Climate Change: A Brasil World Cup 2014 First Round Preview affected by the weather

The Brasil 2014 edition of the World Cup is upon us and while everyone is talking about FIFA’s corruption, pre-tournament injuries, and Brazil as heavy favorites, not enough are talking about what could be a deciding factor: the weather.

Brazil is a country slightly larger than the (continental) United States, boasts a population of 200 million people, and has a staggering 17 cities with over one million residents. This is presumably one of the reasons they decided to host the tournament in twelve cities, including some very remote ones.

Image: wikipedia

Brasil 2014 Host Cities (Image: wikipedia)

The tournament venues can roughly be divided into two groups: The Southeast and The North/Rest of Brazil. The former, which is the home of the Brazil we all know and is the center of the country culturally, politically, economically, in football terms, and is simply where you want to play. The heat and humidity of the North and interior of the country is most certainly an undesirable draw.

The North/Rest of Brazil (June temp avg hi/low in Celsius, precipitation) – an undesirable draw

Fortaleza – 29/22 160mm
Cuiabá – 31/17 15mm
Recife – 28/21 392mm
Manaus – 31/23 114mm
Natal – 28/21 210mm
Salvador – 26/22 251mm

The Southeast of Brazil (June avg hi/low in Celsius, precipitation) – a mild winter

São Paulo – 22/12 56mm
Rio de Janeiro – 25/19 81mm
Brasilia – 25/13 9mm
Porto Alegre – 19/11 132mm
Curitiba – 18/8 99mm
Belo Horizonte – 25/13 15mm

What follows is a group preview based largely on what we’ll call the Climate Draw, which we’ll use to assess the chances for success or failure of the countries involved following the basic principle that adverse climate conditions favor the weaker team, and that non-European countries will be more used to hot/humid conditions.

Group A Brazil (São Paulo, Fortaleza, Brasilia) Croatia (São Paulo, Manaus, Recife) Mexico (Natal, Fortaleza, Recife) Cameroon (Natal, Manaus, Brasilia)

This is one of the harder groups in the tournament, featuring no less than the hosts and favorites, as well as three other sides with notable talent. No surprise that Brazil got the kindest draw of the group and should win rather easily. The second spot is up for grabs considering that while Croatia have the best midfield, their game will be stifled by the conditions in their second and third matches. Mexico got the worst draw but along with Cameroon should not be as affected by the conditions.

Prediction: Brazil and Mexico qualify

 

Group B Spain (Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba) Netherlands (Salvador, Porto Alegre, São Paulo) Chile (Cuiabá, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo) Australia (Cuiabá, Porto Alegre, Curitiba)

This is a group of death featuring the 2010 finalists and one of the dark horses of the tournament in Chile. Each play a hot game in the first match day followed by two cooler games. No one is expecting much from Australia here, so the second spot, behind Spain should be in dispute between Chile and the Netherlands. With Holland likely dropping points in their first match, they will need a result in the final match to qualify, but it might not be enough if Chile can get their confidence in the first match and get a heroic point against Spain.

Prediction: Spain and Chile qualify

 

Group C Colombia (Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Cuiabá) Greece (Belo Horizonte, Natal, Fortaleza) Cote d’Ivoire (Recife, Brasilia, Fortaleza) Japan (Recife, Natal, Cuiabá)

Japan got the short end of the stick with the draw here and will have to sweat it out in order to qualify. Colombia who have a Golden Generation should win the group and the second spot is very difficult to predict. The Africans will be best able to deal with the hot matches and should go through if their star players can perform.

Prediction: Colombia and Cote d’Ivoire to qualify

 

Group D England (Manaus, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte) Costa Rica (Fortaleza, Recife, Belo Horizonte) Italy (Manaus, Recife, Natal) Uruguay (Fortaleza, São Paulo, Natal)

A clear Group of Death where the climate may indeed play a decisive role. While it’s hard to count them out, Italy will face a twelfth man in terms of the heat in each of their encounters. England, for all of their complaining about having to play in Manaus, actually got the kindest draw here. If they can get at least a draw from that first match, they should be in decent shape to qualify in their final match against the Costa Ricans. The Uruguayans and Costa Ricans will be the best suited to the conditions as they come from similarly subtropical and tropical climates respectively, but the South Americans have the clear advantage in terms of quality and should go through.

