka


‘The avalanche was down; the hillside swept bare behind it; the last echoes died on the white slopes; the new mound glittered and lay still in the silent valley.’ Charles Ryder’s words at the end of Brideshead Revisited mark the end of a relationship, the ostensible end of the aristocracy, and, most pertinently, the end of a narrative. This, it would seem, is an accurate marker of the mood of football-watchers around the world at the moment – and, like Brideshead (by virtue of its retrospective framed narrative), the death has been a prolonged one, it would seem: last night was not the beginning. It has been visible in the decline of Barcelona, in the 2-1 defeat by Real Madrid; in the 7-0 trouncing by Bayern Munich, and in Spain’s 3-0 defeat by Brazil in the 2013 Confederations Cup.

And last night only strengthened and prolonged the public opinion that Spain are over; that tiki-taka was nice (or not, depending on your reception of the playing style) while it lasted, but it has served its time; it is sterile and impotent, and that Spain as an international force are over.

There is, on the face of things, obvious merit to this view – and yet it is a merit that is almost too obvious. It is very easy to critique a side and write their epitaph after a 5-1 defeat or a 7-0 defeat; this does not require insight, only an ability to look at a scoreline and jump on a strident bandwagon. I want to argue in this piece that tiki-taka is not, in fact, over, and that reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. However, in doing so I want to separate Spain – who I believe are likely over as the force that they have proved to be over the past six years – and tiki-taka, which I believe is not over. Let us first take the match on its own terms: Holland, after equalising, were incredibly superior, taking apart Spain at will, dominating them and using the pace and directness of Robben to indicate just how limited tiki-taka is: such is the overarching narrative. Some of these accusations and claims are correct, some are not. Robben was supreme, in outstanding form that makes defenders struggle to cope with him and me, as a Chelsea fan, lament that we sold him for a paltry twenty-one million pounds. At his best he is as unstoppable as Messi and Ronaldo. Holland did dominate Spain after the second goal went in. Yet such a kneejerk reaction to the game  – OMG 5-1?!?!?! – ignores that Holland were pitiably bad before the equaliser. Spain’s passing imposed almost complete control over the game; Holland were left playing impotent long, high balls up to van Persie that conceded possession as quickly as it was attained; it was a question of when, not if, Spain scored; Diego Costa was continually breaching the Dutch defensive line. This pattern, in fact, lasted until one of these direct, long passes finally worked; and though the finish from Robin van Persie was supreme, it had as much to do with Casillas’s mistaken positioning as it did a very, very good header.

When one considers how each of the goals came about – and how avoidable each goal was – venerating Holland and lambasting Spain becomes a little more problematic. The first goal; a great header but one facilitated by poor positioning. The second was indeed excellent, a wonderful diagonal ball to Robben, whose control and finish was impeccable. The third, however, was another goalkeeper error, Casillas flapping at a ball that he was never realistically going to win. The fourth came from Casillas’s most glaring error, being tackled by van Persie from a backpass; and the fifth, the result of Spain pressing high up trying to restore credibility (and I’d again suggest that Casillas was poor in the one-on-one situation, especially with defenders rushing to cover). Now, of course it is obvious that if a side cannot avoid making errors they will lose, and of course one would be right to cite Spain’s erratic defending as a reason for the lack of faith surrounding them. But the faults that Spain have are Spain’s faults; they are not the faults of tiki-taka as a system. It is possible to defend well whilst playing tiki-taka; a sextuple for Barcelona and three consecutive tournaments for Spain prove that. Similarly, obviously if the personnel are not of a high enough quality, or performing badly, a side cannot win. This piece is not, much as I’d love to do otherwise, stating that Spain have strong chances to win the tournament. It is, rather, defending tiki-taka against the backlash it is facing. But again, having Casillas in erroneous form is not a fault of tiki-taka; it is a fault of Vincente del Bosque and his incompetent management. It is possible to drop Xavi – Martinez and Fabregas both seem like better options when compared with an ageing Xavi who no longer exerts metronomic control over matches at the highest level – as it is possible to drop Torres (the decision to leave Negredo and Llorente rotting at home is, to my mind, a sackable offence when taken alone, especially when the chosen alternative is the pitiably incompetent Torres), as it is possible to drop Casillas, a goalkeeper who is not Madrid’s comfortable first choice currently. Again – this was an avoidable rout, indicative of the avalanche of a day, not the etiolation of a tournament. Spain will most likely get through the group; they will then probably face Brazil, which every ‘sensible’ viewer would suggest will be the end for them – but even then, ‘sensible’ viewers show little insight in backing Brazil based on the evidence of the first two games.

