Saturday, July 3, 2010

Soccer, a thing of beauty... (an aside...)

Is it just me, or was the World Cup's Quarterfinals amazing this time around? We had arrogant Brazil humbled. We had a crazy last minute in Uruguay-Ghana. And today, we got to watch as two of the best players on the planet, Messi for Argentina and Xavi for Spain, play amazing individual soccer in a way which spelled disaster for Messi's Argentina and should have for Xavi's Spain... What do I mean? Both players are hyper-creative. They make the ball dance as they weave to-and-fro, they are great at making guys miss, and no one watching can take their eyes off of either. The trouble is, as Messi's got the ball on his foot, everyone watching as he makes the thing dance, the Germans had plenty of time to line up 9 guys between the dancing ball and goal. As soon as Messi would lose it, the Germans, who couldn't do with the ball what Messi is capable of, would immediately hit an outlet pass and then it would be off to the races. While Messi would 12-touch the ball stylishly, Schweinsteiger would one-touch it to Ozil who would hit Klose who would then score. Wham, bam, thank you mam. Argentina possessed the ball for nearly the whole game, yet Germany had all the scoring opportunities. When Argentina gained possession, they'd pass the ball around the back, and then bring the ball up slowly, each player adding his own "creativity". Then the Germans would get and attack immediately!

It was a total bloodbath. To a man, the Argentines looked the better team. Yet they each played in a stylish fashion which made the whole rather less than the sum of its parts. You get the feeling that if Germany played Argentina again tomorrow, it might be 6-nil. And this despite Germany lacking any Messi or Xavi-quality players...

Proving it's not just Greg Mankiw that writes stupid stuff in the grey lady, check out this atrocious apology to Diego Maradona which calls him "a rollicking genius". The guy took what might be the most talented team in the tournament and got beat four-nil (which would be like being beaten 42-3 in American football). A team which only needed a coach to scream, as mine did, "get the ball off your foot!" Of course, great players are often given license to take more touches than more mortal men. Maradona was famous for dribbling it past the whole of England's defense and scoring the goal of the century. But what's missing is all the times Messi and Tevez tried to recreate that infamous highlight, schooling three defenders only to get schooled by the fourth. Maradona the player had great instinct on when to get rid of the ball, of course, but what we saw today was his players all trying to school Germany and individually score the goal of the century, and in the process, they were repeatedly laid bare and ultimately humiliated.

The exact same thing can be said about Spain, to a slightly lesser extent, against Paraguay. In the first half, Spain had most of the possession, Paraguay the scoring opportunities. The Spanish do a bit more short passing, but the likes of Xavi in the midfield also love to make the ball dance, and several times Xavi -- who John Harkes says might be the best midfielder alive -- was dispossessed of the ball by the third Paraguayan defender after stylishly beating the first two. At this point the Paraguayans would do what the Germans do -- spread the field, hit the outlet, and then the outlet would hit their striker with an air ball at the penalty spot, 2-3 passes and 3-4 seconds later. While this didn't always work, it did create serious scoring opportunities. Then the spanish would get the ball, make it dance, string together 20-30 passes and just as many needless touches, and find themselves trying to get it past a gauntlet of 9 Paraguayans in the box... Of course, the Spanish weren't nearly as bad as Argentina at taking needless touches, and they did do some quick counterattacking -- that's how they scored. And Paraguay wasn't nearly as good at counterattacking as Germany, which shows there is some risk to the immediate counterpunch -- you're more likely to lose possession quickly. Still, though, Spain was the waaay more talented team, yet were lucky to win.

One wonders if they've learned anything though. Most likely, it will once again be a bunch of talented individuals (Spain) against an actual team (Germany). It'd be a brave Spaniard that puts money on Spain in the Semis...

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