Monday, 16 June 2014

The Football Hipster World Cup Preview: Group G


Who’d have thought it. After finally becoming a gifted attacking side who are heaven to watch, Germany seem to have lost the knack of winning. The 2010 generation are still young though, such was their precocity last time, and the production line has kept churning, offering up new additions to the squad like Mario Goetze and Mats Hummels. But nobody needs a lecture on the potential embodied in Germany’s playing staff. It’s time to deliver.

Quite a lot was made of coach Joachim Low’s decision to take only one “recognised striker” to the World Cup, in Miroslav Klose. In fact, this twists the truth a bit; it’s not as if Lukas Podolski or Thomas Muller are strangers to the front line. Low likes to keep the dividing line between midfield and attack fluid, and to rotate his players between different positions. Nonetheless it’s fair to observe that the rest of Germany’s squad isn’t as lavishly equipped as the midfield, something that has strangely been exacerbated by the tendency to convert strikers (Podolski) and defenders (Philipp Lahm) to middlemen. Low, nothing if not the modern coach, will almost certainly play one man up front and it’s going to boil down to a choice between an orthodox centre forward (Klose or perhaps Muller) or that trendiest of tactical contrivances, the “False 9”. 

You’ve got to hope it’s the former, especially for the likeable Klose who is chasing the World Cup goalscoring record, but the latter option might see the deft and creative Goetze make an impact. Muller, on the whole, is more likely to play on the right of the three in a 4-2-3-1, with Ozil in the middle. On the left side, the loss of Marco Reus to a last-minute injury has deprived the Germans of a bit of genuine pace, as well as goal threat and a lively haircut. In his absence, there’s the similarly spiky (in attitude and coiffure) Andre Schuerrle, or a more direct option in Podolski; Goetze has also played over there, which illustrates the sheer versatility of Germany’s multi-talented, adaptable roster. The formation can drop back to 4-3-2-1 or even step up to 4-1-4-1. In this setup, the bay-faced Goetze is perhaps the world’s most sumptuously talented utility man, but he is sure to feature. It would be fair to observe that for all their gifts, German’s running men, like Ozil and Reus, tend to beat their man as much with pace and anticipation as with trickery, and there’s nothing wrong with that; but Goetze is an exception. What he lacks in outright speed he makes up in balance, change of pace and touch; to watch him on the run is to be reminded of Gascoigne or Kinkladze in their primes. His youthful charm is increased by his endearing habit of just walking off looking embarrassed after scoring stunning goals. With Schalke’s Julian Draxler offering yet another option, there is creativity and goal threat all over this team.

With all these talents buzzing around up front, and a defence that sometimes goes to sleep (we’ll come to that) a fair bit of responsibility is vested in the deep lying midfield two. It’s still not exactly a unit of cloggers however. Toni Kroos likes to burst forward on any side of the pitch, more like a deep lying Ozil than a Pirlo style withdrawn playmaker. So untypical is he of a German central midfielder, he even does tricks and stuff. Bastian Schweinsteiger, who seems assured of one of the slots in this part of the midfield, is also an all-action player who likes to attack as much as to defend. The only established player offering a “pure” holding option, in fact, is Sami Khedira, now seemingly recovered from a bad injury, unless Low takes the slightly ludicrous option of putting Lahm in deep midfield. That seems like an unattractive option given that Germany don’t have anyone even approaching their captain’s world-class quality at full back. The lower reaches of German world cup squads are often an obscurantist’s dream (Serdar Tasci from 2010, anyone? Dennis Aogo? Cacau?) but that’s not really the case this time; there are however a couple of young defensive options in Christoph Kramer and Matthias Ginter.

