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.


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