Prediction: Uruguay and England to qualify

 

Group E Ecuador (Brasilia, Curitiba, Rio de Janeiro) France (Porto Alegre, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro) Suisse (Brasilia, Salvador, Manaus) Honduras (Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Manaus)

A very interesting group. Ecuador and Honduras, two countries who would otherwise have wanted to play in the heat, will play in what could be the only match with temperatures close to freezing: a night fixture in Curitiba. The Swiss have quality in their back line, but if the French can take advantage of their favorable draw, they should qualify over their neighbors. The worry for Ecuador is that they do not have the heat or altitude advantage here, but they have a highly energetic squad with excellent play on the wings and could go through if the Swiss don’t find their scoring form in two brutally hot matches.

Prediction: Ecuador and France to qualify

 

Group F Argentina (Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre) Bosnia (Rio de Janeiro, Cuiabá, Salvador) Iran (Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, Salvador) Nigeria (Curitiba, Cuiabá, Porto Alegre)

There are no easy draws, but it cannot be denied that Argentina lucked out in the climate draw at the very least. Indeed, if they qualify as everyone expects them to, their path to the final would never travel north of Brasilia. With Iran being my pick for last place in the tournament, Bosnia or Nigeria will progress. The Bosnians have it tough facing the group favorites in their first match and the Nigerians in the heat of Cuiabá in the second.

Prediction: Argentina and Nigeria to qualify

 

Group G Germany (Salvador, Fortaleza, Recife) Ghana (Natal, Fortaleza, Brasilia) USA (Natal, Manaus, Recife) Portugal (Salvador, Manaus, Brasilia)

This is for many the Group of Death. The draw was kind to no one of these sides and the Germans and the Americans in particular have amongst the worst draws of the tournament. Germany have one of the best midfields in the world and while the heat favors a slow and deliberate possession game, the squad selection will be important as players like Özil and Götze are not known for their physicality and work rate, but you can’t exactly bench them for all three matches. Each of the other three sides will be more accustomed to playing in the heat, which could offset their inferiority on paper. Another factor that may prove decisive is, ironically, advertising money. While both European sides play two noon fixtures for their audience and sponsors, the US similarly has two night games and this could mean they stand an off chance to qualify in that decisive noon match in Recife against Germany. But the difference in squad strength is likely too significant and they’d have to go in needing only a draw.

Prediction: Portugal and Germany to qualify

 

Group H Belgium (Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo) Algiers (Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Curitiba) Russia (Cuiabá, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba) South Korea (Cuiabá, Porto Alegre, São Paulo)

This is the most difficult group to predict. Belgium have a Golden Generation and a sparkling geographic draw. Only the inaugural match between the Russians and Koreans will be played in the heat, meaning that as of the second match this group will be wide open. Not many are looking for good football from Group H, but I would look out for open games between sides playing in comfortable conditions.

Prediction: Belgium and South Korea to qualify

 

This tournament will highlight why the South American game evolved the way it did. The close control, the short passing, the possession-based approach comes from playing in the alleys under the tropical sun. The compact defensive and sprint/counterattack approach employed to great effect by so many sides will be difficult to pull off in matches where chasing the ball and fast breaks will be difficult to recover from physically.

It quite literally takes a different skill-set to play in conditions described as inhuman by no less than the locals themselves. And it will be those sides with talent and adaptability for contingency that fare the best in Brazil. Those who attempt to ignore the conditions do so at their peril. But expect the unexpected and always keep the climate in mind as an equalizer between sides of varying quality.

Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona preview: the first game of the rest of the season

Image: fcbarcelona.com

Tomorrow Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid host Gerardo Martino’s Barcelona in the most important game of the season. Both sides had near perfect first halves in their 2013-14 campaigns, and it’s only fitting that they did not have the chance to stand in each other’s way until the last match day. It was easy to forget they hadn’t faced each other yet, particularly because they have already met twice in the Supercopa, which I wrote about in August. Here is a preview of what to expect.

Identical records through contrasting styles and experiences

At face value, very little separates the two sides. Barcelona have, by one goal over Real Madrid, the best attack in the league. This is surprising given that they’ve not counted on Messi through injury, but more on that later. Atletico Madrid have, by one goal over Barcelona, the best defense in the league. Indeed both teams have kept nine clean sheets in eighteen matches so far, also tied for the best in the league by some margin. But with only six goals less than Barcelona, Atletico pose a formidable attacking threat in their own right.

Simeone as the best thing since sliced bread

Simeone has become nothing less than a cult hero in Spain, a country still reeling in economic turmoil. His workmanlike philosophy of going “game by game” has resonated as much with Atletico’s working class fan base as with the larger swath of Spanish society who make due with what they have in tough times. It is a remarkable and inspiring success story that he has been able to take this group of players this far by implementing such a simple and effective strategy, but you can be sure that more than a few will be rooting for the little guy.

The single biggest factor on the pitch for Atletico Madrid has to be their star striker, Diego Costa. In the absence of Messi, it has been the Brazilian’s season as he embodies Simeone’s spirit on the pitch: both provocative and brutally effective. But for all of his talk early on that he did not have the resources to compete with the big two, Simeone has also gotten the most from his bench. And by quietly moving for players like Argentina international José Sosa in the transfer window and not selling Costa, Koke, or Arda as many had expected, Atletico are poised to legitimately take their treble challenge deeper than many thought they could.

Martino as imposter

Martino, on the other hand, has been overly scrutinized after successfully dealing with a number of hurdles in his first half season in charge. He was forced by injury to deal with the dogged “Messi-dependence” for goals and has the side scoring more evenly than in recent years and still boasting the best attack in the league. It was no small feat to introduce variety into the Barcelona attack, but Martino was able to do so early on by playing to the individual strengths of players like Fàbregas and Alexis, both of whom are having their best seasons yet at the club. He also erased doubts over his controversial choice not to sign a big name center back by getting great performances from Mascherano and the outgoing Victor Valdes, with the side conceding fifty percent fewer goals than at the same point last season. And finally, he has reached into each corner of the squad getting great performances from previously unused subs like Bartra and Song, and has even given youth players like Adama their debut, making Barcelona’s bench look a lot longer than it did last season.

But alas, despite achieving nearly identical numbers to each of Pep’s four seasons, the attacks leveled against Martino for not being in touch with Barcelona’s philosophy and indeed for not having the “Barça DNA” have been difficult to understand. Indeed, the first mentions of Martino and the Barça DNA came from this blog’s season preview post over the summer. I identified him positively, and now that Messi will be back for the second half of the season, the rest of the Spanish press should do so accordingly.

Chess game

There will be no contingency in this match. Everything from who wins the coin toss has been meticulously planned. This should be a relatively cagey affair with the home side looking to the crowd and the ref for advantages, and the away side looking control, but not give away much space in behind. While Simeone’s players have proven their tactical adaptability this season, Martino showed in their first meeting that he has more flexibility and contingency built into his scheme. But this was only enough to win the Supercopa on away goals. If the sides are to break the deadlock tomorrow, it will have to be because of who better implements his Plan A on the day.

In prematch statements, Martino has downplayed the importance of the match, mostly to justify Lionel Messi’s possibly starting on the bench. Simeone has alluded to the improvement he’s seen in his opponents since the arrival of his counterpart, though he laughs off the thought that Messi won’t start. This is the last game of the first half of the season, the one to decide the winter champions. But it is also the first game of the rest of the season, as any advantage gained tomorrow could spell the difference in the run up to the final match next May.

