If It’s Good Enough For Brazil, It’s Good Enough For Us!

COS columnist Tom Smith asks if the game is heading in the right direction and wonders what we can expect next season from watching World Cup teams not daring to roll the dice.

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June 20, 2010 - Johannesburg, Guateng, South Africa - 20 JUN 2010: Gilberto Silva (BRA). The Brazil National Team defeated the C'ote d'Ivoire National Team 3-1 at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa in a 2010 FIFA World Cup Group G match.

So the group stages are over and let’s hope for a renewed vigour and enthusiasm from some of the teams who have failed to live up to expectations in the knockout phase of the World Cup.  In the first week, the tournaments lack of goals and attacking flair became everyone’s favourite subject for a tweet or facebook status comment. Until the Germans won 4-0 with some open and fluid football or until the North Koreans raised eyebrows with a ‘plucky’ performance against the Brazilians.

The tournament then took off with Portugal scoring 7, Argentina and Brazil finding the net and Spain bouncing back with a performance against Honduras that was better than the 2-0 score-line suggests.  We heard the pundits excuses for the bad start, ‘teams not wanting to loose the first game’ and an accepted period of ‘feeling their way into the tournament’ etc, etc.  The second and third games for most teams were tense and cagey rather than open and expansive (though Chilie, Japan and Uruguay have given us some hope). If it took 8 games for a match to have more than 2 goals; than the blueprint of modern tournament football is looking rather stale.

If Portugal and Brazil is seen as a mouth-watering tie, and it ends in a goalless bore draw, are our expectations unrealistic? Or are the teams playing differently from the form book?

I am scared that Premier League mangers will be watching the likes of Switzerland beat Spain playing some of least adventurous and skilful football seen at a World Cup, as either a playbook or vindication for some dire football next season. Wolves’ manager Mick McCarthy, out in South Africa on the BBC’s dime, will have it all to do to keep his team in the Premiership next season. Along with all the regular names who fill the bottom half of the league every season, the intention of teams not to get beat and sneak a goal on the ‘what if’ will be even more compelling.

Portugal’s landslide against North Korea looked like an aberration today against Brazil, the only attacking intention seemed to be: ‘to give it Cristiano and see if he can score from 40 yards out’.  A tendency Clarence Seedorf called right, much to Alan Hansens expense in the BBC studio in the big game build up. Brazil were hardly any bolder, again employing 2 defensive midfielders in a trend that both Brazil and Spain seem addicted too.

Del Bosque has modelled Spain on a Barcelona midfield that shields what is the teams only weaknesses in defence (Capdevila, Puyol and on occasion Arbeloa in for the excellent Sergio Ramos) with Sergio Busquests and Xabi Alonso. This allows Spain, like the Catalan giants to employ Xavi and Inesta in purely attacking roles along with other luxurious options like David Silva, Pedro, Jesus Navas and this is all before we get to their rich pickings upfront.

While this sounds very logical given their talent in attacking roles and Alonso and Busquests’ undoubted talent (something Busquests confirmed in an excellent performance against Honduras) and looks good on paper, both Spain and Barca have come unstuck by the realities of organised defensive teams. Sid Lowe has written and talked about the increasingly strong argument for a change to the mantra of two watercarriers in a team that sometimes needs a plan B.  Barca thought they had bought a plan B of the Inter shelf in the shape of lanky Swede who should not be talked about in the same breath as their other great players.  Spain, Brazil (insert Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo) and Argentina (Mascherano and Veron) it seems are determined to perceiver with a plan A of possession football. For Spain (and I’m sure Barca) plan B could come in the form of Cesc Fabregas to shoot from range and draw out defenders otherwise glued to their 18 yard line.

So the ‘lesser teams’ are parking the bus and the ‘big teams’ are covering their backs a little too much, the result is matches with players and potential drifting by (the group stage format doesn’t help). They drift by though, with some not altogether progressive commentary that is good for the game.

‘All credit to Switzerland’, was the line after their freakish 1-0 win against the raining European Champions and pre tournament favourites. I say no! No credit to Switzerland!

The Switzerlands’ and Stokes’ of this world are applauded for getting a result by the same people who moan about the lack of goals.  The one-sentence labels that become shorthand for this status quo are more annoying for the fact that people think these have become absolute truths. I’m talking about adages like; tight at the back, well organised, run all day, dogged, strength and determination.  For teams like Japan these labels are not only patronising but just show a lack of imagination and knowledge in pundit-land.

Is playing football that way the zenith of the countries footballing prowess? I don’t like the phrase negative football, as it assumes there is something called positive football and my premise is that all football should be positive and attacking, aimed at wining through playing well. But this brand of football we are seeing is parasitic; waiting to pounce on a mistake, a sending off, a penalty decision. Some of the ‘big teams’ have got away with this trend under the banner of counter-attacking, but some of the teams now lack the ability to even counter attack with skill and guile and the pendulum has swung too far.

How is Swiss football ever to improve if they don’t try to play better, are they happy to breed another generation of hard-working and disciplined yet unimaginative and unskilled players in the vain hope of once in a blue moon sneaking a win? Anyone who has had the ‘pleasure’ to watch a top flight Swiss team play in a league match, can testify to their lack of ambition and quality as the norm.

If we continue to patt the parasites on the back, than the game is in danger of loosing even more of its soul. (I could accept it as a stop-gap until they breed better players and more attacking style and culture, but I would be kidding myself)

Greece was rewarded with the highest prize in European football in 2004 but it was not for being the best team or playing the best football. Something’s not quite working right in the game if this can happen. Surely the game and the results should reward the best players and teams most of the time? (or at least should be explicitly designed and steered towards that goal).

The triumph in Euro 2004 has hardly been great for Greek football, watching them in South Africa, it looks more and more like it was a pyrrhic victory, a victory gained at too greater cost.

I understand its not figure skating and style should not be rewarded at the expense of other attributes. And I’m all for different styles and types of football. It is completely rational to play to your strengths, especially in club footballs pressured economic climate.  But let’s stop praising teams for bad football, in the long term it will do none of us any good.

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