Monday, 25 July 2011

Copa América review: BRAZIL

Now on to the five-time world champions, winners of eight... Ah forget it, they need no introduction. Let's talk about BRAZIL.

After a poor showing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, big changes had to be made to the Seleção with the next World Cup taking place on home soil in 2014. The CBF (the Brazilian football association) moved swiftly, sacking Dunga and bringing in ex-Corinthians and Grêmio boss Mano Menezes. The transformations brought about by Menezes have been well documented and I myself talked about this at length in a previous article over at (shameless self-promotion, I know!).

Even with the public more focussed on preparing for 2014, anything other than victory still means disappointment in Brazil. This time, the Seleção were eliminated at the hands of Paraguay in the quarter finals after topping Group B. Things started slowly with two draws in their opening two matches, but they secured a vital 4x2 win over Ecuador in their final group game. In the quarter final, Brazil played well and were certainly the better team, but they failed to score and were beaten on penalties.

Mano Menezes' tactics (as touched on in my previous article) were to set up in a 4-2-1-3 formation and attempt to be more creative without relying on counter-attacks. The central midfield duo changed from Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo to the much more athletic Premier League partnership of Lucas Leiva and Ramires. Santos' highly rated midfielder Paulo Henrique Ganso sits in the playmaking role behind the three forwards. Menezes tinkered with the shape a little, especially during the group match with Paraguay, but the strategy was generally the same.

Against Venezuela in La Plata, Brazil made a superb start and they were in control for the majority of the match. However, Venezuela's defensive midfield pairing of Rincón and Lucena grew into the tie and marked Ganso very well, forcing Brazil to alter their focus. Ganso's position was far too high for his role, meaning that Brazil struggled to link up their midfield and attack, the only direct link they had was the forward runs of Ramires. However that brought about its own dangers, as whenever Ramiers burst forward his midfield partner Lucas Leiva was left totally exposed to the counter attack.
Formations for Brazil x Venezuela [Note Ganso (10) playing very high, leaving the Brazil shape disjointed]
In the second half Menezes brought on Fred, Lucas and Elano to try and change the match, but the ended up relying on set-pieces and long balls and the match finished 0x0.

Against Paraguay, Menezes altered the formation a little, bringing in Shakhtar Donetsk's Jadson (whom Menezes trained in Internacional's youth team) for Robinho. This switch nudged the shape of the forward quartet a bit, resulting in something close to a slanted 4-2-2-2, the same formation used by Dunga at the 2010 World Cup. Jadson seemed like a good addition and he formed an impressive partnership with Ganso, the two combining well for Jadson to score the opening goal. Oddly enough, after a great first half performance Jadson was substituted at the half time break.
Menezes' standed 4-2-2-2
Going into the second half, it became plain to see that Brazil's defence were having an off day and Paraguay really started to take an advantage. Daniel Alves was particularly poor, exuberant winger Estigarribia gave him the run-around for the entire match. Paraguay scored twice and it looked like Brazil would be defeated until substitute Fred scored a last minute equaliser.

In the all-important final group match against Ecuador, Menezes went back to the 4-2-1-3 by reinstating Robinho at the expense of Jadson. Maicon also started ahead of Daniel Alves at right back after the latter's shocking performance in the previous match. The game was very open, with Brazil's attack playing well and looking like an improved version of the Venezuela match. Ganso played in a much smarter position closer to the midfield and Brazil managed to create chances and put four goals past Ecuador. At the other end of the field though, the centre back pairing and goalkeeper Júlio César looked very suspect. Júlio made some glaring errors and Ecuador managed to hit the back of the net twice as the game finished 4x2.

That three points meant that Brazil ended up winning Group B and progressed to the quarter finals to play the second best third-placed side, which happened to be a rematch with group rivals Paraguay. For that clash, Mano Menezes maintained the same side that defeated Ecuador and Brazil probably played their best football of the tournament, creating well and controlling the match.

The only problem was that they could not seem to score the opening goal and thanks to some heroic saves from Justo Villar in the Paraguay goal, the match stayed goalless throughout the ninety minutes and subsequent extra time. So, the decision went to a penalty shoot-out and everyone looked on open-mouthed as Brazil missed all four of their spot-kicks and were eliminated.

