Archive for July 3, 2006

Bye bye, England

It is tantalisingly ironic that by far England’s best performance in the tournament saw as its reward another demoralising defeat by penalty kicks. England were the better team for much of this match; they created most of the chances, and, even after Wayne Rooney’s dismissal, looked the likelier team to find the net. England dominated the midfield; Owen Hargreaves was outstanding in the holding role, and after Rooney left the pitch, the Bayern Munich man was easily the most dynamic player on the pitch. Frank Lampard was his usual disappointing self, fluffing his lines to scuff over the bar England’s most presentable chance of the first half. Had he been unfit, as per the wishes of this observer, England might have started with Michael Carrick or even Jermaine Jenas alongside Hargreaves in the centre of midfield. As it was, Lampard was exposed at both ends of the pitch, where his lack of confidence and pace became serious liabilities.

But not liabilities as serious as that of captain David Beckham’s continued presence, ostensibly on the right wing. Beckham has not been a right-winger for his country for some time now, but as long as he was exerting a genuine influence on proceedings, his desire to stray from the touchline could be tolerated. More recently however, his contributions have been pedestrian at best. It is true that he is a fantastic striker of the ball, but he no longer lacks the ability to find the space to send in his trademarks crosses. Beckham has famously never been quick, but his inexhaustible motor took him up and down the touchline with all the assuredness of the little engine that could. But he has not only lost what little pace he may have had, he has lost the ability to chug up and down the field, choosing instead to stroll arbitrarily around the right-hand side of the pitch. As a result, when he receives the ball it is not by the corner flag, or in any zone in line with the penalty area. In fact he receives the ball nowhere useful at all. Instead of launching in crosses from dangerous positions, Beckham’s long balls are often speculative punts from distance, easily dealt with by any halfway competent defence. People claimed Beckham was a one trick pony; now he is a lame one trick pony. Beckham’s free kick delivery is still above average, but is it worth keeping an otherwise useless player on the pitch just because he can kick a mean deadball? Aren’t Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole and others all meant to be useful takers of free kicks?

When Aaron Lennon came on for Beckham he immediately changed the way England looked. Suddenly they had penetration down that flank. Suddenly Portugal’s left back had to start to worry, midfielders had to track back, space was opening in the final third of the pitch as Portuguese players had to worry about tracking both Lennon and the space he was unlocking.

In the end, England lost, but at least the future is still bright. Beckham has relinquished his carefully manicured grasp on the captaincy and with it the air of invincibility (read ‘undropablity’) that infuriated much of the England fan base must surely have crumbled and blown away like dust in the wind. Let’s hope that for all his proximity to the debacle of the latter years of the Beckham regime, new England manager Steve McClaren will not be afraid to ring in the changes.


Argentina’s problems of Pekerman’s making

As Argentina soiled their reputation with the ugly scenes that followed Friday’s match against Germany, the truth was they had only themselves to blame for their predicament. Perhaps that guilt was responsible for the collective red mist that descended over the squad from South America as they thundered en masse to engage in fisticuffs with a German team that had allegedly been taunting them after Esteban Cambiasso’s woeful final penalty.

The game was lost on the flanks, where Argentina had little width. Fabricio Coloccini didn’t offer any dynamism going forward, and on the left Carlos Tevez was ineffectual. Tevez appeared to be suffering a case of Eagerbeaveritis. This was his first start in a meaningful match this tournament, and so happy was he to have been taken off his leash that he scampered up and down the pitch, and round and round with the glee of a dog who has just rediscovered his own tail. Tevez was arguably included to trouble the German right back, Arne Friedrich. All he succeeded in was troubling the legions of onlookers wondering how a man who for a year has been far and away the best player in Brazilian football could look so naïve.

The Crespo/Saviola combination had worked wonders for Argentina. The only time in this world cup, before Friday, that they did not start together, was the final game of the already qualified for the second round, manager Jose Pekerman chose to have a closer look at Tevez and Lionel Messi. Argentina did not find the target in that match.

I do wonder what Pekerman was thinking with his substitutions. It is true that goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri’s withdrawal was forced on him by injury. However, withdrawing flagging playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme for defensive midfielder Cambiasso was a flagrant infraction of the rules of beautiful football. And not just because of the hair. Rather, it was because it smacked of a defeatism not associated with Argentinean football, at least not the electrifying football that has been embraced under Pekerman’s reign. It was the sort of tactic you would expect a certain dour-faced, balding man who until recently was leading one of the British nations to have employed; namely thanking your lucky stars for a lead of any sorts, and then bringing off your most creative players and replacing them with destructive ones.

Riquelme was struggling, but had he come off, surely Pablo Aimar, or the ball-keeping talents of Messi were in order. With the possibility always remaining that Germany would equalise, why deprive your team its primary source of game-winning extemporisation? Ever since the squad was named, Argentina has been the source of much jealousy for its attacking depth. Riquelme having an off day? Say hello to Mr Aimar. Saviola dripping over his buck teeth? Time for Mr Messi to save the day. Crespo looking out of sorts. That’s your cue, Mr Tevez.

In fact, it was not Riquelme’s but surely Crespo’s substitution that has been the source of the most post match analysis. Crespo was not particulary effective, but then again he is a player you never want to withdraw. Much like Ronaldo he can drift innocuously for 85 minutes of a match and then nip into beat the offside trap just when the opposition defence has gone to sleep. He is not a player who ever looks lively, but he is a player who will always keep defences honest. Julio Cruz may be a perfectly good player, but there was no need to serve him the call to duty. Tactically it offered nothing new, and as Crespo was not waning, why get rid of him? Surely Pekerman should have waited to see what would happen.

But perhaps the desire to wait was Pekermans’ problem. He robbed his team of its artistry and trusted his defence would see him through to the final whistle. Had he gone for the throat, this match would have been over as a contest before the half. The much discussed frailties of the German defence were there to be exposed, but Pekerman and his Argentina squad failed to rise to the occasion.