Three things to look for in the game tomorrow:

1. Messi in? Or on the bench? Atletico have been brutally physical at times, and the timing of Messi’s inclusion may play a key role. If he is indeed brought on in the second half, expect Simeone to react with one or two sets of fresh legs to counter.

2. Costa individual battle. Alba was the victim of endless intimidation/irritation by Diego Costa in the first meeting between the sides. Expect the Brazilian to paint a target on at least one player in the first half to destabilize the run of play and get Barcelona off of their game.

3. Energy levels. Barcelona conserve energy by keeping the ball. Atletico Madrid generally do not conserve energy, though they do turn it up and down at strategic points of the match. Atletico score more goals in the second half, and Barça have let in more than they have scored in the last ten minutes of games this season. If they haven’t burned out by end of the match, Atletico may press hard for the draw or the win, so definitely don’t turn this one off early!

Are Spain trying to keep Diego Costa from Brazil?

The Spanish national team has been known since 2008 for producing one of the finest generation of midfielders in the history of the game. Indeed, they have even been known to field the six-man midfield in the absence of a striker. The absence of a target man has been so conspicuous that many forget that the Spaniards also boast the most depth in that position. The competition for the Spanish number 9 jersey is so fierce that four of the five top choices made big summer moves to get more exposure during this World Cup year.

That’s why it’s so shocking to see Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque courting La Liga’s early season revelation: Atletico Madrid’s Brazilian star Diego Costa. Long gone are the days when Spain lacked the depth of talent to resort to calling up the likes of Juan Antonio Pizzi and Marcos Sena. Conversely, Brazil may be underrated, but no one would call this a Golden Generation where second tier strikers would take their chances abroad.

Is the Spanish manager serious? Is it possible Spain are trying to keep Diego Costa from Brazil?

Spain’s next number 9? Image: Carlos Delgado

 

The Decline of the top two choices

Spain’s record scorer David Villa and his strike partner/replacement Fernando Torres have not been at their best in the four years since the last World Cup. Part of this is due to age, Villa is 32 in December, and injuries have hampered both he and Torres. Both have suffered for form due to a lack of continuity in recent seasons, and while each is still capable of genius in the course of a full season, few would start them regularly in a seven game tournament.

The ones who left the League

Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo, and Roberto Soldado each left La Liga with the latter two making public statements that it was impossible to win the league without joining one of the big two. So far Llorente has mostly been a bust at Juventus, but the season is long and while Negredo seems to have a place sealed, a lot can happen over the course of the year to change that.

Spain have taken three target men to each of their last three successful tournaments: Euro 2008, WC 2010, and Euro 2012. One could argue that it’s time for the two historic starters to step aside, but Del Bosque will probably only sacrifice one, leaving two open spots for three players. This is where Costa comes in.

Diego Costa, Spain’s gain or Brazil’s loss?

Diego Costa has been a revelation in La Liga this season. He is in the form of his life, and while most in their right mind would not rate him anywhere near the level of talent and experience his Spanish counterparts, he has something none of his competitors can offer. Costa is a master of controlling the temperature of a match, the conductor of an orchestra of chaos on the pitch that can get under the skin of impressionable opponents and can be used to manipulate the referee.

When he is at his best, Diego Costa is the perfect foil to the otherwise typical narrative most Spain games take; with one-sided domination of the ball rubbing up against a 10 man wall of defenders outside of their 18-yard box. But more importantly, he is the perfect weapon against a team with more energy than Spain. The Confederations Cup final saw Brazil simply outwork Spain physically.

In Costa, Del Bosque has the kind of player that can neutralize the work of both teams and turn the game into a personal contest between himself, his markers, and the ref. So for a side that has one old guard, one upstart, and one empty spot, Del Bosque may choose the unconventional pick, the specialist, for a role that arguably needs less depth than we may have originally thought.

