Five Points: Spain abdicates throne, Netherlands tested by Australia
JUN 18, 2014 9:57p ET
Spain entered this World Cup with hopes of extending their tenure at the top for one more summer. This tournament always loomed as a last stand for a side creaking toward the end of its magnificent run. The only question surrounded when the champions might fall.
They returned to Earth far sooner than anyone expected. The title defense ended after just two matches in Brazil. This edition of Five Points naturally starts with the final blow at the Maracana.
End of an era arrives with Spain in two minds
At the peak of its powers, Spain stepped onto the field with a firm and unyielding commitment to keeping possession. The players changed from time to time, but the approach, the core and the methods remained largely the same. This group rose to the top of the world between 2008 and 2012 by playing through teams and pressing them into submission.
The inevitable decline exposed the somewhat narrow margin afforded by those tactics. Other teams adjusted to the plan. Spain lacked the sharpness to carve teams apart occasionally and struggled to cope defensively when opponents played out of the pressure quickly. The cracks started to show at the Confederations Cup last summer. They turned into massive fault lines after the Netherlands relied on the counter to claim a stunning 5-1 victory on Friday.
Vicente Del Bosque faced a massive decision about the future of his side in the wake of that defeat and selected the middle ground. He fielded a Spain side caught between the more direct style required to make the best use of Diego Costa’s traditional center forward talents and its usually fluid work in possession. It didn’t work. Del Bosque watched his team concede twice in the first half and give the ball away often in poor areas against a quicker and sharper opponent. In a rather staggering repudiation of their tenets, they also played 20 crosses (they tried nine in the first match against the Dutch, per Opta statistics) toward the ineffective Costa and replacement Fernando Torres.
The measures reflected a desperate and ultimately futile bid to avoid this 2-0 defeat to Chile. Spain weren’t good enough on the day or in the tournament to warrant such a reprieve. The manner of the departure will sting, but there is no shame in tumbling out at this stage. Time catches up to every team. It is now a matter of reloading with another talented generation ready to take the reins and returning to a cohesive identity once more to prepare for yet another run.
Chile tinkers intelligently to usher Spain out of the tournament
In some ways, Chile served as a fitting executioner for this Spanish side. This group is the most ambitious outfit at the tournament, a team that allies deft work in possession and relentless closing with a real verve going forward. They continue to burnish their credentials with each successive performance.
Their adaptability plays a large part in their success. Jorge Sampaoli adjusted his side for the match and shifted from the 4-3-3 deployed against Australia into a more resolute 3-4-1-2 often used during qualifying. He dropped playmaker Jorge Valdivia and moved Arturo Vidal higher up the field behind Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas to harass and unsettle Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. Vidal’s move also allowed for the inclusion of Francisco Silva to create a defiant block of three at the back and stiffen the usually pliable defensive core. The entire shape supplied a firm foundation to allow midfielders to drive forward at opportune times to punish those Spanish errors.
Spain enjoyed a bright spell after halftime after raising its energy levels, but Chile looked comfortable for the most part in its revamped setup. The Chileans were compact and organized when they defended. They broke intelligently and ruthlessly when warranted. They navigated through a couple of difficult moments through Spanish profligacy, but they shepherded the game through to its deserved conclusion. It is exactly the sort of performance Chile must produce as the tournament progresses in order to march deep into the knockout stage.
Australia tests Netherlands with its ambitious plan
Mexico and Australia share little in the way of common ground, but they do possess one common characteristic: their defensive personnel is not particularly suited to sit deeply and soak up pressure. Mexico accepted its collective and individual frailties and pushed out against Brazil to claim a famous point on Tuesday. Australia adopted a similar deportment and worried the Netherlands for long periods before succumbing to a 3-2 defeat in a thrilling match a day later.
Ange Postecoglou deserves considerable credit for getting his tactics right at the outset. He selected a 4-4-1-1 setup and told his players to press onto to the Dutch inside their own half. The wingers pushed high to close on Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi and eliminate easy passes to the wingbacks. The fullbacks – with the notable exception of Ryan McGowan’s poor starting spot on Arjen Robben’s opener, though Mark Bresciano’s errant distribution certainly didn’t help matters – selected the right times to press without inviting the Dutch to counter behind them. Tim Cahill operated gamely as the target for crosses and diagonals and struck a sumptuous equalizer. It constituted an astute tactical display from an overmatched side making the best use of its strengths to close the ample gap in talent.
Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal admitted tactical defeat and used Martins Indi’s injury as an excuse to shift to a 4-3-3 setup after the break. The alterations – aside from the suspect penalty award for handling against Daryl Janmaat to restore the Aussie lead at 2-1 – eventually shifted the balance. Netherlands found ways to elude the pressure as the Aussies tired and posed a more consistent threat after Robin van Persie restored parity. Memphis Depay’s effort from distance ultimately settled the game with Australia essentially tapped out after exerting so much energy in the early stages.
The final result did not diminish the impressive Australian performance, though. Postecoglou arranged his players in the best way he could given the strengths and weaknesses of his side. They performed admirably before falling to the inevitable defeat. It is the sort of afternoon that bodes well for this youthful side ahead of the Asian Cup on home soil next year.
Mandzukic creates space for Croatia teammates upon his return
Cameroon – before its staggering implosion – looked like it might cause Croatia a few problems in the opening quarter of an hour. Mario Mandzukic essentially erased those concerns with his presence through the central channel in Croatia’s straightforward 4-0 victory in Manaus.
Mandzukic creates problems for the opposition by occupying center backs. He plays a typical target role with a more mobile twist. His work rate mandates attention from both central players in a two-versus-one situation. His earnest toil provides both a potent focal point in attack and requires both central defenders to take their extra step toward the inside to help.
As Cameroon found out to its detriment, the extra step or two matters a great deal with Ivan Perisic on one flank and Ivica Olic on the other. The two wingers tore apart the Indomitable Lions with their direct running and their service into Mandzukic. Once they turned the corner, they found ample room. Perisic illustrated the problem as he burst past Dany Nounkeu for the killer second three minutes into the second half. The target man got his pair of goals, but it is his overall function and his effect on the wide players that provides the most reason for encouragement ahead of the win-or-else date with Mexico on Monday.
The status of Luis Suarez commanded most of the headlines ahead of the critical clash between England and Uruguay (3:00p.m. ET), but the state of the Uruguayan rearguard may pose a more immediate concern for Oscar Tabarez. Costa Rica exposed Uruguay’s lack of pace with its work on the break during the second half. England will scurry about frequently to present similar problems with its own fluid front four. The onus falls on Tabarez to construct a viable solution with Diego Lugano (knee) ruled out. If Uruguay can limit England’s effectiveness, then it can rely on Suarez to influence the game further forward with his darting runs against the rickety English defense.
Colombia and Côte d’Ivoire meet in a clash of Group C favorites in Brasilia (12:00p.m. ET). The focus here lands in the central department: both teams must force figures other than James Rodriguez and Yaya Toure to decide this affair. If this turns into a battle of wide players, then Colombia holds the advantage after Juan Cuadrado and Victor Ibarbo submitted excellent performances in the 3-0 victory over Greece on Saturday.
Greece and Japan (6:00p.m. ET) both need a result to keep their hopes alive in Group C. This match presents a contrast between a Greek outfit most comfortable in its defensive duties and a Japanese side reliant on neat work in possession to pick teams apart. The turning point could arrive on set pieces with Greece holding a significant edge in that department.