With less than two weeks to go until the World Cup kicks off, we the editors at Prawn Sandwich Brigade have had differing opinions on how the tournament should play out. Rather than write separate articles, we decided it would be better to answer four overarching questions, panel style. Our guest panelists were Arvind Srinivasan (twitter handle @sidewayspass) and Karthik Narayanan (twitter handle @thedarkhorsefc).
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1. What should the USA do tactically to get out of Group G? Also what is your reaction to the Landon Donovan snub?
Pranav Krishnan (PK) : The snub was quite surprising, and given that Donovan broke the MLS scoring record a few days later it will put more pressure on the current group to perform even better since many of them have been underwhelming. Jozy’s poor goalscoring record at club level already adds pressure on him and if he can’t get it going, the other midfielders really have to chip in. That’s why I think Donovan would have been useful even if he was just an impact sub.
Tactically, the USA needs to adopt a solid counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 which Klinsmann has been doing anyway. but Bradley and Jones might have to do more shielding of the back 4 (which hasn’t been at its best) against Germany’s playmakers and especially Portugal to deny Cristiano Ronaldo space. Set pieces will also be critical and a main source of danger in these reactive games.
Andy McKenna (AM): I was not surprised by the Landon Donovan not making the 23-man roster, but I was still pretty startled. He’s a huge diva, but he’s still an undying star in the hearts of some supporters. If you look at Klinsmann and Donovan’s relationship, though, this should never have been a surprise. Jürgen was peeved when Donovan took his weird sabbatical and now he gets to have his revenge.
But I think it’s more than that. Klinsmann made his name by radically altering Germany’s philosophy ahead of the 2006 World Cup, and is likely trying to do the same here. Brazil in the Summer will be hot, muggy, and an all around disgusting place to play. This team needs to be able to run and run hard. They’ll miss Donovan’s leadership, but this younger team has a chance to get through the group on sheer energy. I expect to see a pressing 4-2-3-1 that makes life an unexpected hell for Group G.
Arvind Srinivasan (AS): Very few national teams can establish a creative, fluid attack given the limited practice time, and the smarter coaches use that time to establish defensive partnerships and set piece strategies. The exception to this rule tends to be when a large portion of the starting 11 is from the same club, and can take their club tactics and partnerships to the national team (Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile team from 2010). The USA doesn’t have this luxury, and attempts to play more expressive football during the qualification phase, even against weaker teams, met little to no success.
That said, if Klinsmann can drill the Yanks in keeping solid lines (looking at you, Omar Gonzalez), and convince his wingers to stay disciplined and track back, the USA can definitely take points off the giants of the group. This may even call for a 4-4-2, since the USA doesn’t have a traditional trequartista or #10, and would probably be better served conceding possession in the midfield and letting Clint Dempsey play off Jozy Altidore as the second forward.
Karthik Narayanan (KN): The most frustrating thing about this whole controversy surrounding the Landon Donovan situation is the fact that is shifts focus away from legit concerns surrounding the USMNT squad. Instead of discussing the need to establish a better cohesion among the back 4 or get Jozy Altidore going before the World Cup, many are debating about what could be classified as a non-issue in my opinion. Donovan wasn’t even sure if he would return to soccer last year and took a brief hiatus that certainly doesn’t reflect well with any coach. Many don’t realize that even though he’s 32, he’s played professional soccer for almost 15 years. So when the time came to make a decision, Jurgen Klinnsman certainly took these two factors into consideration. While I would’ve liked to see Donovan on the squad, I like that Klinnsman took a bold approach and in favor of developing young talent over playing experienced veterans.
Starting 11 (4-2-3-1):
Back 4: Fabian Johnson, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron
Defensive mids: Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones
Attacking mids: Julian Green, Clint Dempsy, Graham Zusi
Julian Green being in the Starting XI may raise some eyebrows but the talent is there and I’ll take talent over experience especially with the group that the USA is a part of.
Which team do you think will be the most surprising?
PK: Pretty much all of the strongest nations in the world qualified so it’s hard to think of who will genuinely “surprise” us like Uruguay or Ghana did in 2010. Italy could definitely be a big threat in the knockout phase to anyone. The reason they might be surprising is that as a league the Serie A has been discounted as of late (mainly by ESPNFC and, unsurprisingly, the English press.) for lack of international exposure (ie less Champions League success), but they still have top players who can do one-off jobs against the best in the world. It’s not really defensive since this new look Italy plays more on the front foot and constantly tries to probe through narrow channels.
Mario Balotelli, who has been criticized for not taking games seriously, definitely brings his best to the national team, Andrea Pirlo’s free-kicks have been sublime (seriously Youtube some of these), Verratti and de Rossi are versatile midfielders, and Cesare Prandelli (the boss) uses his subs intelligently. They also have the best defense and midfield in Group D so they should qualify. With the evergreen Buffon fit (unlike in the 2010 World Cup) they will definitely improve and will be a very tough side to overcome.
