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.


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.

On the managerial adaptability of Sir Alex Ferguson


Photo by The Last Moorish King on Flickr

Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement this week. After 26 years in charge of Manchester United, during which he won 13 league titles and a staggering 38 trophies, we can safely say that Sir Alex may be the last of his kind. With such a rich and varied career it is difficult to focus on one, or even a few, things he was best at. So here is very simply what I appreciate most about the great Scot: his adaptability.

Football is cyclical. Arsene Wenger is an excellent example of a similarly able manager who has gone through peaks and troughs as his team has. With all due respect to the Frenchman, his greatest managerial achievements coincided with Arsenal’s golden generation about a decade ago.

Sir Alex largely avoided prolonged mediocrity and has almost always been at or near the top. While you could argue the class of ’99 was a golden generation, Sir Alex has won with less (and arguably more) over a quarter-century, and it would be a pity to name that team his greatest and most memorable achievement. His greatest ability has been to identify the strengths in his squads and build campaigns around key players and key positions on the pitch. His sides have always promoted that football is at its best a team game and that the team can be greater than the sum of all of its parts.

Who will follow him up? The simple answer: David Moyes. But in spirit, Sir Alex leaves a very large void as a long-term manager in an increasingly money and results-driven short-term football landscape. As football fans, we must hope a new high-profile long-term manager arises. As Cristiano Ronaldo tweeted recently: Thanks for everything, Boss.

Is the three-man defense coming back?

Introducing 3manDefense: The name of this blog comes from my favorite formation and personal conviction that the best football is played in the midfield possession game. As a formation that takes a man from defense and adds one to the midfield, the three-man defense makes a lot of sense. Yet given recent trends that have seen the three-man defense decline in popularity, as well as the difficulty of its reintroduction by ambitious tacticians like Mancini, it is quite rare to see the managers of top sides field this formation.

A decade ago, Marcelo Bielsa used two wing-backs in the midfield for Argentina in Zanetti and Sorín, who would dutifully drop back depending on which side was being attacked. More recently, the current Athletic Bilbao coach has switched to a back four but uses midfielders in the back line, a move mimicked by Barcelona under Guardiola and currently under Tito. Van Gaal’s storied Ajax from the mid 90s used no wingbacks, but rather played Frank Rijkaard as an advanced central defender. The flexibility of the three-man defensive formation is adjustable to the personnel and takes advantage of dynamic players.

One recent example was seen in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 between hosts Barcelona and AC Milan. It was one of the most compelling matches in this edition of the tournament because Barcelona had played predictably in the first leg and lost 0-2 in Milan. With their backs against the wall after an elimination at the hands of Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey as well as a league loss at the Bernabeu, many asked if Barcelona’s season was unravelling incredibly after an undefeated first half. Barcelona have been less tactically ambitious under Tito Vilanova/Roura (more on that in a future post) but fielded a formation nearly identical to the three-man defense Pep Guardiola played against the same team last year and won emphatically with a one-sided score of 4-0.

Barcelona’s recent 3-4-3 against Milan

It’s debatable whether this is actually a three-man defense or just an admission that Alves is not a defender, but either case supports my point that more sides can play it, and many already do. Moving a wing-back forward in a tactical drawing is one way to start, but the idea that the wing-back is a flexible position that already spends most of his time attacking and defending in his opponents half shows that sides in need of goals can opt for the three-man defensive line if they can utilize the talents of wide or central defenders that feel comfortable in multiple positions on the pitch.

Barcelona’s victory last month was not directly due to the back line of the formation, but rather to the inclusion of the criminally underused David Villa and the phenomenal high pressure Barcelona applied in Milan’s half after losing the ball. Yet, it’s nice to see the good old three-man defense in action.

My idea with this blog is not to solely cover my favorite formation, but rather to pay tribute to the beautiful game and its protagonists. I closely follow several domestic leagues, continental leagues, and international tournaments and will use this site as an outlet for my thoughts. I am also a big fan of football history and will on occasion blog about great players, coaches, and plays from the history of the game. I hope you enjoy.