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.