As I mentioned at the start of the article, anything less than victory spells great disappointment when it comes to the Brazilian national team, but it was hard to find many reasons to blame the squad for this particular exit. Granted the execution of the penalty kicks was an aberration, but throughout the match Brazil were the better team and played some really attractive football.

Something that was picked up on by the media outside of Brazil was the percieved failure of the Seleção's two big rising stars Ganso and Neymar. The Santos duo were hyped-up greatly before the tournament, but both only managed to display brief flashes of the quality that they do possess. Although something that has to be kept in mind when talking about their performances is that their inclusion in this tournament was purely about integrating the two into the national side, giving them tournament experience that will be invaluable when that all-important 2014 World Cup comes around.

Another promise for the future, Lucas Moura of São Paulo, was brought into the side and I am not completely sure thats this tournament turned out to be a particularly positive experience for him. Personally, I share the somewhat unpopular view that he should not have been in the squad for this tournament, instead he would have been better suited going to the U-20 World Cup in Colombia next month. There, Lucas would have been the main man in attack and the experience of leading that team would have been considerably more useful for him as opposed to some frustrating minutes off the bench for the senior side.

But it is back to business as usual for Mano Menezes and this Brazil side. As I write, the squad for Brazil's upcoming friendly against Germany has just been announced with six of the Copa América squad cut, and Brazilian eyes are all firmly fixed on the big party in 2014.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Copa América review: COSTA RICA

Now to the fourth and last of the sides eliminated at the group stage, the second invitee from the CONCACAF region, COSTA RICA.

As guests, Costa Rica, like Mexico, brought their Olympic squad with under-23 players to this tournament. Along with that, twelve of this Copa América squad were members of the Costa Rican party that participated in the 2011 Gold Cup in the United States the month before.

Without many high expectations weighing them down, this youthful Ticos side gave a great account of themselves, narrowly missing out on qualifying for the knockout stages. In Group A alongside Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia, they managed three points in a 2x0 win over Bolivia, a result which was sandwiched in between a tight 1x0 loss to Colombia and a rather humbling 3x0 defeat at the hands of hosts Argentina.

One of the more intriguing elements to consider regarding this Costa Rican side was their unorthodox and exciting tactics. With eccentric Argentine coach Ricardo La Volpe on the sidelines, enthusiasts have learned to expect the unexpected and in his bizarre 3-5-2/3-3-4 system, el Bigotón ('the Moustache') certainly delivered.

The system is probably best defined as a 3-5-2, but there are a number of quirks in its application that make it very different. The main source of confusion is the role of the left-sided player, usually Cerro Porteño's Diego Madrigal. In a standard 3-5-2, Madrigal would be the left wing back, sitting a little higher than the centre back line and attacking when the opportunity presented itself (like the right-sided Salvatierra). However, Madrigal's position approached that of a forward's, as he was often the highest player up the pitch but still made big retreating runs back to defence. Another important aspect is the forward runs of the midfielders, but we will go on to discuss that very shortly.
La Volpe's 3-5-2
In their opening match against Colombia they found themselves in trouble very early on, as their captain Randall Brenes was sent off within the first half hour. Colombia then took the initiative and made a tactical switch which really exploited their man advantage. Los Ticos struggled to deal with the alteration and fell a goal behind, but still managed to play a solid game for the rest of the ninety minutes, not conceding more than once.

In their next match against Bolivia, their unconventional system worked perfectly as they brushed off la Verde 2x0. Forward Joel Campbell dropped deep and worked in the channels where he was offered a lot of space. The forward runs from the midfielders (particularly substitute Guevara in the second half) were left largely untracked, and it resulted in Costa Rica having four against four in attacking situations.

Animation of Costa Rica moving into an attacking phase. Note the four defenders having to deal with the four attackers. (CLICK TO PLAY ANIMATION)
In their final game against Argentina, La Volpe attempted to play a little more cautiously against the country of his birth, but their lop-sided and disorganised shape left them exposed and they were picked apart by Lionel Messi. The best player in the world had a delightful match, picking out countless perfect passes to his team-mates as Argentina strolled to a 3x0 victory.

