Five Points: Costa Rica stymies Italy, Switzerland crumbles defensively
JUN 20, 2014 10:39p ET
Costa Rica entered this World Cup as the fourth team in a group with England, Italy and Uruguay. Their outsider status and the potentially crippling injury to Alvaro Saborio did not stop the Ticos from carefully plotting a potential way through it. They laid their plans and waited for the chance to enact them on unsuspecting opponents.
All of the work paid off beyond any reasonable expectation. The opening victory over Uruguay established the foundation. This edition of Five Points explains how Costa Rica built upon the promising start to defeat Italy and seal a place in the round of 16.
Costa Rican tactical master class buttressed by collective performance
The prospect of sitting back and watching Andrea Pirlo waltz through midfield as he did against England did not appeal to Costa Rica boss Jorge Luis Pinto. He knew he faced a similar fate if he did not alter how his team approached Italy. He tweaked the successful approach and watched his players implement them excellently in a thoroughly deserved 1-0 victory in Recife.
Pinto pushed the Ticos further up the field in their distinctive 5-4-1 shape to condense the operating room in midfield and increase the pressure on Pirlo. The concept made sense for two reasons: it limited the time and space allotted to Pirlo in the center of the park and it tested the energy reserves of an Italian side noticeably fatigued by its exertions in Manaus.
The effectiveness of the tactics hinged on the commitment level of the players on the field. Pirlo enjoyed a bright spell right around the half-hour as Costa Rica failed to close effectively and permitted him to play over the top toward Mario Balotelli, but he largely operated on the periphery of the game (36 touches in the first half in this affair after 72 during the same period against England, according to ESPN statistics) and sometimes strayed to the left to join it. The midfielders – Yeltsin Tejeda, in particular – closed earnestly to compress the space available and reduced the service coming out of that department. Balotelli found himself generally starved of decent supply, though he spurned two decent opportunities on the day.
Bryan Ruiz’s header before the break and Antonio Cassano’s arrival as a second striker after the interval allowed Costa Rica to defend a bit deeper in the second half. The blocks of five and four did not yield, while the Italians found it much more difficult to play over the top and struggled to move the ball sharply enough to stretch the resolute structure. The dynamic allowed the Ticos to claim a famous win and secure a place in the round of 16 in relative comfort.
Lack of tempo and width leaves Italy adrift
Costa Rica’s organization and shape requires a certain level of vibrancy to unlock. Italy never quite met the standard during this affair. The dearth of cadence in possession and the paucity of quality wide play ensured the Italians slumped to defeat with a relative whimper.
The toil in Manaus obviously took its toll, but the alterations at the start and during the match did not aid matters. Antonio Candreva failed to match the heights of his impressive display against England with the restored Ignazio Abate behind him on the right. Matteo Darmian offered little on the overlap on the left after presenting problem after problem from right back against England. Claudio Marchisio supplied nothing in front of him. Alessio Cerci and Lorenzo Insigne failed to provide a spark off the bench, either.
It isn’t necessarily about getting the wide players around the Ticos wingbacks. The back five restricts those sorts of opportunities, but openings might have cropped up with a higher tempo in possession. It is considerably more important to peg them back and stop them from joining the attack. The ineffectual displays out wide encouraged the wingbacks to move forward at times with Junior Diaz’s sumptuous cross on Ruiz’s winner a particular bright spot.
Italian manager Cesare Prandelli held his hands up after the match and said Costa Rica performed better over the course of the game. His correct assessment cedes the obvious point on a day when the Italians never quite got started.
Switzerland torn apart by France after early defensive change
Solidity generally isn’t a concern for Switerland. Ottmar Hitzfeld molded a resolute defensive unit from the players at his disposal after taking charge in 2008. The results in World Cup qualifying – six goals conceded in 10 matches, four of them in a peculiar home draw with Iceland last September – continued the tradition.
It proved a rather significant shock to see this usually defiant group crumble in the wake of Steve von Bergen’s early departure through injury. France exploited the lack of cohesion between Johan Djourou and Philippe Senderos and exposed the lack of pace in the setup with its energetic movement. The back four simply never located the proper footing to establish the proper balance or stem the French tide.
The prevalence of errors throughout the team and the sharp French counter led to a heavy 5-2 defeat far worse than the score line suggests. The best news for the Swiss as they process the setback: they remain in good position to qualify with a victory in the final group fixture against Honduras in Manaus on Wednesday.
Enner Valencia hands Ecuador victory over Honduras
This awkward and entertaining game played right into Honduras’ hands. Ecuador never established its dominance in the wide areas or found its cadence for extended periods of time. The frantic nature of the encounter underscored how well the Honduras managed to impose their preferred modus operandi on the proceedings.
The difference between the teams came in the final third. Enner Valencia carved out three chances. He scuffed his first one as he raced clear. He anticipated brilliantly on the second to turn home an equalizer at the far post. He headed home the winner from the third with a perfectly timed jump under duress and a tidy header inside the far post.
Valencia’s contributions ultimately settled Ecuador’s 2-1 victory. His continued threat in front of goal – he has scored 11 goals in his past nine matches for club and country, as WhoScored.com pointed out during the match – must persist in order to give Ecuador a chance to match the French firepower on Wednesday.
Ghana must cope with German precision to stay alive
It will take a Herculean effort for Ghana to maintain hope for a knockout round berth against Germany in Fortaleza (3:00p.m. ET). Just about every reasonable scenario to progress included a victory over the United States on Monday. Now the Ghanaians will need find a way to disrupt the German movement and keep their shape. They possess the athleticism to do so, but their defensive discipline – as evidenced by the two American goals – may leave them exposed too often.
Argentina must maintain its patience against Iran (12:00p.m. ET) in order to collect the expected three points. Iran will sit deeply and stay organized. It will prove a bother for Lionel Messi and his comrades, but nothing more.
Bosnia and Herzegovina faces a different sort of wait against Nigeria (6:00p.m. ET): it must dictate the terms and focus on its own solidity to place itself in a position to take advantage of the Super Eagles’ mistakes. Nigeria will look to increase the tempo of the game and test the slow-footed Bosnian center backs. The balance favors Bosnia on the whole, but Nigeria could present a few problems if it can improve markedly from the awful performance against Iran in its opening match.