Either that or Del Bosque terrified of facing a Brazil featuring Diego Costa. If Costa is not called up for the final 23, we can assume the move was to keep him from Scolari’s squad. But if he is called up, he probably won’t start, but will be a specialist on the bench for emergency situations, or the eventual matchup with Brazil.

A Plan B grows in Barcelona

At face value nothing seems unusual about Barcelona’s 4-0 victory at Rayo Vallecano. Until you look at the stats, that is. Rayo produced the same amount of shots/chances, but the far more important number is the ball possession. FC Barcelona were out-possessed for the first time in five years, with the last time being in a 1-4 loss in May of 2008 against rivals Real Madrid. It’s amazing to think Barcelona saw more of the ball in every match under Pep and Tito.

Even before last week’s match, much of the discussion in the Barcelona sports papers had been centered upon the subtle but noticeable change in style of the side under Gerardo Martino. The side passes less, resorts to the long-ball more, and is changing the vaunted style that fans and pundits alike view as nothing short of sacred. Indeed, many twitter comments during and after the match expressed shock at the lopsided possession stat. Here are some thoughts on what we saw against Rayo, why it’s not so bad, and why it may end up being very good.

Rayo are not that bad

Despite their low spot in the standings, Rayo Vallecano were second in the league in terms of passing stats going into Saturday’s game. Their style under manager Paco Jémez has been quite similar to Barça’s in that they play with a high-pressure defense and hold a high defensive line to compress the space their opponents have to work in. This style combined with the narrowest pitch in the league made it a tough task for Barcelona to play their game.

Martino lined up a more direct eleven to meet this challenge, with Song and Fabregas in midfield, Montoya and Pedro on the right flank, and the increasingly impressive Neymar on the left. Cesc and Neymar have 10 league assists between them, and Barça ran away with a lopsided scoreline that flattered them on a day when Rayo out-worked them.

Martino playing to individual strengths

There can be no doubt that Cesc Fabregas has seen a revival under Martino. Whereas he arguably struggled to find form in his first seasons back at the club, he is now playing to his full potential both in midfield and occasionally in the ever controversial false nine role. The midfield has been the most rotated area of the pitch so far this season, and this has highlighted how Fabregas, Iniesta, and Xavi are all brilliant but ultimately different players. By allowing each to showcase his talents rather than conforming to one rigid system with straight replacements, the midfield is slowly starting to show the kind of variability it had lacked in the last few seasons.

Fabregas is the most direct of Barcelona’s star midfielders, and much of the interesting vertical play we have seen has come through his boots. During the course of a match that sees Fabregas playing cross-field passes and finding seams in the opposing defense, his teammates increasingly position themselves for those passes and other players seek to use them as well. By allowing Fabregas to run the midfield his way, even while Xavi is on the pitch, Martino is getting what he wants: the top performance of his key players and the kind of variability in attacking options that the team has desperately needed.  If the form of Victor Valdes, Javier Mascherano, Cesc Fabregas, and Lionel Messi are any indication, Martino has done quite well.

Plan A to Plan B

No one can deny that when Pep’s Barcelona were at their best, they were untouchable. But by his final season, despite legitimate attempts to tinker with the formula, Pep could not find a plan B to counter sides that simply sat back and conceded possession. Tito’s side were no different and often looked stagnant in possession against well organized defenses.

This is why having a multi-faceted attack/defense, one that can go vertical as easily as they hide the ball, and more importantly one that can win when the Plan A of one-sided domination fails is for the better of the team. We already saw how Martino changed his game plan midway through the first leg of the Super Cup and why not take some inspiration from last year’s German Champions League finalists, who famously deviated from their normal possession-heavy styles to best their Spanish rivals (as suggested by this blog).

