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21 July 2018

A Slice of Humble Pie

Tag(s): Sport
In my blog World Cup Willie? (3) 15th June, 2018[i] I attempted to give guidance on what might happen in this year’s FIFA World Cup. This blog is for me to eat humble pie on my conspicuous lack of success. Mind you, I don’t think I was very different from the various experts and pundits fielded by the media. Some of my general guidance was on target but my specific suggestions were wide of the goal. For example, I was fairly sure the winner would come from Europe as in the previous three competitions, but I don’t think anyone would have foreseen a last four of France, Belgium, England and Croatia.

In the 2014 World Cup I had forecast correctly that Germany would win[ii] and I thought that was most likely to happen again. After all, in recent history it is the most consistently successful team having reached at least the semi-final stage on the previous five occasions. However, the biggest shock at this year’s World Cup was Germany’s exit before the knock out stage. The last time Germany (or West Germany) failed to reach the knock out stage was in 1938, which must have gone down well with Herr Hitler.

So what went wrong this time? Firstly, it is in retrospect quite common for the winner to fail at the next competition.  In 2010, the defending Champions, Italy came bottom of Group F and went home before the knock out stage. In 2014, the defending Champions, Spain came third in Group B and went home. This time Germany came bottom of Group F behind Sweden, Mexico and South Korea and went home.[iii]

Secondly, I think it unwise to stay with the same manager for too long, even if he is so successful. Joachim Löw was appointed in 2006 after Germany failed to reach the final of the World Cup when they were host nation. In March that year they were ranked 22nd in the World, their lowest ever ranking. He has taken them to number one in the World as of the eve of this year’s World Cup reaching the semifinal in 2010 and winning in 2014. With such success can come complacency and a tendency to play the same way with the same players. Other teams are innovating and bringing in fresh talent.  Löw left out Leroy Sane, the exciting young winger who had just helped Manchester City win the English Premier League. Contrast France who featured the 19 year old star Kylian Mbappé, who had just helped PSG St Germain win the French League and won the Best Young Player Award in the World Cup.

My other two tips were Spain and Portugal. Spain won in 2010, failed in 2014, but had also won back-to-back European titles in 2008 and 2012.  During long parts of that period they had been ranked No 1 in the World but by this year’s competition had slipped to 10th. Nevertheless, they still had some of their best players from that era such as Iniesta and Ramos. Many of their players were drawn from Real Madrid who had just won the Champions League for the third consecutive year. However, on 12th June, two days before the World Cup Finals started, Real Madrid named Julken Lopetegui, the head coach of the Spanish national team, as their new manager. It was announced that he would officially become manager after the World Cup was over, however, the Spanish FA sacked Lopetegui a day prior to the tournament stating that he negotiated terms without informing them. Fernando Hierro took over with just two days to prepare for their opening game against Portugal, which was a hard-fought 3-3 draw. Spain topped the group but went out in the next round to Russia in a penalty shoot-out. Spain is also a team that has failed to innovate. Its style of possession play, strongly influenced by the wonderful Barcelona team of that era, seems no longer so effective. Several teams today play very well off the ball and then hit with fast counter attacks to score the necessary goals to win. We will come back to this point when we discuss France.

Portugal had won the 2016 European championship and with the great Cristiano Ronaldo capable of winning any game still looked a real threat. But like Spain they went out in the round of 16, losing to Uruguay 1-2. They too looked like an aging team, too reliant on one player.

The same might be said about Brazil and Argentina.  Brazil last won the World Cup in 2002 and Argentina in 1986. Some have suggested that now that all their players play for club sides in Europe they no longer have the same kind of team spirit. However, only one of the starting XI for the winning French team in the final plays for a French club, and that’s the aforesaid Mbappé. Now he’s already a superstar it won’t be long before the Spanish giants come for him with their cheque books.

What might be a problem for the South American sides is that they, of course, play all their qualifying matches in South America. In that sense there are no ‘home’ matches. The ten nations in the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) play each other home and away over a full two-year period. The top four teams progress to the finals but a fifth will have a play-off against an Asian nation. Thus these European-based players will fly 18 or 20 times back and forth to qualify. They will be together with their team mates for less time and so, perhaps again, there is a lack of team building.