Defence is the weak spot, right? Maybe. Certainly, a couple of rather concessionary results lately (a 4-4 draw and a 5-3 victory against Sweden, a 4-3 loss to the USA) suggest a bit of doziness can creep in at times. Germany definitely don’t keep as many clean sheets as you’d expect. They do tend to tighten up against stronger opposition though. Neuer in goal, and Lahm probably at right-back, are world class, but it’s fair to say that Jerome Boateng and Per Mertesacker – both seemingly  undisputed first choices despite the impressive claim of Hummels – don’t set any worlds on fire. Marcel Schmelzer was the leading option at left back, but with his withdrawal the field is open to Erik Durm, a tenacious 22-year-old who’s rarely beaten even when up against quicker players. Alternatively, with Dortmund’s Kevin Grosskreutz able to sit on the right, Lahm could come across to his old left-side turf. Youngster Shkodran Mustafi, from Sampdoria, offers back-up at centre-back, as does Schalke captain Benedikt Howedes either there or on the right. Neuer’s deputies as custodian are Dortmund’s Roman Wiedenfeller, recently an international debutant at 33, and the younger Ron-Robert Zieler of Hanover.

Germany’s transition is complete. Yesterday’s pragmatic, thunder-thighed box-to-box men with rude-sounding surnames have been replaced by a generation of blonde-tipped waifs who seem to surf and glide through defences as trippy ambient French synth music plays in the background.  So what’s the catch? Well, as yet, this lot do seem strangers to the old Germanic dark art of winning. Some of the explanations offered for this are rather unconvincing. There is no problem whatsoever with the personnel – not even the defence, which may not be star-studded (or always consistent) but has held up well enough in tournament play. There would be goals all over the team even if they didn’t have any strikers, but they actually do. Nor is it really possible to find fault with Germany’s mentality. Lothar Matthaus has said that they seem to lack a “nasty character” or two, to give them steel, but the Bayern and Dortmund players shouldn’t be strangers to winning by now. No, if you want an explanation for Germany’s recent tendency to fall just short then you need to look at Joachim Low’s tactics. Despite his reputation and his love of somewhat showy innovations like the false nine, it’s arguably that the Bundestrainer has yet to get it right against the world’s best. A lot of his earlier wins – such as 2010’s wallopings of Argentina and England – came through the use of counter-attacking football, exploiting space left by naïve opponents. That kind of Germany has typically come unstuck when faced with cannier opposition, be it the hard-faced defenders of Italy or the mastery of possession shown by Spain. Low needs to do better, and with Bayern in particular now playing Barcelona-style, high-pressing, possession-cycling football, he has the opportunity. This is his big test.

Finally, we couldn’t get through a Germany preview without mentioning the slapstick nightmare that has been their world cup preparation. Niggling injuries were still affecting Klose, Schweinsteiger, Lahm and others a mere couple of weeks before kickoff, and after the hubris of the DFB’s commissioning of a purpose-built training camp (seriously, guys?) the actual warmup has been dogged by mishap, not to mention hit-and-miss form in friendlies.  However, the fuss over injuries has subsided (and the talent pool is in any event deep) and a certain calm has started to settle. Germany aren’t easily unnerved, not even this new Germany, and we think it’ll be alright for them on the night.

Strengths: Crack midfield; generally outstanding quality of personnel; goals from everywhere; lots of tournament experience and a team packed full of winners from Bayern and Dortmund.

Weaknesses: Lack of a system that truly brings the best out of them – Low’s tactics are under scrutiny; many key players dogged by niggling injury; not an absolute wealth of talent in attack, with Klose ageing; defence sometimes error-prone.

Young player to watch: Get yourself in the mood by watching Mario Goetze sketch his beautiful shapes to some dreamy music:

Verdict: Could get turned over by either of Ghana or the USA, which could make things lively; but likely to raise their game against Portugal. They’ll get through the group and then they’re quite likely to progress to the semis. Another team with an easyish draw. Up there with Brazil and Argentina.


Having come agonizingly close to being the first African side to reach a World Cup semi-final, Ghana’s hopes of doing even better this time have been dented slightly by a tough draw and by the fact that so many of their stars from 2010 have failed to press on to great things at club level. For us they remains something of a wild card; there is enough verve in the side for them to do damage if things click, but the likes of Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari have a lot of work still to do to prove they’re not just one-hit wonders at this level.