Martino has been very transparent in his desire to maintain Barcelona’s tiki-taka style, but has just as clearly been trying to introduce variation and options into their arsenal. While he has never specifically referred to a Plan B, the ability of the side to change, react, and adapt to different situations in the course of the game should be seen as their number one goal this season. So far he is five for five in the league, has ground out a tough Super Cup result, and had a one-sided result in the Champions League. Barcelona will eventually lose (in the scoreline as well) and the reactions to this should be tempered by an appreciation of what Martino is trying to achieve for the longer term.

 

On Florentino’s big summer: Real Madrid shorten the bench

Florentino Perez, Madrid’s shark in the back room Image: Wikipedia

The final tally is in on an incredible transfer season that both saw Los Blancos break their own transfer record, but also become a major seller themselves.

Out: Carvalho, Essien, Albiol, Callejon, Higuaín, Adan, Kaká, and Özil

In: Carvajal, Illarramendi, Isco, Casemiro, Bale

While the big money moves stole the headlines, it’s Real Madrid’s leaner bench that is the key to their 2013-14 campaign.

In June I reflected on Mourinho’s mismanagement of stars as a big part of his undoing at the Capital club. Underlying this was the overly packed bench. The slow start to the season, mixed with prolonged or permanent spots on the bench for star players increased doubt in the manager’s choices, frayed egos, and ended up burning away much of the goodwill from the 100-point season in mere months.

Ancelotti has too many central midfielders, but aside from that has a very clear front and back four (to say nothing of the keeper debate). There is no contingency or waste on this bench. And this provides Real Madrid with a more clear sense of purpose and a more obvious path to the top. With a midfield more suited than ever to play the ball on the ground and maximize chances for its scoring players, Florentino Perez has gambled more assertively this summer than in years past.

There will obviously be questions on whether Gareth Bale will make up for the goals scored/produced by Higuaín/Özil, and the biggest question mark in the outfield might as well be carved into one of Karim Benzema’s buzz cuts. But one can’t help but think that by cutting on down on individual talents, that the burden is shifted onto the team. And early signs that it’s working are made clear by three victories and six goals split by Isco(3), Benzema(2), and Cristiano.

 

On the past and present rivalry between Martino and Simeone

Earlier this week a colorful anecdote came to light about one particular time Diego Simeone and Gerardo Martino met on the pitch. To be specific, Simeone admitted a quarter century later to getting Martino sent off.

I have an anecdote with [Tata] from my second or third professional match where there’s an encounter in the midfield, Calabria is the ref, where he reacts and I simulate a bit and Martino ends up getting red carded….Newell’s had a great team…ten minutes later I get a red card when Calabria compensates.

This anecdote of the men as players would prove instructive to their first meeting on the bench. Both are clearly extraordinary leaders of men, both on and off the pitch. But who won a match that was arguably more Argentine than Spanish? A match of two halves that ended in a draw and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of each?

Tacticians versus Motivators

Starting in the mid 1970s, specifically after the insufficient tactical preparation of Argentina’s squad in 1974, Argentina’s coaches were typecast into two opposing camps. On the one side you had the classic motivators who looked to get the best out of their players, and on the opposite end you had the tacticians who took a more philosophical approach to teamwork as opposed to individual talent. A classic example of a tactical coach is Cesar Luis Menotti, who famously left Diego Maradona out of his squad in 1978. The modern example is clearly Marcelo Bielsa. A classic example of a motivator was Alfio Basile, who left no star behind in his stints as Argentina coach. The modern example is the great man manager Jose Pekerman.

It can roughly be said that Simeone falls closer to the motivators and Martino closer to the tacticians. But in reality Simeone has great tactical nous after having thrived when he played for the great tacticians Passarella, Bielsa, and Sven Goran Eriksson. Similarly, Martino is a great man manager after adapting to the highly physical and less tactical and technical Paraguayan national team. Yet one can’t help but think this was at play in their first match.