With three points from three games leaving them in third place in Group A, Costa Rica had to rely on results in the other groups to go in their favour to have a chance of qualifying. Unfortunately for Los Ticos, the match between Paraguay and Venezuela finished as a draw, leaving Costa Rica as the worst third-placed team and thus eliminating them from the competition.

Despite the early exit, this was certainly a positive performance from Costa Rica in this year's Copa. One of the main plus points was the continued emergence of young forward Joel Campbell of Saprissa. With the sending off of team captain Randall Brenes in their first match, Campbell took on the job of being Costa Rica's main attacking threat. He impressed throughout the three matches, particularly against Bolivia where his direct dribbling, pace and trickery was a constant thorn in the side of la Verde.

All things cAfter the match against Bolivia, Campbell was subject to interest from some of Europe's biggest clubs, with Arsenal reportedly agreeing a transfer worth around $1,5million. However the move broke down, with Campbell himself stating that he did not want to sign with Arsenal at the present time, believing his own stock will rise further after the upcoming 2011 Youth World Cup. The 19 year-old was the only member of the Costa Rican national pool who played at the Gold Cup, then in this Copa América and now is in the squad for the youth tournament in Colombia.

Copa América review: ECUADOR

Continuing the series, still with the teams eliminated in the first stage, let's take a look at ECUADOR.

Just one point and two goals from three games represents a rather disappointing return for a side that qualified for both the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, but Ecuador went in to this tournament with fairly reduced expectations anyway. When speaking of Ecuador's present team in relation to the World Cup qualifying-teams, it is important to remember how huge an achievement that was at the time.

Ecuador traditionally had the reputation of being 'whipping boys' in the CONMEBOL section and could never seem to build a side strong enough to reach anywhere near World Cup qualification. An important change came in 1996 with the restructuring of CONMEBOL's World Cup qualifying system, moving to a round-robin format where every team would play each other home and away. This meant that the team played more competitive games, resulting in a more unified squad.

Currently managed by Colombian coach Reginaldo Rueda - the man who took Honduras to the 2010 World Cup - they appear to have assembled a decent squad with promising home-based players and some top talent with European pedigree. Manchester United's Antonio Valencia - the first Ecuadorian to play in a Champions League final - is the team's big name, but Rubin Kazan's Christian Noboa is also gaining notoriety on the European scene.

On the pitch, Rueda opts for a 4-4-2 shape with lots of movement amongst the midfield quarter. Cristian "Chucho" Benítez plays an energetic role up front, supporting centre forward Felipe Caicedo and shuttling back and forward into midfield. In their first game against Paraguay, Ecuador played fairly well and caused a great deal of problems for their opponents, but the game still finished 0x0.

The first half of that match saw Paraguay well in control, but an injury to Antonio Valencia forced Ecuador into making a half-time change which actually tipped the balance in their favour. Rueda brought on San Luís' exciting winger Michael Arroyo and played him on the left side, switching Édison Méndez to the right. The aggression of Arroyo managed to pin back Paraguay's enthusiastic right back Iván Piris, which meant that Ecuador's left back - team captain Walter Ayoví - could start to make an impact on the match.
Illustration of the tactical change in the second half (CLICK IMAGE TO PLAY ANIMATION)
In their second match against Venezuela, the story was largely the same. The match was tight and Ecuador again failed to find the net. Near the end Venezuela scored the winning goal, which was probably deserved considering how the match played out.

In contrast to their first two matches which were tight and low scoring, Ecuador's final group game against Brazil was wide open and had plenty of goals, finishing 4x2 to the Seleção. Rueda made one change from the side that played the second half against Paraguay and started against Venezuela, with defensive midfielder Oswaldo Minda coming in to replace Segundo Castillo.

Ecuador knew they had to win the match to qualify, so they pushed forward a lot more and managed to score twice against a poor Brazil defence. However on the other end of the field, Ecuador stood off Brazil far too much, giving them space and inviting their creative players to play.

All things considered, this was still an intensely disappointing tournament from Ecuador. With their dominant second half performance against Paraguay they were very disappointed not to come away with the win. Against Venezuela they fell to a late goal, and against Brazil they did very little to stop the strong attack of the five-time world champions.

