Wednesday, June 02, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Group C Preview

Group C

England
United States
Algeria
Slovenia

June 12 England vs. United States
June 13 Algeria vs. Slovenia
June 18 England vs. Algeria
June 18 Slovenia vs. United States
June 23 United States vs. Algeria
June 23 Slovenia vs. England

Favorites: England and the United States

England

Key players: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), John Terry (Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United)

The English have a deserved reputation for conservatism, change should only occur – if it needs to occur at all - slowly and incrementally. Soccer is no exception to this rule. England invented the game and dominated it for 50 years. Why should they change? They were so secure in their dominance, they didn’t even both to show up to the first “world cups.” Surely, these would be nothing more than the “rest of the world” enjoying a new fad. They certainly didn’t see any need to change their style of play, even after they were dominated by the Hungarians in the 1950s, the Spanish in the 1960s, the Dutch in the 1970s, the Brazilians in the 1980s, the French in the 1990s, and the Germans every time the game went to penalties.

The English style of soccer has not changed in ages. Four defensemen, four wingers, and two strikers. One tall, burly man at the front to get the ball, the other smaller and quicker to makes runs off the big burly guy and score the goals. When you get the ball, you hoof it up to the front man, or you get it to the speedy wingers who run down the sides and cross into the box for the burly front man to head it home. Strength and speed were the keys.

As was good old fashioned English grit. Skill on the ball, or quick passing were never as important as a players’ intestinal fortitude. They may not be the most stylish of teams, but they had something their Gaullic and Spanish neighbors would never have: English “endeavor.” They would simply outwork their lazy continental (or, South American) opponents and win the game by pulling up their boots and forcing the other team to submit. Style was for weaker men; resolve was for champions.

But the championships stopped coming. 1966 saw the English win the world cup (they had decided to lower themselves to compete) on home soil. They have never won it again; they even failed to qualify for USA 94. They have never made the final game since 66. But still, change comes slowly.

But it does eventually come…sort of. England finally realized that a few individuals outside of their great island fortress might know a thing or two about the game. They have hired an Italian named Fabio Capello to lead their national squad. Capello is one of the most successful club level managers in history, preaching discipline and cohesiveness.
What he has not preached is change. He has not tried to change England into something they are not: a slick passing team. Instead, he has tried to find a way to bring out what they do best (run, tackle, toughness) and while minimizing what they do poorly (pass, posses the ball). It worked in qualifying, with the English easily winning their group and humiliating their former bogey team Croatia. It has not been nearly as effective when England play the elite teams in the world: Spain beat them 2-0, Brazil 1-0.

This is not to say that the English are totally without skill. On the contrary, they have some of the most skillful players in the world. Wayne Rooney is generally considered to be the third best player on the planet. Steven Gerrard is a talismanic midfielder capable of scoring and passing with the best in the world. Rio Ferdinand is a silky smooth defender with the speed of a winger. Frank Lampard bombards down the middle of the pitch, sending rockets toward the goal. Joe Cole is a particularly skillful attacking midfielder.

But they don’t play particularly skillfully for the national squad. Instead, it is still a lot of running and long passes forward, a lot of physical play, and a reliance on speedy wingers and a burly center forward. The team has definite weaknesses. For starters, two of their best players (Lampard and Gerrard) play the same position. When they are on the field at the same time, they often get in each other’s way. Emile Heskey is a very big soccer player, but not so adept at doing anything but being big. They also have wingers like Aaron Lennon, Sean Wright-Phillips, and Theo Wolcott who are very fast, but are not very good at passing the ball or getting back to help their defense.

And that defense also has problems. Ferdinand and John Terry are getting older and have been injured. Left back Ashley Cole is generally considered to be the best in the world; right back Glen Johnson is excellent going forward but so poor in defense that he becomes a liability. They have options on the bench, but those options are either untested (Michael Dawson), painfully slow for international play (Jamie Carragher), or injured too often to be reliable (Ledley King). Their goalkeepers are either too young (Joe Hart, Robert Green) or too old (David James), and generally aren’t world class.

The English come right at you, relying on their superior strength and speed to beat you. It works against opponents who cannot match their athleticism. Fortunately for England, there are no teams in their group that can match them in that regard; however, it can make them vulnerable to counter-attacks, especially with an older defense and a right back who is so deficient defensively. And all three teams in group C are good counter-attacking teams.

Despite their troubles, the English are heavily favored to make it out of this group and have the capability to go far in the tournament. With a little good fortune (and what country doesn’t deserve a little good fortune more than the victims of the “Hand of God”?), the English could find themselves in the semi-finals or finals. And that would be a change even England would support.

United States

Key players: Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Tim Howard (Everton), Oguchi Onyewu (AC Milan)

Despite our obvious differences over the course of history, Americans usually follow the lead of the English. We use English law, English language, and take more from English culture than any other. The same is true in soccer.

