Every game – even the ones that already appear lost – provides a chance to enthrall at this gripping World Cup. The waning stages of the United States’ 2-1 defeat to Belgium reinforced the point.
This round of 16 encounter appeared over when Belgium scored twice in the first half of extra time. It had, in fact, only truly started. The response from the Americans nearly brought them level and wrapped their World Cup on a truly appropriate note. This edition of Five Points starts with the impact of a curious change at the outset and how it influenced the drama in Salvador.
Beckerman switch leaves USA open in midfield, but Howard drags them through
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U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann made two changes ahead of the extra time defeat to Belgium. The choice to replace Brad Davis with Alejandro Bedoya made sense to restore some mobility and width in midfield. The decision to drop Kyle Beckerman and insert Geoff Cameron in his place, however, ultimately left the Americans exposed in midfield and placed the rearguard under pressure from the outset.
The fault isn’t with Cameron, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. All three of them put in a shift in central midfield. Cameron played well in a tough spot and supplied an extra body to help defend Marouane Fellaini on set pieces. It instead lays within the altered structure itself: those three players – individually or as a trio – do not quite fit or replicate the role Beckerman fills in front of the back four.
Beckerman adopts the ground in front of the defense and makes it his own. He clogs the areas where attackers prefer to thrive and forces them into more difficult spots. He collects the ball in good spots and keeps possession with safe and reliable passes (90 percent passing accuracy in the World Cup, per Opta). He is the human form of a safety blanket for a back four desperately in need of protection given the inability of this side to hold possession without Jozy Altidore.
Instead of having one player to fill that brief, Klinsmann opted for rotation among his central midfield trio to plug the gap. It worked at some times. It faltered at several others as the canny Belgian attackers found their way through the line. More often than not, it opened the shape too much on the break and provided the Belgians with opportunity after opportunity to pepper Tim Howard.
Howard essentially kept the Americans in the match with his Herculean efforts and papered over the holes with save after save. His display – combined with the defiance and the last-ditch defending of his teammates – essentially dragged this gritty side into extra time.
Beckerman’s inclusion from the start likely would not have sent the Americans through at the final whistle, but it probably would have reduced the incredible burden carried by Howard and the defense on the day. Klinsmann hit on just about every personnel change – including the injection of the impressive DeAndre Yedlin in this match – at the World Cup. This switch, however, didn’t pan out as planned.
Lukaku delivers at the right time to vindicate Belgium’s performance
Belgian coach Marc Wilmots did not need to tear apart his team as this match unfolded. He needed to trust in his players to eventually devise a way through with their incessant movement and tweak his lineup man for man instead. His side produced an avalanche of chances. It turns out they only needed the fresh legs of Romelu Lukaku to take them.
Lukaku disappointed during the group stage, but he thrived when unleashed on the fatigued American defense. He replaced Divock Origi for the final half-hour and spent most, if not all, of his time barreling toward the American goal.
His directness and his power finally burst the dam. Kevin De Bruyne benefited from Lukaku’s bullish run out of midfield and his tidy pullback on the opener just three minutes into extra time. Another determined foray and a rasping finish on the left eventually provided the winner as that first period ended.
The influential appearance proved the perfect way for Lukaku to expel his frustration at missing out on a place in the starting XI. He dropped out of the side on merit. He issued his response with his best display of the tournament off the bench. Belgium needed a little extra bit to crack its dogged opposition. In the end, Lukaku provided it.
Argentina benefits from width without using it particularly well
The prospect of losing Sergio Agüero would cripple most teams, but it instead opened possibilities for Argentina. Alejandro Sabella needed more width in his side to stretch the field horizontally and carve out some operating room for Lionel Messi. He replaced the injured Agüero with Ezequiel Lavezzi and watched his side finally spread the field creditably.
Argentina needed extra time to claim its 1-0 victory over Switzerland because it did not take full advantage of its revamped lineup. Instead of attempting to cut open the compact Swiss defense with two-versus-ones or use the space to move the ball more quickly by switching the point of attack quickly, the Argentinians opted to hit cross after cross toward the penalty area.
The method – as you’d expect against a packed Swiss defense – did not work particularly well. Argentina crossed the ball 53 times in 120 minutes, according to Opta statistics. They completed just 10 of those attempts. And the late, late winner – created by a Messi run and a fine Di Maria – did not come from one of those deliveries.
Argentina looked better from the run of play with more balance in the wide areas. It, however, did not look especially more menacing in the final third or more stable in defense. It is a bit late for Sabella to erase all of the concerns now, but he will likely preach the need to move the ball on the floor a bit more to test the Belgian defense on Saturday.
Switzerland finds its spine again by dropping numbers at the expense of possession
This generally solid side wobbled in the group stages after the injury to Steve von Bergen. Ottmar Hitzfeld addressed the pervasive defensive concerns suitably before this game with some structural adjustments and watched his side frustrate Messi and company for the better part of 120 minutes.
Hitzfeld eschewed any semblance of possession opted for stern and steady blocks to force Argentina into the wide areas. The back four – even the usually adventurous fullbacks – largely kept their line. Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler sat deeply and formed a block of two directly in front of the back four. Gelson Fernandes essentially made it a block of three when he entered. The rest of the team dropped deeply and played long out of the back toward the scampering Xherdan Shaqiri and the stranded Josip Drmic.
It worked well on the whole. These measures may not have captivated the neutral, but they produced a couple of decent chances on the break and a rock solid performance at the back. They also provided Switzerland with a genuine chance to knock out the Argentinians and reach the last eight. It didn’t work out, but it is difficult to dispute the utility of the measures taken.
Tattered favorites leave plenty of intrigue heading into quarterfinals
If this compelling round of 16 proved anything, then it is the vulnerability of the expected favorites. Argentina, Brazil and Germany all required extra time to book their place in the quarterfinals. Their expected uptick at the start of the knockout stage never quite emerged to sweep away their lingering questions.
All of those inquiries are well and good, but this juncture of the competition places little premium on performance. It is about the result first and foremost. And each of these sides managed to navigate the hurdles presented to comprise this quarterfinal field.
They must figure out a way through this complex task again in rather short order. Colombia probably enters the last eight as the form side, but it also faces the most difficult assignment against Brazil on home soil. Netherlands confronts the easiest fixture on paper against Costa Rica, but the Ticos’ organized shape presents a few awkward challenges. Germany and France will try to work out their own kinks against each other. Argentina will look warily upon Belgium after the Red Devils’ dynamic and mobile display against USA, but Messi still offers a potential trump card.
In order to reach the semifinals, each of these eight sides must find a way to lift their performances accordingly. There are no perfect teams in this field. There probably isn’t even a great team. And those circumstances place a premium on mustering the best possible display on the day to find a way to grind through to the last four.