The other point that needs to be made, because so many people have been duped into believing otherwise, is that what happened last night was not tiki-taka. I invite readers to watch the following analysis of what tiki-taka is in its ideal form:

Tiki-taka does not, as the armchair layman or unwittingly ignorant pundit would have one believe, just mean ‘lots of tippy-tappy’ (the use of the phrase ‘tippy-tappy’ is enough to invalidate an analysis of footballing styles) passing ad infinitum. It denotes far more than that: the triangles noted in the early part of the video, high pressing – Guardiola, its most skilled coaching exponent, stated that the aim is always to win the ball back when ‘there are thirty metres between the goal, not eighty’ – attempts to get numerous runners in behind a defensive line, and monopolisation of possession. Last night was not tiki-taka. It was its bastardisation, which is sterile, aimless possession: possession for possession’s sake, rather than the forceful, intended, defensive possession of Spain and Barcelona. Last night – just watch the three-minute highlights reel – saw a tentative attempt to keep the ball, coupled with a distinct lack of pressing and a lax style of marking. Another indicator of Barcelona’s tiki-taka in its ideal form was the ‘third centre-half’, either Busquets or Mascherano acting as a third centre-back when Spain were in possession so as to allow the full-backs to join the attack. Without that, the defence is far more culpable: this was evinced by Holland’s second goal, for which Robben was allowed to lose his marker far too easily. Similarly, the lack of high pressing was an important cause for both of the first two goals, as they allowed the assisters the time with which they were able to play the long, diagonal balls.

Therefore, the problem is not that opponents have ‘worked out tiki-taka’; the problem is that Spain have ceased to play tiki-taka at all – or, rather, they have reduced the form to one aspect of it. Pep Guardiola, leaving Barcelona, lamented that his side had requested to stop pressing with the same intensity because of its physical demands: Spain, it would appear, have effectively done the same. And tiki-taka only works as a coherent whole, a homogenisation of various ideal elements that make the pitch very small for opponents but very large for the proponent. In taking one of these ideal elements out, the basic philosophy upon which tiki-taka is based is destroyed, because the manipulation of pitch space that acts as the intellectual base by which tiki-taka exists no longer occurs to the same extent.

If, then, the reader is willing to accept that what was seen last night was the demise of Spain, not of tiki-taka – which at its best cannot be countered  – then they might sensibly ask why I have bothered defending tiki-taka: a footballing style is a nebulous thing, relevant only as it is reified by the team adopting it for a style. If Spain do not play tiki-taka, it dies as a form because they are the only international side capable of playing it.

It is because at its best, I have never seen anything that compared to tiki-taka. In its control, its incisiveness, its enacting of an unified philosophy – eleven players working in flawless cohesion both on and off the ball – it is as close to a symphony as football can come. That it is essentially uncounterable was evinced by the success that both Barcelona and Spain achieved over six years. That is is essentially unstoppable when played properly, with all its elements at work, is evinced here; I invite football lovers with a lot of spare time to watch the game in full, with the earlier analysis at the forefront of their mind at all times:

With this in mind, it should be obvious – when compared with the three-minute highlights passage from last night – that Spain no longer play tiki-taka in any meaningful sense.

Yet tiki-taka made football beautiful, and for that reason I feel that, if it is to wither and wane and be buried under Dutch, Chilean, and Brazilian avalanches, it is important to recognise what it really is, not to defame a ‘straw man’ tiki-taka. Tiki-taka has been rightfully described as the most difficult style of football imaginable, and I feel that six years of exposure have immunised us against its perfect cohesion – the fact that it allowed a team sport to be played with the unity of purpose usually reserved for the individual agent. It would be wrong, I feel, to criticise tiki-taka for the failings of its imposter. And can it be rescued? It is impossible to predict. If it is to be rescued, it will not be in this tournament. It needs a personnel revamp, and the fact that Spain’s new generation will come from a more disparate club base – the Barcelona/Madrid duality has been replaced by players from Chelsea (Azpilicueta, Costa, Fabregas), Manchester United (de Gea), Atletico Madrid (Koke, etc), Bayern Munich (Javi Martinez), and Real Sociedad. As such, I feel that tiki-taka on the international stage will be hard to replicate again. Part of its flourishing was due to the fact that the necessary cohesion required was made possible by the majority of the team being Barcelona or Madrid players, allowing the few ‘outsiders’ to assimilate with greater ease: Casillas, Alba, Pique, Ramos, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, Busquets: the bedrock of a side. They will not be able to transfer a club style to the international stage so easily, and with it I think go Spain’s chances of domination. Yet I do not feel it is over on the club stage. Barcelona have essentially signed up all of their players, from under-six to the first team, up to this philosophy. They will be placing all their emphasis on using the next decade to perpetuate and create the tiki-taka dynasty; to bring forth players who can orchestrate the symphony; to play tiki-taka in its true form.

I have not focused on Holland much in this post. This is because their excellencies were numerous and obvious, and therefore require nothing but brief praise and the comment that I look forward to seeing more of them, should they maintain their freedom and form. Yet they are a common side: a side that has excellent attacking players and wants to play with pace and directness. They are generic in their excellence, predictable in their talents; they are enjoyable because their style is recognisable and capricious. There will be time, I believe, to discuss their brilliance later in the tournament, and it is dull to say I enjoyed watching them play.

Spain have commanded my attention because they did something more. They were not capricious; they preferred control. They, like few sides before them, joined Barcelona in a renovation of football: a paradigm shift that, if more transient than thought, ended far too early. They were, effectively, unique, and for that reason I shall still dare to hope that we have not, quite, seen the end of the only style of play that reified a footballing ideal.



NB: I know that my appreciation of tiki-taka is somewhat controversial, and I know that it has had its critics as an aesthetic philosophy. I appreciate their claims, and note the subjectivity of my view. That’s how aesthetics works.