The US usually plays 4-4-2, just like the English. The US relies on superior athletes, just like the English. The US lacks individual skillful players, just like the English. The US wins with organization and toughness more than passing and possession, just like the English. The US often loses because it is naïve tactically and relies more on belief than skill, just like the English.

The biggest difference is that the English have much better players. America has two players who could make the English squad: Tim Howard and Landon Donovan, two players who play positions where the English are weak (goal and wing).

But not having players as good as England’s is no crime. America has a solid, if unspectacular group of players who work well together. The attack is led by young, big Jozy Altidore up front, with either Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey playing slightly behind, waiting to take passes after Altidore holds up the ball for them (sound familiar? It’s a very English system). Michael Bradley will often make runs from midfield into the box to support the strikers. America will use its size and strength up front on set pieces and corners to overpower smaller sides.

In midfield, the US has a couple different options. It will always play with two defensive midfielders, and, depending on the opponent, may play with three. The usual two defensive midfielders are Ricardo Clark and Michael Bradley. Bradley is bigger and more skilled going forward, Clark is strictly a defensive presence whose job is to protect a vulnerable back four from attack. On some occasions, the US will have Benny Feilhaber or Jose Torres playing out wide to add some creative passing ability. Sometimes Donovan and Dempsey will drop back to play as traditional wingers, giving the US some depth, sometimes one will sit behind the strikers, giving the US more of a diamond look and adding another body in midfield to stifle attacks before they reach the US defense.

And if there is any part of the US team that needs to be protected, it is that defense. The US centerbacks are big and slow, useful against teams that have big strikers or who rely on set pieces to score, but extremely vulnerable against teams with quick strikers who run right at you. The fullbacks are woeful. Generally slow and devoid of much skill, they are a major weakness. The US has no world class fullbacks, and if teams can get behind their midfield on the flanks, the US is in big trouble.

To top it off, the US’ best defenders are coming off injuries. Carlos Bocanegra is a centerback by trade who is forced to play fullback on the US, but he’s coming off hernia surgery. Oguchi Onyewu is a huge presence in the middle, but he missed the entire season with a knee injury. The others just play like they’re injured.

The biggest difference between the US style of play and that of the mother country is that the US plays the counter-attack, waiting for the other team to come to them, then hitting them on the break. That will play well against England who will come right at the Americans, but will probably result in boring, sloppy matches with Algeria and Slovenia, who play the same style as the US. America’s plan will be to survive against England, root for Algeria to beat Slovenia, and then beat Slovenia themselves. It cannot afford to be behind Slovenia on points going into the final day, because that will invite England and Slovenia to play for a tie which could eliminate the Americans regardless of what they do against Algeria.

This is a decent American squad with some major flaws at the back. That doesn’t bode well for a deep run in the tournament. America should expect to get out of this group, but not go much farther than that. Just another way that the US is copying the motherland…

Algeria

Key players: Madjid Bougherra (Rangers), Karim Ziani (Wolfsburg)

97 years ago, Albert Camus was born in Algeria. Raised in Algiers as the son of French colonialists, Camus would go on to write a number of influential books, serve in the French Resistance, and win the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of his major philosophical works was The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus imagines Sisyphus not as the tortured soul condemned to an impossible task for all eternity, but rather as a happy man, content in pursuing his work no matter how futile the final result may seem.

If so, the Algerian national team can look forward to some damn good times in South Africa.

Algeria is one of the worst teams in the tournament. Their most consistent trait is their inconsistency. They shocked the soccer world by beating heavily favored, three-time African champion Egypt in a one game playoff to ensure qualification. Then, less than a year later, the same Egyptian team throttled them 4-0 at the African Cup of Nations, which happened right after Algeria beat a heavily favored Ivory Coast team 3-2. You never know what Desert Fox team you are going to get.

But you do know what Desert Fox formation you will get: 3-5-2. Coach Rabah Saadane only runs one look, a packed midfield, a mobile defense, and two strikers up front to hit you on the counter. Stifle the other team in the middle of the park and use their two quality attacking players to move the ball up the field quickly and catch the other team unaware.

Those two quality players are the central defender Madjid Bougherra and the right midfield attacking player Karim Ziani. Bougherra is the reigning African player of the year, a solid central defender who leads a strong backline but can also move up field to start the attack. Ziani is the creative force in midfield, pulling the strings for the strikers.

Unfortunately for Algeria, that’s all they have. On top of that, Bougherra is injured and struggling to be fit for the tournament. Without him, Algeria are not only impotent at the front, but a mess at the back. Their recent form demonstrates as much. They were obliterated 3-0 at home by Serbia, and then on the road 3-0 by Ireland. Bougherra missed both games. He was sorely missed.