AM: I hesitate to say the USA, even though I am pretty confident Jürgen Klinsmann is a man with a plan. I’m going to go for a real wild card here and say Bosnia-Herzigovina. Not the best side, but not the worst either. This is their first World Cup final ever, and boy are they an emotional team. Striker Vedad Ibešević told ESPN of his goal against Lithuania, which put the Bosnians through to Brazil:
“People from other countries, they don’t understand. To them, it’s just another soccer game and the goal I scored is just a goal. But it’s not just a goal. I think the people who know me and know my family members, they have the same feeling. It’s not just a goal. It’s much more than that. It’s the whole story.”
They’re in a pretty okay group with just Argentina, Iran, and Nigeria to challenge them. The Bosnians probably won’t have the endurance to make it to the finals, but if they get going they are scary. Look for Edin Džeko and Miralem Pjanić to lead an offense that bulldozed teams with 30 goals in only 10 qualifying matches. That’s a good thing, because Asmir Begović will be playing behind an unheralded defense and will need the support.
AS: My picks for surprising and disappointing might seem reversed, but hear me out — I think the surprise of the tournament might be the Netherlands. Though they are perennial contenders, and it seems strange to put the finalists from 2010 here, the media has largely written them off because Chile, has a strong squad, and because the Oranje categorically stunk it up at Euro 2012. Though they’re inexperienced, this crop of young Dutch defenders is significantly better regarded (Jordy Clasie/ Daley Blind, Stefan de Vrij, and most importantly Bruno Martins Indi) than the 2010 group, who didn’t do so shabbily.
More importantly, their most important attackers are fairly fresh. Robin Van Persie and Klaas Jan Huntelaar at striker have been injured for most of the season but are getting healthy at the right time, and they have depth from Eredivisie players who haven’t played 60 game (league + champions league) seasons. Arjen Robben has a much more varied game after a year under Pep Guardiola at Bayern. Another player who I think will make a big step up is Jonathan de Guzmán, the Canadian-born midfielder who has quietly impressed at Swansea. If anything, their positional concern must be defensive midfielder, where they would have expected the injured Kevin Strootman to fill in for the vastly experienced (and now retired) Mark Van Bommel alongside Nigel de Jong. Their problem in 2012 was clashing egos of players that were overconfident following their 2010 success, and Louis Van Gaal, a famously authoritarian hardass, won’t allow any of that this summer. I think they’ll make a deep run in the elimination rounds.
KN: The Ivory Coast will finally make a breakthrough and make it to the Quarterfinals on the big stage in what could be Didier Drogba’s last World Cup. Playing in what is arguably the most wide open group (Greece, Japan, Falcao-less Columbia), there’s a high probability they could win this group and face either Uruguay, England, or Italy which could certainly be a winnable match. Les Elephants have continually disappointed on the world stage but with talent up front in Wilfred Bony, Gervino, and Yaya Toure playing like a top-5 player in the world, look for them to finally put it together at the tail end of what has been a renaissance period in soccer in the Ivory Coast.
Which team do you think will be the most disappointing?
PK: France is a good candidate for this because they have a lot of talented individuals, but just as many divas. They’re better on paper than the teams in their group, but they are susceptible in crucial areas. It doesn’t matter how good Raphael Varane, Laurent Koscielny, or Eliaquim Mangala are at CB, they will need support down the wings and I can’t see their fullbacks giving it. Evra and Sagna started the most games but look the least interested in defending. Their replacements either struggled to hold a first team spot (Clichy, Digne) or underperformed even more (looking at you Mathieu Debuchy).
Going forward, their attackers haven’t gelled as well as they should. Karim Benzema’s poor international scoring record coupled with Franck Ribery’s late season slowdown isn’t a good sign. This makes the decision to leave off the in-form Samir Nasri for Yohan Cabaye (who didn’t play much since his move to PSG) or Moussa Sissoko (who faded at Newcastle) a very risky one. Paul Pogba could be the wildcard that powers them through, but I don’t think he can drag France through single-handedly. I think they finish second in Group E and pay for it by getting outclassed vs. Argentina in the Round of 16.
AM: I think Germany will disappoint this year. They will make it out of the group, perhaps even easily, but I don’t know that they will get any further. They’ve suffered injuries to key players – SvenBender is out and Khedira played poorly in the Champions League Final for Real. They still sport an all-star cast, especially in the midfield, but I don’t think Joachin Löw has put all the pieces together yet. We still have no idea what they’re doing at either fullback position, and 35-year old Miroslav Klose will be the lone striker because Löw couldn’t just be nice to Stefan Kießling.
