Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Read on for bitesize analysis of Sunday’s three World Cup games:
Switzerland nobble Neymar
Vladimir Petkovic’s plan-of-defence was simple: stop Neymar. And, to a large extent, his well-structured Switzerland side achieved that very end. The Paris Saint-Germain galactico did conjure up four chances for Brazil, including both the Selecao‘s two big ones: Paulinho’s close-range flub and Firmino’s free-header.
But, largely the trio tasked with crowding him out — right-back Stefan Lichtsteiner, centre-back Fabian Schar and midfielder Valon Behrami — employed the dark arts to great effect. Behrami particularly shone in this regard, rolling back the years with six legal tackles…and four fouls!
But, to be fair, all three Swiss eventually found their respective ways into the book for kicking poor Neymar, who only completed five of his 10 attempted dribbles. Tite’s clear goal of overloading the Swiss right-flank — Marcelo and Coutinho regularly combining with Neymar — therefore finished as only a qualified success. Coutinho’s general play, and his wonderful opener, certainly justified his inclusion ahead of Fernandinho in a previously functional Selecao central-midfield.
Compact in defence, with Dortmund’s Manuel Akanji also to the fore, the Swiss plan-of-attack very nearly also paid an early dividend. Breaking through Xherdan Shaqiri, into space vacated by the permanently-advanced Marcelo, was the idea. And if Blerim Dzemaili had netted Shaqiri’s second-minute pass, it would have looked very clever indeed.
One word of warning for the Swiss, however, ahead of Friday’s crunch clash with the towering Serbs: the defence of set-pieces needs to be much, much better. Brazil created a whopping nine shooting opportunities from dead-balls here, including that aforementioned Firmino sitter. Yet, ironically, Switzerland equalised through the solitary one they fashioned: Stefan Zuber’s disputed headed goal!
German one-dimensionality fuels famous El Tri triumph
Juan Carlos Osorio is not a coach afraid to take risks. Statistically Mexico’s most successful manager, public opinion has nonetheless soured against the Colombian after a couple came acropper in spectacular fashion: think the 7-0 Copa America defeat to Chile.
Last year’s 4-1 Confederation Cup spanking, meted out by a German second-string to his rather open 4-3-3, only ratcheted up the pressure on Osorio further. And, in public, he admitted using two anchormen next time out, at the World Cup, might be wiser.
Osorio really did learn this lesson, but few would describe the set-up that eviscerated Die Mannschaft in the first-half here as reserved. It’s true both Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado sat tight in front of the high defensive line behind them, ensuring compactness, and denying through-ball space to Germany’s plethora of central attackers. And it’s true that the mercurial Hirving Lozano dutifully tracked Joachim Low’s main focal point Joshua Kimmich.
But no-one, least of all El Tri‘s fans, expected what Osorio’s selection then did in transition. Leaving Miguel Layun, normally a right-footed left-back, up in the defensive phase proved an inspired move; the average German left-back Marvin Plattenhardt was allowed to advance freely.
With the incredible Herrera central to both winning the ball and dribbling it out, both Lozano and Carlos Vela sped past the likes of Kimmich and Toni Kroos to combine with Layun and Javier Hernandez on the break. Hernandez, seen as a poacher in these parts, proved a fantastic focal point, turning good first-balls out of defence into great ones with his clever movement and flicks. Germany, without a proper number-six, could not cope.
Mexico officially attempted four shots from fast breaks, including Lozano’s goal, but poor final-ball selection and finishing significantly limited that number — especially after Low removed Platternhardt, and any semblance of structure, late on. In short, Germany escaped a real caning here.
And, in that regard, Low’s side were entirely the architects of their own downfall. An incredible fetishisation of Kimmich, and his right flank, rendered Germany utterly one-dimensional in attack; voluntarily boxed in and ripe for the counterattacking picking. Perennial ignorance of Plattenhardt on the opposite flank meant few switches of play. Julian Draxler’s central tendencies only worsened the congestion.
Mexico’s defence, therefore, were comfortable throughout, with Carlos Salcedo never drawn away from his narrow right-back mooring. Leroy Sané, watching at home from the couch, must have wondered what might have been. Osorio’s second-half low-block only made Germany look even more unimaginative; Die Mannschaft attempting 18 crosses after the break, 15 of which emanated from the right.
Mario Gomez’s belated arrival made that strategy seem a little less mad, but Osorio had already planned for that two minutes earlier by moving to a 5-4-1, shifting Salcedo inside to assist fellow centre-backs Hugo Ayala and Hector Moreno. Mexico have got a “special one” here; maybe it will be seventh time lucky for their quarter-final hunt.
Serbian strength suppresses unlucky El Ticos
Far be it from me to compare the Serbs to their old friends the Croats, but novice manager Mladen Krstajic leaves me with little choice!
On Saturday night, a veritable Croatian 4-2-4 struggled to build cohesive attacking moves against the generously self-destructive Nigerians. Not to be outdone, Krstajic more or less plumped for the same system here against Costa Rica’s compact 5-4-1.
And, although Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s first-half runs in behind El Tico‘s high line hinted at potential glory — “The Sergeant” unfortunate to be ruled offside on two occasions — this rather loose approach very much played into Oscar Ramirez’s hands.
With no link between midfield and attack, the Serbs left lots of space for Ramirez’s unfancied side to build passing moves. Their clear plan, to target the aging Branislav Ivanovic at right-back, therefore got put into practice. Unfortunately, Johan Venegas was not the man to implement it. Christian Bolanos, fit enough only for the last half-hour, was sadly missed as the MLS winger fluffed his lines at every turn.
As did the tireless striker Marcos Urena, in himself for Bolanos’ permacrocked pal Joel Campbell. Bryan Ruiz twice found pockets of space behind Nemanja Matic, only for Urena to waste the through-balls. And, from set-pieces, at which Krstajic’s troops looked equally disorganised, Giancarlo Gonzalez wasted two free-headers; the second of which proved to be El Ticos’ only clear-cut chance.
Still, the focal point of Serbia’s attacks, Dusan Tadic, didn’t have much joy on the same flank either, with the impressive Oscar Duarte more than up to the challenge. In fact, it was the shared strength and aerial prowess of Milinkovic-Savic and Aleksandar Mitrovic that held most promise for Krstajic.
Mitrovic’s aerial dominance even forced Ramirez to swap his centre-backs: moving Gonzalez out, and Johnny Acosta in, to the middle berth. But, for Serbia’s only clear chance, the Fulham striker simply wandered over to Gonzalez, chested down a long ball and ran onto Milinkovic-Savic’s resultant through-ball.
Mitrovic fluffed the one-on-one finish, but in this move we saw the wisdom of Serbia’s subtle second-half switch. Milinkovic-Savic played more as a 10 after the break, attempting three through-balls, and knitting his side together.
The Serbs became the dominant side, and Aleksandar Kolarov’s wonderful free-kick felt earned; especially because Mitrovic’s power — bustling David Guzman off the ball and drawing a foul — won it. Unsurprisingly, given their defensive set-up, Costa Rica failed to convincingly chase that lead, even though substitutes Bolanos and Campbell showed some signs of life.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112