Algeria is not likely to be missed at this tournament. They play a counter-attacking style that is often dull to watch for neutrals. It’s only exciting when they don’t play it particularly well, for then the goals come in bunches for the other team. If Bougherra fails to be fit for any games, this is a strong possibility against a team like England. However, the United States and Slovenia also play a counter-attacking style, which could lead to a number of slow games in clogged up midfields. Nobody expects much from this Algerian team, and they have thrived under those types of circumstances before. But that was against lesser opposition and with a healthy side. It seems unlikely they will replicate those miracles again here.

In addition to being a writer, Camus was also a philosopher known internationally for being one of the founders of Absurdism. Any notion that Algeria will make any noise in this tournament would fit right in with Camus’ line of thinking.

Slovenia

Key players: Robert Koren (West Bromwich Albion), Milivoje Novakovic (Cologne), Zlatko Dedic (Bochum), Samir Handanovic (Udinese)

Slovenia is the smallest country in the world cup with a population about the size of Kansas City. Historically, Slovenia has been dominated by outsiders; the French, the Austrians, the Venetians, the Ottoman Empire, the Communist Party. If there is one seminal moment in Slovenian history, it is the Battle of Sisak. There, a coalition of Slovenians and Croats held off an attack from a far superior Ottoman Empire force; defending to the last man as the Ottomans laid siege to their territory.

Defense against all odds runs in Slovenia’s blood. In order to qualify for the world cup, Slovenia was up against a far superior Russian squad. One coached by the “genius” Guus Hiddink, and led by players plying their trade in Europe’s biggest leagues. Faced against such insurmountable odds, Slovenia dogged the Russians over two legs, snatched a goal in Moscow, and then held off the Russians in Slovenia to pull one of the biggest upsets of European qualifying. Like Algeria, they were not supposed to be here.

And like Algeria, they play defensive football. The most common words used to describe the Slovenian team are “disciplined,” “organized,” and “hard working.” They are dogged defenders who play a possession style of soccer designed to get the ball out of your hands (feet?) and keep it from you. Think South Korea, only a bit bigger.

Their best players are currently playing abroad, but doing so at smaller clubs on smaller stages. Robert Koren is the key to the Slovenian offense. An attacking midfielder at West Brom in England’s Championship league, he is the link between the Slovenian defense and its counter-attack. Novakovic and Dedic are the spearhead of that attack; a pair of strikers who will be the targets of Koren’s passes.

What Slovenia lacks in talent, it makes up for in organization. Matjaz Kec took over the Slovenian team before this world cup qualifying cycle and immediately began to remake them. Abandoning the traditional Yugoslavian/Balkan style of attacking soccer, he instituted a defensive 4-4-2 system based on possession and the counter-attack. Using Koren as his linchpin, he formed an organized defense that was extremely difficult to breakdown, and a transition from defense to attack that was difficult to stop.

It has been wildly successful. They qualified out of a group with traditional powers the Czechs and the Poles (albeit, not traditional Polish or Czech quality teams). In the ten qualifying games, they only allowed 4 goals. Beating Russia was no mean feat, including shutting them out on home soil. Following that, they gave future opponent England all it could handle in losing 2-1 in Wembley and thumped Qatar 4-0. Slovenia’s defense should not be ignored.

Nor should its attack. While it lacks the firepower of England (or even the US), it plays a style that is extremely effective at turning its own defense into attack. Slovenia poaches its goals here and there from teams caught napping.

But this is the main stage, where it is more difficult to find teams unaware. Slovenia will be tested in this group by a mix of teams that will not play into their hands. The Americans and Algerians are not attacking teams, and will be satisfied to let their superior athletes overpower the Slovenes, daring them to come out of their shell. England will challenge the Slovenes much like Russia, only the English have more athletes and one of the best strikers in the world.

If Slovenia is to make it through, it will likely be at the expense of the US, and they have a big advantage in that regard: the schedule. The US must start with England, while Slovenia plays Algeria. If the expected happens and Slovenia and England win their opening matches, then Slovenia will only need a tie against the US to go into the last day in a favorable position. Assuming England beat Algeria, both Slovenia and England will only need a tie to advance. If history has told us anything, it is that teams in the world cup will only do whatever is necessary to advance, and a tie in such a situation is far from out of the realm of possibility.

Slovenia, through its defense and its schedule, is the main competition for the Americans in this group. The US-Slovenia match will likely decide who is the runner-up to the English. Look for the Americans to win that match, but don’t look for the Slovenes to go quietly, just prepare to be bored by two teams sitting around and waiting for the other to make its move. A recipe for boredom for fans, but just what the Slovenes ordered.

Group C predictions surely to go wrong:

England 3 vs. United States 1
Algeria 0 vs. Slovenia 1
England 4 vs. Algeria 1
Slovenia 1 vs. United States 2
United States 3 vs. Algeria 0
Slovenia 0 vs. England 1

England 9
United States 6
Slovenia 3
Algeria 0

England and the United States advance

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