First half – Simeone

Simeone as a player for Velez Image: wikipedia

This was a great test for Barcelona, because Simeone in particular knows how to play against them. This was more of an Argentine than a Spanish league match, where the team with a disadvantage plays on the mental weakness of the team with the advantage and on the fallibility of the ref who -going back to Simeone’s quote- is often thought to compensate for calls favoring one team or the other. If Mourinho was the master of doing this off the pitch, Simeone is the master at doing it on the pitch. Whereas Mou had difficulty controlling himself and his enforcers during matches that included bodily assaults, fingers in eyes, plenty of red cards and incessant complaints about the ref, Simeone’s talisman/rabble-rouser Diego Costa brought on a shower of yellow cards around him but managed to escape getting booked himself.

Many who don’t understand Simeone’s genius as a player may look down on this, but you have to respect an otherwise affable man who plays and coaches with a knife between his teeth. This is why he is possibly the most challenging coach Martino will have to face this season. Tactically, Atletico allowed Barça to win the ball back several times, only to press quickly again to regain it for the counter which scored early and threatened often. Simeone won the first half 1-0, but also won the mental battle on the pitch through a mixture of excellent motivation and correct tactics.

Second half – Martino

Martino as a player for Newell’s  Image: wikipedia

Going into the second half, Martino had a host of problems. Alba had been taken out of the game mentally, Messi had been taken out physically, and Atletico Madrid looked closer to going up 2-0 than Barça had looked to drawing the match. I had tweeted before the match that Neymar should be left on the bench, because Simeone would seek to provoke the Brazilian the same way his proxy Diego Costa had a similarly easy target in Alba. Indeed, in 30 minutes, Neymar got a petulant yellow. Credit must be given to Martino for recognizing that Barça’s 3-man midfield was being outworked by Atletico’s 5-man midfield and that an in-form Cesc was necessary to regain control of the match before introducing Neymar for the struggling Pedro.

Had Neymar been introduced at the wrong point of this game, it would have given Simeone’s men the upper hand. Instead, Martino waited until his side gained control and composure and played the 21 year-old at the perfect time for him to make the difference Barcelona needed to get back into the game. Each of Martino’s substitutions was well-timed for what he needed, while each of Simeone’s was ineffectual and unable to wrest back the control he’d enjoyed in the first half. Martino won the second half 0-1, but also got an invaluable away goal through a mixture of tactical know-how and the kind of restraint that characterizes him as an excellent man-manager.

90 minutes to go

The best thing about this tie is that it was only the first of two matches. Both coaches walked a very fine line here, with the edge going to Martino for being able to turn this game around. Whether or not they realized it, fans who tuned into this match got a classic lesson in Argentine football, where the push and pull of the game is as dynamic and variable as the players, coaches, and strategies on display. Next week we get round 2. I feel sorry for the refs and the faint of heart, but could it come any sooner?

Be sure to follow @3manDefense on Twitter for discussion, stats, stream of consciousness, and general information. I am working on ideas for a new bimonthly column in September to promote discussion and #footballdebate of issues in this #WorldCupYear. Thanks for reading!

Genetically testing Barcelona: the Dutch and Argentine DNA of the Blaugrana

As Gerardo ‘El Tata’ Martino is set to debut as coach of Barcelona, two wonderful and mutually beneficial traditions of world football are tied together. On the European side, the legacy of the Dutch Total Football legend Johan Cruyff as player, founder of La Masia, and later as a highly successful coach. On the South American side, the greatest Barcelona set up by Pep Guardiola was a stylistic mimicry of the Argentine tactical genius Marcelo Bielsa, who has for two decades as a coach espoused a modern variant of Total Football known for its relentless attacking play.

The last few years have undeniably seen a Bielsa-fication of world football, as the European establishment increasingly recognizes that his high-octane style fits in with the increasingly athletic game. No side typifies Bielsa’s style more than Barcelona, and the appointment of his understudy and legendary captain Martino brings the influence full circle. Here’s an analysis of how it all works.

Historic Dutch roots: Total football

English: Johan Cruijff and Roberto Perfumo, be...