There were some good performances from certain players, particularly Arroyo on the wings, and it appears that the forward pairing of Felipe Caicedo and Chucho Benítez are forming a great understanding. Despite this, it still seems like Rueda and his team have their work cut out to try and construct a team to rival the squads of 2002 and 2006.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Copa América review: BOLIVIA

Continuing on with my series of nation-by-nation reviews, we move on to this year's 11th ranked side, BOLIVIA.

Ranked 93rd in the world and without a win away from home since 2007, no-one was really expecting much from Bolivia in this Copa América. Furthermore they were drawn into Group A alongside Argentina, Colombia and Costa Rica, and even given the 'honour' of playing the hosts in the tournament's opening match. In the end they only managed to register a paltry one point, but that certainly does not tell the full story of their campaign.

The manager Gustavo Quinteros - a member of the Bolivian team when they last qualified for a World Cup in 1994 - selected a well-balanced and experienced 23-man squad, with only five of them playing their club football outside of Bolivia. La Verde shocked everyone when they managed to draw 1x1 with Argentina in the tournament's opening match, but they later succumbed to two 2x0 defeats against Costa Rica and Colombia. 

Tactically Quinteros had Bolivia set up in a very simple fashion, a defensive 4-4-2 with two solid banks of four playing behind the forwards. Their style worked superbly against Argentina's 4-3-3 in the first game, but struggled in the other two games when they were expected to play more football.

Against Argentina, Bolivia were excellent, staying compact and narrow and giving nothing away to Argentina's jewel-encrusted forward line. Team captain Ronald Raldes in particular gave a fabulous performance in the centre of defence; constantly spurning the hosts' attacking advances.
Line-ups vs. Argentina. (Note Bolivia's two narrow defensive lines, congesting the play and frustrating their opponents)
Bolivia took a surprise lead at the start of the second half when Argentina's Éver Banega let a back heel from Edivaldo Rojas sneak under his foot and roll into the net, and at that moment it looked like la Verde might manoeuvre a famous victory in La Plata. Their defence remained resolute, but eventually they conceded an equaliser through a stunning volley from substitute Sergio Agüero.

The script was quite different for their next match against Costa Rica, as Bolivia were coaxed into opening up and trying to win the match. They lined yp with a 4-4-2 again, but against Costa Rica's unorthodox 3-5-2/3-3-4 formation they ran in to real problems. This game will be discussed further when we cover Costa Rica, but essentially Bolivia's rigid shape struggled to deal with Costa Rica's fluidity and they found it hard to track the forward runs of the Costa Rican midfield.

Bolivia ended up losing the match 2x0, and things got even worse with the sending off of both Ronald Rivero and Walter Flores. This left la Verde needing a win in their final group match against the impressive Colombia to retain any chance of qualifying.

In that match against los Cafeteros in Santa Fe, Bolivia fielded a partially changed side due to the suspensions to Rivero and Flores. Santos Amador and Ronald García filled in at central defence and central midfield respectively, while there was a change at full-back, Christian Vargas coming in to replace Gutiérrez.

Bolivia looked to try and stay narrow like against Argentina, but Colombia's rampaging full-backs made that impossible, leaving the Bolivia defence stretched and full of holes. Colombia's wide midfielders Ramos and Moreno were happy to stay more central and occupy the Bolivia full-backs, which left Colombia's full-backs Armero and Zúñiga with the entire flank to operate in.
Formations vs. Colombia [Note how Vargas (14) and Álvarez (4) are occupied, allowing Colombia to control the flanks]
Despite this obvious advantage down the flanks for Colombia, the first goal went in courtesy of a through ball through the centre of the Bolivia defence. Lacking the regular partnership of Rivero and Raldes, Bolivia looked shaky and disorganised, and a well-timed run from Falcao left him clear on goal and allowed him to finish well.

The second goal however, was a prime example of Colombia's dominance on the wings. Pablo Armero made a huge run down the left flank, burst into the area and was tripped for a penalty. Falcao coolly dispatched the spot-kick and Bolivia were well and truly sank.

