PREVIEW: Croatia 4-3-3 may spell curtains for Southgate

Alan O’Brien 

Neither England nor Croatia have reached the last-four of a World Cup in a generation. Both fell at the penultimate hurdle last time out, in 1990 and 1998 respectively. But now, with all the favourites fallen by the wayside, a golden opportunity to progress further has materialised that only one nation can grab. And, with Gareth Southgate firmly wedded to his preferred system, it’s difficult to avoid the following conclusion: victory and defeat depend almost exclusively on the tactical whims of one Zlatko Dalic. Continue reading

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ANALYSIS: Southgate kryptonite stalls super Swedes

Alan O’Brien 

Four decades on from falling for the humble English 4-4-2, Sweden have yet to lose that loving feeling. Popularised in the late-seventies by emigrés Roy Hodgson and Bob Houghton, the quintessentially English system is still very much Swedish football’s go-to. How ironic, then, that the most English blueprint of all would falter at its originators’ hands. Continue reading

ANALYSIS: Ragged Red Devils survive Brazilian barrage

Alan O’Brien 

Knockout football has always been capable of throwing up the odd aberration, but this one takes the cake. Tite’s Brazil created three big chances, and at least four very good ones. Roberto Martinez’s Belgium, at the Selecao‘s mercy on the flanks throughout, created absolutely nothing. And, yet, the Red Devils are looking forward to a World Cup semi-final, while Brazil contemplate the long journey home. Football, eh? Continue reading

ANALYSIS: France go forth as Tabarez reverts to type

Alan O’Brien 

Having allegedly swapped “la garra charrua” for “o jogo bonita“, Oscar Tabarez reverted to type here. Uruguay’s ultra-defensive outlook made for a depressingly dire spectacle from which France, still less than the sum of their star-studded parts, were still fortunate to emerge. Continue reading

ANALYSIS: Pekerman spoiling tactics pay off until the penalties

Alan O’Brien 

José Pekerman’s plan-of-defence turned this second-round match into one long mutual nullification exercise. And, while Colombia’s safety-first system produced a penalty lottery they ultimately lost, it also exposed the South Americans’ longstanding over-reliance on one creative fulcrum. Continue reading

ANALYSIS: Samurai set-piece nightmare spares Belgian blushes

Alan O’Brien 

On a thrilling night in Rostov, Japan’s traditional dead-ball frailty ultimately proved the Samurai Blue’s undoing. But let not Belgium’s thrilling turnaround paper over the yawning cracks in the Red Devils ranks. Doubts have long lingered about Roberto Martinez’s system; specifically its ability to withstand top-class attacks. And those doubts were confirmed here in spades, despite Belgium’s eventual progression. Continue reading

ANALYSIS: Self-defeating Hierro caution scuppers Spain

Alan O’Brien 

A world-class defender in a past life, Fernando Hierro’s safety-first approach to this one should come as no surprise. But the novice manager’s undue caution certainly inspired a shock, allowing resolute Russia to execute their plan-of-frustration to perfection. Continue reading

ANALYSIS: Small margins favour craven Colombia over structured Senegal

Alan O’Brien 

No first-half touches in the Senegal penalty area. No shots of any description from open-play. No ideas, no invention, no intent. In a must-win game, Colombia were abject here across all metrics. And, yet, it is José Pekerman’s side who progress to the second round, while one of the most impressive African sides in recent memory goes home. Such is life; such is football. Continue reading

ANALYSIS: Deeper Sergej deployment spells disaster for Serbia

Alan O’Brien 

When Serbia deemed Slavoljub Muslin’s services surplus to requirements at the end of 2017, most of world football sat perplexed. Sacked, at least in part, for not using the likes of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in qualification, the Belgrade-born coach was refused the chance to see his work through in Russia.

Serbia, who topped their group, looked instead to former international Mladen Krstajic, a managerial tyro who happily welcomed Sergej back into the fold. And look at how that turned out. Continue reading

ANALYSIS: Banega brilliance precedes more Sampaoli insanity

Alan O’Brien 

Jorge Sampaoli had lost his nerve. Before this World Cup, Argentina’s manager spoke extensively of the need to share Lionel Messi’s burden. A novel 2-3-3-2 system was mooted, in which Ever Banega would dictate from deep, freeing Messi to finish moves; rather than simply commence them.

But, when push came to shove, Sampaoli opted instead for the huevos of Lucas Biglia and Enzo Perez. Iceland and Croatia, therefore, had but one job: stop Messi. Not so Nigeria. Continue reading