But Brazil and Argentina also lack innovation. Brazil were the great innovators in World Football producing 4-4-2 in 1958 which won three out of the next four competitions. Then in 1982 they created the mid-field diamond with Zico, Socrates, Falcao and Junior. But after their attractive style did not seem to win much they developed a more defensive formation, still with four at the back but now with two rather than one defensive midfielders guarding this back four. Thus seven, including the goalkeeper, out of the XI are primarily defensive. This then relies on having sufficiently creative attacking players and also highly athletic and skilled full-backs who can both attack and defend. In 1994 this formation won with the emergence of the great Cafu at full back. By 2002 he lifted the trophy as captain assisted by a devastating trio of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. But they are still using this formation without enough super stars to make it work.

Argentina have rarely showed such innovation and have relied for their successes on star players backed by a very aggressive style. Lionel Messi may be one of the greatest players of all time but his career is likely to end without ever winning a major international trophy.  But other equally great players never even get to the World Cup finals because they play for small nations. The best I ever saw was George Best but Northern Ireland is unlikely to get to a World Cup final. And Ryan Giggs is not far behind but Wales has had little success although with Gareth Bale in the team it had a good run in the 2016 European Championships.

So what about England? As an Englishman I take great pleasure that the team got as far as the semi-final, the first time since 1990, and only the third time in history. I have argued before that it is wrong to see England as an under-achiever. Most of the time they are ranked between 8th and 12th and so an appearance in the quarter-final from time to time is about right. This time they were ranked 12th before the tournament started and so coming 4th is clearly an over-achievement.

How did it happen? I have it on very high authority that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) had long asked the FA to become more innovative and learn from other very successful sports in the UK like cycling and rowing. These sports use the latest technology, understanding of nutrition and fitness, and particularly sports psychology and so for some time have consistently over-achieved at the Olympics and other international competitions. But the FA, run by a bunch of traditionalists, kept on relying on the same old, same old, hiring a famous manager with a 20-year track record, usually in club football. Finally after the embarrassment of losing to Iceland in the European championship in 2016, and then the embarrassment of a scandal involving another old-fashioned manager after just one match, they promoted Gareth Southgate from within, where he had had success with the junior international teams.

Mr. Southgate was completely open to DCMS advice and was hungry to learn from other sports. He brought in experts, particularly a psychologist, Dr Pippa Grange, who helped the young players deal with the pressure, the hoodoo of penalty shoot outs, and created a feeling of togetherness.

The result, a team with only one stand out player before the tournament in Harry Kane, fought their way to the semi-final, which they might have won if they had taken their chances. But we should not get carried away because the draw certainly opened up for them. The failure of Italy and the Netherlands to qualify, the failure of Germany to reach the knock-out stage, and the failure of Spain and Portugal to reach the quarterfinals, meant that by that stage England was the highest ranked team on their side of the draw, and so on ranking, should have reached the final. They may never get a better chance.[iv]

So, after explaining why so many fell by the wayside and England over-achieved but still fell short, how did France emerge as the winner? Here is my biggest slice of humble pie because in my World Cup Willie (3) blog I said ‘It’s not clear to me why France is so highly rated’. I meant in the betting as joint third at 6/1 after Germany and Brazil at 9/2. Before the tournament they were ranked 7th in the World, so behind Germany (1), Brazil (2), Belgium (3), Portugal (4), Argentina (5) and Switzerland (6). They qualified by winning just 7 matches compared with Germany (10), Belgium and Spain (9) and England and Poland (8).

I think many observers will point to their star players, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Mbappé, all of whom had a big impact in the final against Croatia. But I think it was a team effort. Indeed I think the main feature of this World Cup was the team work of those who did well compared with the lack of teamwork in the usual big names who relied on their stars. France has its stars but at times even Paul Pogba, who likes to dominate a game and express his personality, often sacrificed this to the good of the team, keeping to a more defensive formation and occasionally breaking free to explosive effect. And if I’m right then that’s a good thing because it’s good to see a team like Croatia get to a final, again with an all-round team effort, while for the first time in history neither Brazil, nor Germany, nor Argentina was even in the semi-final.

[ii] While England are known as ‘The 3 Lions’ and Italy ‘Gli Azzurri’ (The Blues) after their shirts, Germany is simply known as ‘Die Mannschaft’ (‘The Team’). Perhaps this time they could not live up to that.  
[iv] But another factor I had pointed out in World Cup Willie? (3) is the effect of the exhausting Premier League on players. In the semi-finals England, of course, had all eleven of its team coming from the Premier League, indeed all of its 25 man squad while just one of Croatia’s team plays for an English club. Of Belgium’s starting X1 in the semi-final against France nine came from the Premier League while just four of the French team did.
Copyright David C Pearson 2018 All rights reserved

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