Looking back on the tournament, the Bolivia squad and staff will probably be quite disappointed. Despite punching considerably above their weight with their performance in the opening match, they still finished fourth in the group and only managed to score one goal. However there were certainly some huge positives to take from the tournament, namely the draw against Argentina in front of a capacity crowd in La Plata.

Now Bolivia will have their eyes on the 2014 World Cup qualifying, where they will attempt to pull off a few more famous results. At home in La Paz, they are capable of beating any opposition, but their main focus will be to improve their dreadful away record.  

Friday, 22 July 2011

Copa América review: MEXICO

This is the first part of what will be the bulk of my Copa América writing. I will be reviewing all twelve nations in order of their tournament performance and talking results, tactics and players. First off let's take a look at one of the invited teams from CONCACAF, the only side not to record a point in the 2011 tournament, el Tri of MEXICO.

Mexico, fresh from a buoyant triumph at CONCACAF's Gold Cup in June, travelled to Argentina with a squad predominantly made up of players under the age of 23. All but one of the squad was based in Mexico, and that one player (Giovani dos Santos of Tottenham Hotspur) accounted for almost half of the total senior international caps of the entire 23-man party.

Despite bringing a 'weakened' squad, el Tri were very motivated and battled hard in all of their three group games. This effort was not enough however, and they lost all three matches in Group C starting with a 2x1 against Chile in their opener, and two 1x0 losses to both Peru and Uruguay. 

Their tactics were fairly unequivocal; they played a standard Latin American 3-5-2 in their first two matches, and only switched to an unfamiliar 4-4-2 in the meaningless final match against Uruguay. The 3-5-2 is based around the front two, with Giovani dos Santos supporting Rafael Márquez Lugo, and the energy of the two wing backs-cum-wide midfielders Paul Aguilar and Dárvin Chávez.

In their first match against Chile, the previously mentioned duo of Aguilar and Chávez were pinned back by Chile's own attacking wide players Beausejour and Isla. Consequently Mexico found it very hard to link their midfield and attack, with almost all of their hopes placed on the shoulders of dos Santos, who was expected to do everything.

Line ups vs Chile (Note the restriction of the wide players and large gap between midfield and attack
Mexico did manage to take the lead in that match from a Nestor Araujo header, though it was mainly due to Chile's defensive errors as opposed to Mexico's quality.

Mexico lost their lead in the second half due to a tactical masterstroke from Chile's boss Claudio Borghi (which we will discuss in more detail when it's Chile's turn), and ended up losing the match 2x1.

Next up, Mexico took on Peru in Mendoza. Coach Luis Fernando Tena kept the same team and formation from the match against Chile, and once again el Tri struggled for ideas and were overrun in the midfield.

Mexico struggled with the quality of Juan Manuel Vargas on Peru's left wing, and if it had not been for a strong display from goalkeeper Luis Michel, then Peru could have won this match by a much larger deficit. In reality, Michel made some excellent saves and kept the score down to 1x0 to Peru.

As had happened against Chile, Mexico looked extremely one-dimensional in this match. They did manage to register a few attempts on goal during the 90 minutes, but never really deserved anything more than a defeat.

In their final match against Uruguay, Tena altered the team and moved to a 4-4-1-1 shape, seeming more interested in giving his players match experience rather than chasing a result. The only personnel change from the 3-5-2 saw Miguel Ángel Ponce come in to the side to replace Javier Aquino, but the player's positions were tweaked considerably. Hiram Mier moved from the centre back trio to right back - leaving Reynoso and Araujo in the middle - and Dárvin Chávez dropped deeper to left back. Ponce played as Chávez's replacement on the left hand side of the midfield, with the rest of the side was kept the same. 

The 4-4-1-1 formation vs Uruguay

Against Uruguay they went 1x0 down early on, but still had an impressive first half and did not give much away to Uruguay's similar 4-4-2 formation. At half time however, Tena decided to make two substitutions and brought off dos Santos and Aguilar, certainly two of el Tri's more impressive players.

