Sunday, July 02, 2006

Football Predestination

Although actual Argentinians doublessly felt more pain or at least a general sense of dread, it was difficult for me to believe what I was seeing when the camera panned across the players lined up before the penalty shootout between Argentina and Germany, the first of two in these quarterfinals (the second of which I will get to shortly). Standing there with their teammates, each still wearing the garb of the substitute, were Messi, Saviola and Aimar. Three of the fastest, most creative players in the world and none involved in what would be the last game of Argentina's World Cup.

To be fair to Jose Pekerman, who seems to be a nice enough guy, the injury to Abbodanzieri tied his hands, taking away one of the 3 allowed substitutions. Still, to see Riquelme replaced by the defensive-minded Cambiasso and Crespo by the lumbering Cruz was madness, or at least the weakness of selecting the sensible option. Cambiasso is a decent player; however, he wasn't able to help on the eventual German goal and once Argentina needed to go forward, was relegated to sideways passes 30 yards from goal. Cruz, slow and poor with the ball at his feet, was introduced to provide extra cover on corners and freekicks. With the score deadlocked, his inability to go at the defense or even hold the ball were highlighted as the offense thrashed around to little effect. While both subs are servicable players, they were never going to be able to put the game beyond the Germans and their tactical selection was made out of a desire to not lose the game, rather than to win it.

Once the Germans equalized, Argentina was done. Tevez and Maxi Rodriguez were spent and without players who could break down the German defense, it was going to take a miracle shot to break the deadlock, a miracle that never occured and the game ground to the inevitable conclusion of the penalty shootout, a mini-game at which the Germans excel, leaving Argentinians to wonder what could have only happened if Riquelme were replaced with Aimar, or Crespo by Messi.

The German's frighteningly clinical performance from the spot was followed the next day by the death spasms of the English World Cup squad, a typically English performance where 1 of 4 penalties were actually scored, the other 3 all being saved by the Portugese keeper. The contrast between the two penalty shootouts could not be greater when viewed in the context of two quotes:

Oliver Bierhoff, German coach: "Lehmann saw videos of all the penalties Argentina have taken in the past two years, with a list of the specific types of penalty the players usually take.

He then had to briefly consult the notes with (goalkeeping coach) Andreas Koepke, because you never know until the shootout who will be on the list."

Jamie Carragher, English player: "The referee said he never blew his whistle so I had to wait until after he blew it.

I didn't realise. I obviously don't take that many.

I've taken two in my career and scored two before this one, one in the Worthington Cup final shoot-out against Birmingham and another in penalties in the same competition."

On one hand, you have the stereotype of German preparedness and efficiency with the goalkeeper handed a slip of paper before each penalty telling him where each player usually shoots.

On the other, we have a player inserted 3 minutes before the end of extratime who has taken a total of 2 penalties in his career and doesn't even know enough to wait for the referee to blow his whistle before taking the kick.

The disparity of preparation is almost unbelievable, especially considering the number of times that the English have bowed out of a major competition on penalties. It's almost as if the English believe that they can avoid their bogey by ignoring it, a remarkable act of idealism that has completely and conclusively failed.

Preparation seems to be the theme of this Cup, with each of the final four teams being a squad first and a group of individual players second, if at all. Of the major players eliminated so far, only Argentina had shown signs of playing together, with England and Brazil looking pathetically incoherent, each a wealth of riches thrown onto the field and functioning at a level far below the sum of their parts.

Each of the remaining teams also boast a midfield general, Totti, Ballack, Deco and Zidane providing a focal point for possession and distribution, a scheme radiating from a centrally-placed offensive midfielder, a pivot point that each team uses as leverage to prise open defenses. By having a defined leader in terms of possession, these teams avoid the "too many chefs" problem that wrecked England and Brazil, who had too many options and thus wallowed in indecision, taking advantage of none of them.

It's so stupidly simple in retrospect, that every player needs a role and that it's more important to have players who play well with each other than to try and accomodate individual talent, that defense wins championships and you have to have a proven goal-scorer. It's so strange that in a sport where anything can happen, that the end result can feel unavoidable.

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