The mercurial Gyan remains the focal point of Ghana’s attack. His goalscoring form at international level has never been matched by his achievements in his club career, which has not really taken off. At 28 he is playing in the UAE for al-Ain, and he may be looking at the World Cup as one last shot at a big move. Powerful and mobile, his only serious rival for the centre-forward slot is Abdul Majeed Waris, an exciting prospect who has spent the last few months scoring regularly for Valenciennes in France. The two might well play together however as Waris could also play on the right of attack in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation. In the latter role however, Waris would need to unseat the established Andre Ayew of Marseille. A versatile and dynamic deep-lying forward, Ayew – the son of Ghanaian legend Abedi Pele – gets plenty of goals for his club, Marseille, in a central role, but is a winger for his country. Ayew’s brother Jordan is also in the squad, as a backup striker. The left side of attack meanwhile belongs to Juventus’ Kwadwo Asamoah. He is another versatile, pacy presence, and likes to roam about. The Prince of Ghana’s all-action attacking midfield is Boateng, often listed as a forward for his country although that doesn’t really capture the role he plays. He may have found his true calling, actually, as a modern box-to-box no.10, useful both as support for Gyan in the striking role and as a marker for deep-lying playmakers like Toni Kroos or Joao Moutinho. Boateng’s Wikipedia page, by the way, is a goldmine of linguistic innovations, highlighting among other things the German-born action man’s “footspeed” and “tempestuous sliding tackles”. Successful at Milan, he also seems to have had a spell at Tottenham a few years ago, but nobody can remember this actually happening.

Behind Boateng in the heart of the Black Stars’ midfield will sit two other Milan players, both with huge experience: Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. Injury denied Essien his part in the glorious campaign of 2010, when he would have been in his prime, a prime which seems to have been only two brief; in the memory, Essien rose rapidly and peaked early. Injuries played a big part, and in nine years at Chelsea he was never the consistent, domineering force he might have been. However, he is playing regular football now and can still be a force; this World Cup could be more than just a farewell tour for him. Muntari on the other hand has experience of two World Cups and is the senior man in the squad, with more than 80 caps. However, despite picking up two Serie A titles and a Champions’ League in his time under Jose Mourinho at Inter, he has overall fallen short of greatness at club level, often struggling to consistently be selected. At his best though, he is a fizzing presence with an eye for the late run into the box, something that may be useful on the counter. The Ghana squad also boasts a couple of emerging midfield generals competing to take Essien’s place when he steps back – Rabiu Mohammed and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, the latter one of the latest Ghanaians to enter European football via the established staging-post of Udinese. There must be a production line in Ghana turning out this kind of uber-midfielder, because Afriyie Acquah is in the same mould. Even though the first option for a change of shape is probably to pull Boateng back and push the wingers forward into a 4-3-3, any of these guys could get time in the engine room as deputy for Muntari or Essien. For more attacking rotations in midfield, Ayew and Asamoah may find themselves under pressure from less experienced options Christian Atsu – of Chelsea, but loaned this season to Vitesse – or London-born Albert Adomah, whose progress to the World Cup must delight those who were watching him at League Two Barnet only a few short seasons ago. Both of these guys have a useful eye for goal. In a midfield squad that seems absurdly well-equipped with anchor men and left wingers, Mubarak Wakaso is another option on the flank. Fond of cutting inside, he has 7 goals in 17 caps for Ghana and is often seen running like a train through defences in the Russian league, where he plays for Rubin Kazan.

Defensive shape is fairly settled for Ghana, albeit that the players making up the flat-four rearguard don’t quite have the same pedigree as the forwards. Daniel Opare of Standard Liege at right back, the French based pair of John Boye (Rennes) and Jonathan Mensah (Evian) in the middle, and Harrison Afful, who plays in Tunisia for Esperance, on the left, are all fairly assured of their places. There isn’t a great deal of backup, with fullback Samuel Inkoom and young centre-half Rashid Sumaila the reserves. Probably Ghana’s greatest asset is Norwegian-born keeper Adam Kwarasey, a solid performer in Norway for a while now – he must be due a big move. He may keep out Fatau Dauda, who was first choice for the qualifiers.

