We take a look at the contrasting styles that define the four 2014 FIFA World Cup quarter final matches.
If there is one defining characteristic of the 2014 FIFA World Cup so far, it has been the death of the world class team, replaced by the shadowy figure of the individual, the one-man band dragging his team through in a similar manner to Lee Dixon on ITV’s coverage of the tournament.
It is likely that the tournament, barring a surprise contender breaking through as genuine contenders, will be won by a team who are almost wholly reliant on one player – if the bookies are correct then the semi-finals will be contested by four such teams. For this eventuality to be scribbled on wallcharts across the world, however, the four favourites to lift the trophy in the Maracana on July 13th must get past four nations playing unarguably as teams.
This is not usually the case at modern World Cups – the Spanish champions of 2010 being a dazzling exhibition of what was possible when eleven of the world’s finest footballers abandoned individualism almost entirely and immersed themselves into a system designed on magnifying the sum of its parts.
Analysing this phenomenon leads us straight to the two pre-tournament favourites, Brazil and Argentina, the South American behemoths with flawless squads ready to crush all opposition with the help of the often suffocating climate. Despite both nations still standing in the tournament, however, it really hasn’t turned out that way. And it definitely wouldn’t have done if not for the presence of Neymar and Lionel Messi.
Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazilian side is an odd one, devoid of the constellations of individual stars that tend to make up the Selecao’s teams and far more workmanlike and rigid. Rather than solder Brazil together as a genuine team, however, this has made them almost solely reliant on their one genuine world class talent, with Neymar’s performances largely having dragged them out of the group stage.
Against Chile in the last sixteen Brazil were rattled and intimidated by their opponents’ ability to move as a team, to relentlessly cover each other when closing down and to fill in the gaps that opened up in their highly fluid system.
Brazil, by contrast, were rigid and predictable – Fred was always the furthest player up the pitch, occupying Chilean defenders in body but not in mind, whilst Neymar was the only player capable of breaking lines and finding pockets of space in amongst Samapoli’s complex tactical tapestry.
Meanwhile, the arch-rivals of the hosts and perhaps the most-tipped contenders, Argentina, won all three of their group games by just a single goal. In each of them, the difference was Lionel Messi, as he was again in the last sixteen win over Switzerland – despite the Swiss joining Iran and Bosnia in managing to successfully marshal and frustrate the world’s best player for 99% of the match.
Whilst their individual remains as Messi, Sabella’s side are capable of beating anyone purely through his own personal brilliance. There is one huge question that must be asked, however – how good would Argentina be if a team containing not just Messi, but Aguero, di Maria, Higuain and Lavezzi too, were able to play with the same fluidity and team ethic of South American rivals Chile and Colombia?
Managed by former Argentina boss Jose Pekerman, Colombia have been the most successful team when it comes to elevating an immense individual talent from within a collective framework. Despite the displays of Messi and Neymar, the star of the tournament has probably been James Rodriguez, the Monaco playmaker who has scored five goals in four games for his nation thus far.
Whilst Rodriguez has shone brightest, Colombia are, first and foremost, a team – the brilliance of Rodriguez would’ve been diminished massively without the contribution of Juan Cuadrado, Jackson Martinez and Victor Ibarbo.
In some ways this only goes to highlight what majestic players Neymar and Messi are, but it also indicates that Scolari and Sabella have perhaps put too much thought into accommodating their star men and not enough into their overall shape and system.
There is, of course, one team left without a real star at all – the closest that Costa Rica come to a big name are two players deemed dispensable enough to be sent out on loan by Arsenal and Fulham last season. They have been the World Cup’s biggest collectivist triumph, breezing past Italian and Uruguayan teams who were fractured, predictable and overly reliant on one of their individuals coming up with something off their own backs.
The big European names have, at least, managed slightly more synthesis between their big name players and the overall team set-up. The Netherlands were able to make Spain look like a team of confused individuals, a bunch of strangers who might as well have been waiting on the platform for the last train home, shuffling awkwardly and trying not to make eye contact.
Louis van Gaal managed to do this, however, by maximising the impact of Arjen Robben, one of his two genuinely world class players. Robben eviscerated the Spanish and went on to be the defining factor that made the Dutch a wafer stronger than Australia, Chile and Mexico. Germany have been similarly reliant on the goals of Thomas Muller, with Joachim Low’s system looking more and more like a bizarre construction designed on getting the worst out of Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze and his entire defensive line.
France and Belgium have been more successful, with none of their star players really rising to Messi-like levels of brilliance but their teams pushing on relatively comfortably. France manager Didier Deschamps is even willing to shift Karim Benzema, his best attacking player, out on to the left wing when it can improve the overall balance of the team.
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, meanwhile, has performed only sporadically for Belgium, with much of his best work actually coming when defending his own goal and protecting makeshift full back Jan Vertonghen. Into this void has stepped Axel Witsel, an unremarkable but solid defensive midfielder who has become Belgium’s most important player in Marc Wilmots’ pragmatic set-up.
The quarter finals now represent the first time that the finest individual stars in the tournament come up against the most organised and impressive team systems. The clashes between Brazil and Colombia and Argentina and Belgium look particularly intriguing, as the tournament’s two most irrepressible individual talents face off against two teams who have managed to progress through the power of collective will. Who emerges as the victor in these two games may just show us whether 2014 will be remembered as the tournament of the individual or of the collective.