Individuals still win matches despite many coaches structuring teams in very much a conservative fashion in South Africa.
Only few could commit blasphemy and only a few minutes later be labelled a genius. Yet, Diego Armando Maradona has done his darndest since then to tarnish the exalted figure he acquired from his playing days, not least by directing a lewd and somewhat graphic outburst to an assembled pack of press after securing World Cup qualification. And more recently he ran over and insulted a cameraman before the announcement of his thirty-man squad to take to South Africa.
This follows a tumultuous end to his playing career where, after finishing off a delightful team goal in his World Cup swan song, he ran away to celebrate by unleashing testosterone filled roar at the camera. In the next game, however, he confirmed what we were all suspecting all along as Maradona was taken off the pitch for the suspected use of a banned substance. At this point, it wouldn’t have been beyond Maradona, given his brash sense of humour, to turn to the blonde nurse who ushered him off the pitch and say; “why don’t you and me ditch this popsicle stand make this a joint operation,” in reference to his cocaine past.
But putting eccentricities aside and it has been quite a successful comeback for Maradona into football again, invigorating and in his own colourful way, leading Argentina out of a difficult qualification group. However coming into the World Cup, he is still fairly undecided of his tactics having experimented with over 100 players pre-tournament and is set to start with a back three that is still very much an unknown quantity. That means Maradona is set to go back on his earlier assertion that he was going to start against Nigeria with four central defenders.
That uncertainty, failing to take into account the Argentinian’s mannerisms, seemingly highlights the initial struggle international coaches face in trying to create a coherent playing structure and at the same time, find a best way to fit in their key, and sometimes maverick, individuals. Arrigo Sacchi, in charge of the Italy side who reached the final of World Cup ’94, stated it was “impossible” for a national manager to drill the same understanding that club level coaches are afforded due to the lack of day-to-day availability of personnel. The remaining option usually leaves many coaches no choice but to set out the side in a conservative manner.
That Spain are one of the most the fluent sides in world football, more so than the majority at club level, may dispel that myth somewhat although one can argue that, that fluidity was only achieved once Luis Aragonés dumped the inhibiting 4-3-3 he used in Germany 2006 and let the creative juice flow naturally. Aragonés was perhaps also fortunate that he had an exceptional generation of players to work with, as much of the core emanated from the academy at La Masia while the Dutch, another free-flowing national side, can be comforted by the fact that many of their key individuals could easily fall back into their variant of the 4-3-3 they grew up with. Retro-romanticists such as Marcelo Bielsa and Javier Aguirre are similarly able to mould a side for their respected countries around formations that are prevalent in the domestic game.
That finally leaves Dunga as one of the few exceptions to the rule that a national manager cannot stamp his own unique identity successfully to a national side with his Brazil having swept everything in their path, bar Olympic Gold, to the top of the World Rankings. “Diversity in counsel, unity in command,” is the motto for the World Cup winning captain in 1994.
However, Dunga’s success seemingly highlights the prevailing nature of conservatism amongst coaches and their teams that is set to beset the tournament in South Africa. Football will looked to be played in zones and defending done in a compact nature and coaches will be hoping among that a key individual will be able to summon a piece of magic. If that’s not possible, a glut of mavericks who otherwise were thought unable to fit into the team’s dynamic will be given the begrudging “I’m sorry I left you on the bench, could you please forgive me by sprinkling your magic on the pitch” kick up their backside and into the action.
That is not to say the World Cup will be utterly defensive affairs; the coaches want individuals to shine and the increasing deployment of wingers on the side of their less preferred foot (inverted wingers so to speak in Jonathan Wilson language) and the dumping of the destroyer displays that, but when the stakes are this high, it’s difficult to blame them for erring on the side of risk-aversion. Indeed, Brazil’s World Cup winning captain in 1970, Carlos Alberto picked out the winger-come-striker Theo Walcott as the type of player who can offer his team a direct outlet to break from the compactness and short passing likely to be displayed by many teams in the World Cup although Fabio Capello seemingly has grown restless of his mercurial talents.
Italy last time round, won the World Cup without a really dominant individual while Brazil’s epic failing in 2006 sounds as a caveat to any manager looking to build a system around a selection of individuals. However, come July 11th and if a diminutive figure wearing sky blue and white with a haircut by his mother is sprinkled over the back pages of the world newspapers, Maradona will be comforted in the knowledge that much will have been indebted to a certain individual.
And a couple of World Cup predictions..
Arsenal player to shine at the World Cup….Carlos Vela: The Mexican hasn’t exactly displayed his infinite potential at Arsenal beyond a few gravity defying chips but Carlos Vela is the real deal and he his has the chance to show that in a wonderfully fluid and interchangeable front three. He will be hoping to get Mexico beyond a tight group where their movement may cause big problems against functional defences but they will have to guard themselves better from the break and set-pieces.
England’s chances…rest on Emile Heskey. Yes, that is quite possibly a more far out prediction than Tom Cruise’s theory of the origins of humankind but he really is the key to England functioning most effectively. Fabio Capello likes his main forward to be a reference point, but with Crouch it can sometimes be static. Emile Heskey roams around the pitch and links well, allowing England, most importantly, to get correct distances and compactness both crucial in defensive and attacking phase of play.
Yes he falls down, misses open goals and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear he frequently scratches his own butt but he really is misunderstood…
Spain or Brazil are favourites for the World Cup… as both coaches enter the tournament with the most settled line-up and understanding. Brazil’s worry will be that the form of Kaka and Fabiano isn’t affected as much as the injury problems that have beset them this season while Spain have next to no weakness. Holland’s quartet of van der Vaart, Sneijder, van Persie and Robben looks likely to be broken up by injury and Dirk Kuyt but if they fail, they are most likely to blame themselves as they have the tendency like Arsenal to switch off and relax in their pressing intensity. Mexico will be interesting to watch just because of Marquez, pushing out from the back three and playing as a defensive midfielder when they attack.
Italy will be the first “big” team to fail...The Azzuri were the last team for a while to win the World Cup without as much a key individual but they have been disjointed in qualification despite what the the table indicates. Marcello Lippi’s side may have won quite unexpectedly last time round but this time, everyone expects to do badly. Which conversely may bode them well..