English: Johan Cruijff and Roberto Perfumo, before Netherlands x Argentina in 1974 FIFA WC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Books have been written and movies have been made about Total Football, but most choose to concentrate on the positional interchangeability of the versatile players. While this aspect of the side lends theoretical weight, it was in practice a standard 4-3-3 with occasional positional shifts not unlike those we see today. The real meat and potatoes of Total Football’s revolution came in the tactical innovations that made the Dutch unplayable for antiquated sides like the three South American giants, all of whom fell in one-sided contests to the Dutch side in the World Cup held in West Germany in 1974.

Holland in 1974. They did not switch positions as often as they say, but they did defend in the attacking half and introduced modern tactics quickly copied the world over.

The most important tenets of Total Football were that the team both attacked and defended with ten players, placed emphasis on winning the ball back while still in the attacking half, used a high-line defense that exploited the offside trap rule, and managed space on the pitch through use of cross-field balls and crowding strategic areas. Up until the World Cup Mexico 1970, football was played as a much more back and forth game, with attacks ending in a cross or shot followed by a retreat to defensive positions, allowing the opposing side to build an attack. The Dutch, through superior tactics, suffocated their opponents and usually won easily by dictating the play and monopolizing the offensive chances.

Dutch legacy: La Masía

The idea of bringing Holland coach Rinus Michels and his talisman Johan Cruyff to Barcelona was to bring Total Football to the Camp Nou. At risk of oversimplifying: it did not work. But upon leaving, Cruyff himself suggested that in order for Barcelona to ensure long term success, that they should start a youth system modeled after that of Ajax. This way a crop of homegrown players could be brought up together to play with the style that the club was looking for, but was too difficult to implement in the short term. This was how La Masía came to be. Cruyff would return a decade later and reign over the first great Barcelona “Dream Team” but only one of his star players came from the side’s fledgeling academy: Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola.

Recent Argentine roots: Guardiola invokes Marcelo Bielsa

Gracias Bielsa

Gracias Bielsa (Photo credit: javier_araneda_v)

Before taking on the job of Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola famously flew to Rosario to talk shop with the man he calls his greatest inspiration as a coach. Marcelo Bielsa is an obsessive tactician and an intellectual philosopher of the sport. Though most choose to define ‘El Loco’ by his eccentric methods and mannerisms. The main gist of Bielsa’s game lies in the relentless attacking attitudes of his sides, which are built for constant fluid movement both on and off the ball. His time at the helm of Argentina saw him build a similarly unplayable side to the Dutch in the 1970s; one that comprehensively dominated possession while playing every side they faced in the same fashion, as did Pep’s Barcelona a decade later.

Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 for Argentina. A side built to seamlessly transition between attack and defense.

Bielsa’s as of yet unnamed style of football can be considered a modern variant on Total Football through its use of all-out attacking and defending, high-pressure in the attacking half, and the use of versatile players to fill attacking and defensive roles in an extraordinarily fast, vertical, and physically demanding style. The three-man defense he played at the turn of the century gave this blog its name, and the influence he had on Guardiola’s Barcelona can largely be seen as the student becoming the master. Before coming to prominence as the inspiration for Guardiola’s record setting Barcelona and his incredible debut season at Athletic Bilbao, Marcelo Bielsa was a cult hero in Argentina, Chile, and for students of the tactical game. He is now gaining the recognition he deserves as a luminary of football.

Present day

Barcelona are what they are today because of their commitment to a long-term plan for success. The creation of La Masía 35 years ago came to fruition when its first great product coached a team full of its products and won every trophy they competed for. This is what prompts what can be thought of as hubris or pomposity by members in insisting for in-house management, but they are not ready for that and credit must be given to the board for recognizing that they needed to bring in someone from the Bielsa school.

If Guardiola was Cruyff’s disciple, Barcelona have appointed Bielsa’s disciple in Tata Martino, and it couldn’t make more sense in terms of continuity of style and continued commitment to long-term success. Martino’s debut on the bench is today, and there should be no doubts that the world will be watching to see how he does this season.