Monday, 28 June 2010

Substance over style?

Today we saw two teams who have traditionally been the most free flowing and exciting to watch at World Cups. Except, well, they aren't this time. Both Holland and Brazil are far more circumspect and have much more emphasis on defence. Why is that? Why the move away from their normal style?

To start with, Dunga's methods are extremely unpopular in Brazil, the inclusion of two defensive midfielders in Gilberto Silva and Filipe Melo is not the Samba way. Despite this, we've seen throughout qualifying, as well as in this tournament, how good their defence looks. Tonight against Chile they were hardly troubled by a side who has been one of the best so far in terms of creating chances. I said after Chile's game with Spain that they would have real trouble against Brazil on the counter attack, and so it proved. Once they were behind, there was very little chance of a recovery, this Brazillian side were never going to come out and continue attacking, which could have allowed the Chileans space. Even if they win the thing, this team will never be truly popular back home. I've read there are even some Brazillians supporting Argentina because they play football the 'proper way'. This has happened before, the team that won in 1994 are far less revered than the one who fell short in 1982. In fact that '82 side is regarded by some as the best side Brazil has ever had, and that is quite the accolade.

As for the Dutch, they look a far better side with Arjen Robben on the pitch. So far he's only played about 80 minutes of football, but managed to score and hit the post to set up Klaas Jan Huntelaar. It's not just his end product, but his mere presence on the pitch gives the defence something else to think about, creating space for his teammates. Despite his return, there seems to have been a shift away from 'Total Football' under Bert Van Marwijk. Two years ago Holland came through the Group of Death at Euro 2008 thanks to a couple of fantastic counter attacking performances against France and Italy. Memorable for two stunning goals against the Italians, and David Pleat shrieking 'wonderful goal, wonderful goal' in an extremely high pitched voice as Wesley Sneijder fired in their second. That sort of football has been replaced by a far slower paced style, and they are harder to beat now, but less entertaining.

Both of these changes in style are slightly disappointing, as they are two sides who define exciting attacking football. Holland brought the world Total Football, and Brazil has produced some of the most exciting players ever seen at the World Cup. It is quite possible that under a new manager they might return to their roots, but as it stands it's quite understandable that they want to be harder to break down. Jose Mourinho has shown the world how to beat the best attacking club side around (and perhaps of all time) and because of this other managers have become more afraid of an attack minded philosophy. The important thing to remember is that football seems to work in cycles, and there is constant innovation. Italia 90 is held up as the ultimate defensive World Cup, in the 52 games at that tournament there were 115 goals. Twenty years later we have another defensive World Cup, and as of yesterday there had been 52 games in which 116 goals had been scored. Uncanny.

Tactics evolve, and as defensive football seems to be slightly on top at the moment, people will work out new formations and new ways to break them down. As if to prove that point, USA 94 saw 141 goals scored in the 52 matches. I wouldn't be surprised if something similar happens in four years time. Holland and Brazil have altered their style under present management, but the next World Cup is in Brazil, there is no way they'll be emphasising on defence by then.

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