Regarding Mexico's best performers in the tournament, you cannot really look past midfielder Jorge Enríquez of Chivas Guadalajara. Enríquez, who played every minute of Mexico's group games, was imposing in the midfield, showing good dribbling skills and exceptional determination.

So where do Mexico go from here? Well, eight members of the squad (including Enríquez) will join up with the under-20 side to contest the 2011 Youth World Cup taking place in Colombia which runs throughout August. 

Friday, 1 July 2011

Copa América at a Glance: ARGENTINA

Writer’s note: This mini-series is essentially just sulf-indulgence/Copa América excitement. Tactics are not my specialty, and I do not claim to be a tactics expert. Take these articles for what they are, some information, a couple of observations and some nice visual aids.

First of all, let’s have a look at the hosts Argentina. With Sergio Batista they have evolved from their tactically naïve 4-4-2 used at the World Cup to a more rational and functional 4-3-3, based on Barcelona’s style (I explain this transition here). The main aim of this formation, as has been mentioned several times previously, is to try and get the best out of Lionel Messi.

Above you can see Argentina’s primary formation. The defence sits a lot deeper than Barcelona’s due to the lack of pace of the two centre-backs, and they are protected by team captain Javier Mascherano who sits in front of them. The two full-backs, Zanetti and Rojo, provide a service going forward as well in defence, with the former expected to be a little more reserved in going forward.

Valencia’s Éver Banega is the key in the midfield, as he is employed in the all-important ‘Xavi-role’. There are not many players in the world that can do what Xavi does, but with Banega’s slick passing skills and positional discipline, he is certainly a worthy replacement. Alongside Banega, the evergreen Esteban Cambiasso shuttles back and forward in the midfield. Expect to see Cambiasso at both ends of the field, whether it be helping to secure the defence with Mascherano or charging forward to provide Banega with an option to his left. Cambiasso’s positioning also allows Rojo a bit more freedom on the left, as he knows that he will have that extra cover should he get caught out.

Finally the attack, Lionel Messi (no introduction needed) sits in the middle in the much talked-about false nine role, where he drops back in to midfield to link up with Banega. This leaves the two wide players, Lavezzi and Tévez to come inside and provide an attacking threat. These two are probably the key to whether this system will work successfully or not, as it still remains to be seen if they are properly suited to the wide attacker roles in the Barcelona 4-3-3.

Lavezzi is suited to that position, it’s very similar to the one he plays at Napoli and he has impressed greatly in Serie A. Tévez on the other hand, is not particularly accustomed to playing out wide and cutting inside, at Manchester City he plays in a central role, not dissimilar to Messi’s position. El jugador del pueblo is an extremely talented player however, and should be able to adapt as long as he stays motivated.

If things go wrong, or if Batista fancies a change, he is blessed with a wealth of options on his bench and has previously tested some alterations to his system to fit them in. Here are a few examples:

1st option: Javier Pastore

Palermo’s attacking midfielder Javier Pastore has been a little unlucky recently on the national scene, as after a magnificent season in Italy he still cannot seem to hold down a regular place in the Argentina side. This is less to do with Pastore’s performances, and more to do with the fact that his elegant number ten role does not really have a place in Batista’s 4-3-3.

However, Batista would be a fool to leave him out completely, and when he is used (most likely as a substitute for Esteban Cambiasso) Batista switches the midfield to this shape seen below:

As you can see, Pastore is allowed to function in his preferred playmaking role, with Banega taking over the job of shuttling on the right side and Mascherano dropping even deeper in front of the two centre-backs. This will probably be a set-up used in the second half of matches against sides like Colombia or Chile to try and finish the game off, or possibly at moments when the team is looking for a single goal.

2nd option: Gonzalo Higuaín

In a nation where the farewell match of Boca’s lumbering centre forward Martín Palermo overshadowed Vélez Sarsfield becoming national champions, the absence of a big man up front will be one of the first tactical criticisms directed at Batista should something go wrong. In Gonzalo Higuaín, they have a fantastic centre forward, big and strong but also athletic, a much more modern version of the aforementioned San Martín.

Higuaín’s introduction sees an alteration in the attacking three, with Messi moving out to the left and Higuaín taking the central target man role.

All diagrams with help of the fantastic Tactical Pad