Although their squad contains a lot of what looks like unfulfilled potential, Ghana still look like a decent counter-attacking unit to us. In qualifying they scored plenty of goals, and if Essien and Muntari an effectively screen the defence and spring quick breaks down the flanks, then they will be a threat. Boateng’s ability to add muscle to the defensive side of midfield, and then get forward, will be a boon. On the other hand, their group contains three other primarily counter-attacking sides, who may not give Ghana a lot of room to play; the question of whether Ghana are really good enough to unlock German or Portugal is a tough one.

Strengths: Experience; pace on the break; it’s a youthful side with most players in or approaching their prime years.

Weaknesses: This isn’t a team of particularly skewed abilities; overall the issue may simply be a lack of absolute top-end quality at both the business ends of the field. A number of players have had disappointing or intermittent club careers, suggesting consistency might be an issue.

Yong player to watch: Wakaso has a real chance of getting game time at the expense of Ayew or Asamoah, and scores goals.

Verdict We think they’ll raise their game for the World Cup again, and will be good enough to see off Portugal for second place here.


Can a one man team win a World Cup? No. It’s only ever happened once, in 1986, and to quote Jarvis Cocker, things were very different then. And if you do want to attempt it, we’re not entirely sure that Cristiano Ronaldo is the one man you need. We’re not casting aspersions on his impressive athleticism and range of technical skills, and nor can we challenge his imperious goalscoring record at Madrid. But in our view the Madeiran maestro remains first and foremost a supremely confident executor of chances, particularly on the counter-attack; a ruthless exploiter of weakness. His style, which emphasizes lightning quick runs into space and dead ball assaults after fouls have been given away, is not as suited as is Messi’s (or as was Maradona’s) to carving opportunities in the tightest situations against the best opponents. Although he had a decent Euro 2012, there’s also the suspicion that he tends to fall slightly short on the big occasion; even in that tournament, he failed to show much form against Spain in the semi-final, and got his calculations badly wrong in the penalty shoot-out.

In any event – as the quicker-tempered among you are no doubt now foaming at the mouth to point out – it Is unfair to refer to this Portugal side as a one man team. With Madrid’s Pepe and Fabio Coentrao in the back line and Joao Moutinho in midfield, as well as new arrival William Carvalho, Portugal have a core of established personnel that will make them competitive at almost any level. On the other hand, it’s unclear what level of genuine attacking threat they will pose, beyond Ronaldo on the left. His regular opposite number, Nani, is a similar player with analogous strengths and weaknesses, but lacks the domineering club form; he has had another difficult season and gets few games at Manchester United. Nani was subdued in qualifying, where he scored only one goal (it’s worth noting that Ronaldo was also not on heavy-scoring form, save for a hat-trick in Belfast). Between them Portugal play a fairly traditional no.9, with the enduring Helder Postiga first choice. Somewhat unfairly a figure of humour in England where he capped an epically disappointing season with Spurs by scoring against England at Euro 2004, he has persisted, and has a decent goalscoring record internationally. Alternatives at centre forward are the familiar, burly figure of Hugo Almeida, and his fellow power-forward Eder. The latter is a fairly new face in the set-up; something of a “unit” in terms of physique, he has enough pace and skill not to need to reply on brute force, but has yet to score at international level. The worry will be that the strikers won’t offer quite enough of a cutting edge against the very best of opposition. Meanwhile, backup turbo-winger Silvestre Varela (very reminiscent in style of Antonio Valencia) offers little threat to Ronaldo’s place, but either he or the more twinkle-toed Adelino Vieirinha might feasibly displace Nani.