Right now, they look like a group of individuals when they need to be a team. Who knows, maybe they put it together. But I don’t think they will because Löw has not done the best job keeping his locker room stable (Hummels, Lahm, Keißling). Failure is not an option for Jogi Löw, so when they fail he will be sacked with very German directness and flowers fit for a funeral.
AS: I think Belgium has gone from the “underrated” team in the tournament to the overrated team, not due to a lack of talent, but rather due to circumstance. On paper, they have one of the most exciting squads in the world, but many of the players have had off years. Their back line will most likely be Alderweireld – Kompany – Vermaelen – Vertonghen, but only Kompany came out of the season with any sort of credit. Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli struggled hard at Manchester United and Spurs respectively. Kevin de Bruyne had to wait half a season to get regular playing time (though by the same token, this probably makes him the key player in the Belgian attack), Mirallas and Eden Hazard started to succumb to injury and fatigue towards the end of the season. So the pressure will all fall on Romelu Lukaku, who is 21 and does not have any big tournament experience.
The good news for Belgium is that they have so much young talent that they will probably be poised to challenge for Euro 2016, but I don’t think they will get far in the elims after making it through a relatively easy group in this World Cup.
KN: After making it all the way to the World Cup final last year, the Dutch will not make it out of the group stage and continue to disappoint on the global stage despite fielding some great talent up front in Robin Van Persie, Arjan Robben, and Wesley Sneijder. Their lack of cohesion and communication among their stars was quite apparent in Euro 2012 where they failed to make it out of the group stage. Spain’s cohesion and Chile’s firepower will overwhelm a slightly suspect defense that can only be covered by strong play up front.
Finally, who do you think will win the tournament?
PK: It’s hard to pick against Brazil. True Neymar, Hulk, Paulinho, and David Luiz didn’t have great seasons, but David Luiz has a great partnership with Thiago Silva at the back who is one of the best CBs in the world. They are excellent counter-attackers with Fred playing as a selfless number 9 for Neymar, Oscar, and Hulk (or Willian) capitalizing on his target man play. Marcelo and Dani Alves’s forward runs from fullback are compensated by Gustavo dropping deep with Silva and Luiz. This creates a side that has a lot of balance and it would take a special side (possibly Argentina) with equal balance to beat them in Brazil where they haven’t lost since 1975. I don’t think Brazil will dispatch teams quite as easily as they did in the Confederations Cup, but home-field advantage could see them through the tough moments.
AM: It has to be Brazil, right? Heck, someone will probably die if they can’t win on their home turf. There is no way another team can match that kind of desperation….Or is there?
I think this is the year Argentina win it all. Sabella made the bold move to not include Carlos Tevez, but I think Argentina has their shit together more than any other year. They have finally committed to Messi as their star player, and will surround him with talented players who can complement him. Kün “random umlaut” Aguero and Gonzalo “why no umlaut” Higuaín will form a devastating pair up front, being fed balls by Messi and Ángel di María. I’m actually not all that worried about their defense, either. Garay is a boss in the air and Mascherano can totally go help out the back four. The only worry I have is their goaltender. Sergio Romero, I don’t think, is bad – he’s just been so untested at Monaco this year. Argentina should be careful not to put too much on him, but even if they do I think their quartet up front can bail them out.
This is the year Messi becomes a real legend in Argentina.
AS: They’ve been more or less written off in South America since they embarrassed themselves in the Copa America in 2011, but I’m going to go with Argentina. True, they haven’t played any high pressure games since then, and they have a recent reputation of blowing it despite high expectations, but they’ve also been quietly dominating the friendly circuit since Alejandro Sabella took over and have many of the best players in the world. Sabella has pushed Messi further back to #10 instead of trying to use him as a false 9, as with Barcelona, and along with Sergio Aguero and some combination of Ricky Alvarez, Lavezzi, and Higuain forms the best attacking trio in the world. Meanwhile, Angel Di Maria has raised his game to another level since moving to midfield for Real Madrid (which coincidentally solves one of the major positional problems for Argentina), Javier Mascherano should be well rested and is a big game captain with big game experience, and Pablo Zabaleta, Martin DeMichelis, and Ezequiel Garay are a well-above-average defensive unit.
KN: Argentina will win the World Cup. There is too much talent up front for this team not to win it all. With Messi, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Gonzalo Higuain as forwards, Angel Di Maria (arguable the best attacking mid-fielder in the world after his display in the CL finals), Fernando Gago, and Javier Mascherano, there is enough talent to make up for the lack of a solidified back four. Messi is long overdue for a string of great performances and he knows he must solidify his international resume if he is to be considered the greatest of all-time. A soft group and the potential for an easy round of 16 game (Ecuador or Switzerland) should leave them well rested and ready to achieve winning results in the later stages of the competition.