In midfield the lynchpin and playmaker is Moutinho, a player of subtlety and sometimes delight who can do his work anywhere between the goal lines; he offers vision, passing range and the ability to carry the ball, as well as sound positional sense. There is however the slight feeling that in choosing to spend his prime years with Monaco in Lique 1, Moutinho has somehow ducked the chance of testing himself against the very best at club level. Alongside him is likely to sit the more functional (and visually unmistakable) Raul Meireles of Fenerbahe, and Dynamo Kiev’s Miguel Veloso. Beckham-like midfield heart-throb Veloso retains a superb delivery and a ferocious long-range shot, but in a side that seems to be slipping slightly from the very cutting edge, it’s worth noting that neither he nor Meireles any longer plays at the very top level of European club football. It’s a first choice midfield three with a fair bit of class but not that much sparkle, and combined with the brutal style of Ronaldo and fairly utilitarian nature of his attacking colleagues, it does again highlight a possible lack of goals. Carvalho, a promising addition to the squad, likes to sit deep so he won’t change that directly, but he may enable a shift to 4-2-3-1, and has an eye for the penetrating playmaker’s ball. That’s the main option for change of shape, with dependable backup man Ruben Amorim, a seasoned Europa League campaigner with Benfica also in the squad. Braga’s young attacking midfielder Rafa Silva, blessed with a frightening turn of pace, travels as well and would be an option at no.10 in a 4-2-3-1, or potentially another rival for Nani’s spot; he is likely to figure as an impact substitution at first.

At the back some doubts persist about Pepe, in his prime as a centre-back at 31 but slipping out of favour a Madrid. Leaving club troubles aside, however, he remains a high quality and experienced defender whose qualities will be valuable at this level. Expect Bruno Alves, now of Fenerbahce, to be his starting partner; with Ricardo Costa and Luis Neto in reserve, this is an area of the pith where Portugal, somewhat unusually, have reasonable depth, with any two from these four likely to make a decent pairing. Seemingly assured of their places, barring disaster, are Rui Patricio in goal and Fabio Coentrao at left-back. The latter forms an impressive left flank with Ronaldo, his club-mate at Madrid; although he didn’t have the best of seasons overall at Madrid, his confidence will be buoyed by a victorious appearance in the Champions’ League final. All-Madrid combinations down the left may be crucial, and Coentrao himself has plenty to offer going forward. Joao Pereira is the experienced first choice at right-back and Benfica’s Andre Almeida offers backup for either fullback position. Defence looks like the strongest part of the team for Portugal; they also have the benefit of an unusually experienced reserve keeper in Eduardo, who distinguished himself at the 2010 World Cup.

Ronaldo’s star power means that people associate Portugal with goals, but in truth their form at tournaments tends to emulate that of their captain and talisman; excellent at flat-track bullying weaker sides, they tend to clam up a bit when facing sterner opposition. They do tend to be a good, hard-to-beat competition side, rarely troubled at the group stage, although their best tournament performances in recent memory – in 2004 and 2006 – were achieved with a different generation of players. They look most likely to be effective as a counter-attacking side, with Ronaldo and Nani more than capable of punishing any side that naively goes through the throat against them. But in Group G they face three other fairly wily units who also like to sit back and counter-punch; this group could be a cagey affair.

Strengths: Ronaldo, obviously, and a sprinkling of other top class talent too; good defence; plenty of tournament experience; speed, especially on the break.

Weaknesses: Not a lot of obvious goal threat against the best opposition; slightly dull midfield and uninspiring choice of strikers; feeling that some of the players (Pepe, Meireles, Alves, Nani) may already have peaked.

Young player to watch: William Carvalho could be a good bet for team of the season if Paulo Bento’s tactics permit him time on the field.

Verdict: Big call, we know – but an early flight home, this time.


You-Ess-Ay! You-Ess-Ay! What does this tournament hold in store for the men of the Stars and Stripes, standard-bearers for a burgeoning football culture that has started to see off a lot of its doubters?
In terms of assessing the team on its own merits, it’s actually hard to say, as this is a very transitional team. The story of the last few weeks has been coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to jettison from the squad Landon Donovan, the most complete footballer his country has ever produced. In the absence of their long-time advanced playmaker, and under the captaincy of the sometimes unpredictable Clint Dempsey, it’s not clear what we can expect from what is quite a young squad. It’s a shame, in fact, that the almost ludicrous difficulty of the draw has probably made it academic.

Starting with the defence, Tim Howard’s place in goal seems secure, as does DaMarcus Beasley’s at left bak. That’s a relatively unusual position in this squad, as Klinsmann likes to mix it up, and in many positions his first choice isn’t settled. Beasley and Howard are the leaders of a defence which will probably see Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler in one of the central spots. Alongside, Omar Gonzalez of LA Galaxy is seen as the likeliest choice but we could also see Geoff Cameron in this position; he has become a very effective campaigner at Premiership level with Stoke City, and Klinsmann values his power and commitment. At right-back, Fabian Johnson is expected to get the nod but he faces a rival in the form of famed Rob Earnshaw lookalike Timmy Chandler, who like Johnson was born, and plays, in Germany. A youthful option in the same position is DeAndre Yedlin, while John Brooks, of Hertha Berlin, is another young reserve, again born in Germany. Brooks, 21, is rumoured to be in demand from a number of Premiership clubs. Versatility is the watchword in the USA’s defence, with a number of players able to cover different positions, so Klinsmann has the wide range of choie that he seems to enjoy.

The US possess an old school midfield general of a type that almost seems to be becoming extinct, in Michael Bradley, a box-to-box man who has plenty to offer on either the front or back foot. Fairly successful during club spells in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, he now plays for FC Toronto. To free Bradley from too much defensive work, the centre is likely to feature a couple of other tough-guys; quite a likely pick is Jermaine Jones, a Nigel de Jong-style torrent of midfield rage. If Klinsmann goes for 4-4-2, which he often has done, then a tightish midfield diamond will probably see Jones and Bradley in the centre, with box-to-box man Graham Zusi to their right. The left side seletion is much more questionable; Fabian Johnson is capable of playing there but the role may go to former Rangers man Alejandro Bedoya, whose international career may finally be taking off. He offers a creative presence that the US otherwise lack, especially without Donovan. On that note, however, one of the stories of the world cup warmup for the USA was the burgeoning form of young, Norwegian-American playmaker Mix Diskerud; he is an intriguing option but the question is how to accommodate him. The answer might be a shift to 4-5-1; this would suit the Americans’ personnel better in many ways, with Diskerud playing no.10 behind a centre-forward and Bradley sitting deeper, but it would probably mean moving Dempsey out to one of the wings displacing either Zusi or Bedoya. Jozy Altidore seems the overwhelmingly likely starter at no.9, his style and physical presence giving the US an outlet they need on the counter; conventionally, and unless the side is re-tooled to accommodate Diskerud, captain Dempsey plays either alongside Dempsey or just behind him in an attacking no.10 role.

In terms of other options, veteran Brad Davis can hold the left flank of midfield while much hope is placed on the long term future of 18 year old Julian Green, a midfielder/forward with a bright future at Bayern Munich. He may have value to add as a surprise substitute. Kyle Beckerman is an honest box-to-box grafter with a decent touch and plenty of international experience. Forward Chris Wondolowski is probably the only real alternative to Altidore as a conventional no.9, but Aron Johansson, an Ielandi-American playing for AZ in the Netherlands, offers a choice up front.

Klinsmann has made a big and bold decision in dropping Donovan, and on paper we don’t consider it a sound choice. It begs the question of whether the coach has already written off the chances of progress in this World Cup, and decided to experiment. With most of their emerging talent looking like it needs more time to emerge, and few players, even Dempsey, who look like real international match-winners, the US are a long shot indeed to progress.

Strengths: Good mix of youth and experience, even without Donovan; energetic midfield and an unlikely but somehow effective forward combination in Dempsey and Altidore; element of surprise with their young players.

Weaknesses: Lack of ultimate quality; limited creativity and goal threat; not clear how they’ll replae Donovan’s craft.

Young player to watch: Diskerud

Verdict: Not total also-rans, but unlikely to progress beyond the groups this time.

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