Wednesday, June 30, 2010
There is fun, there is great fun, and then there is watching Portugal get knocked out of the World Cup while Cristiano Ronaldo is punished for years of diving by being deprived of legitimate fouls. Simply glorious.
What was most interesting about this match to me was the fact that Vicente del Bosque decided it by taking off Fernando Torres. Torres had a terrific shot on goal in the first minute, but then produced the sort of rusty performance that has marked his World Cup so far. Del Bosque put Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente onto the pitch. Within minutes, Llorente had a great chance saved by the keeper, Villa had shot just wide, and then Villa scored a quintessentially Spanish goal after a series of short passes from the tika taka experts: Iniesta and Xavi.
The match was not unlike Spain’s win over Russia at Euro ’08. There, Spain struggled to break down Russia for a half. Villa picked up an injury, which forced Spain to change its shape. The new shape, with Cesc Fabregas in the middle and space for the full backs out wide, was devastating and Spain won 3-0. Yesterday, Spain didn’t change its shape, but bringing on Llorente gave Spain a traditional target man, which presented Portugal with a new threat. Portugal, like Russia, is coached by a tactical expert who most likely set his team up with a very specific plan to handle a Torres-Villa attack. When that attack changed to Villa-Llorente, Portugal was taken out of their plan. Spain are often criticized for having only one way to play, but yesterday’s game showed that La Furia Roja have terrific depth and can bring all manner of options off the bench. Del Bosque has a number of appealing tactical options as games progress; the question is whether he will continue to be willing to make significant changes.
The match yesterday also highlighted a theme from this World Cup: the underperformance of English Premier League stars. Torres is no different than Robin Van Persie, Didier Drogba, and Wayne Rooney, the strikers for the other members of the EPL’s Big Four. All four have been banged up and unproductive at this tournament. In fact, it’s hard to find a contender that is relying on an EPL star. (Argentina with the indestructible Tevez? Holland with Kujt, de Jong, and Heitinga?) I think that there are several factors at work here. First, the EPL is the only major league without a winter break. Second, the EPL has two domestic knock-out competitions instead of one. Third, and I think most importantly, the style of the EPL is fast, physical, and direct, aided by refs who let defenders get stuck in a little much. (Ask any Arsenal fan.) The style that makes the EPL the world’s most popular league takes its toll on its participants. Not only do EPL players end up playing more games, but the games that they play are more taxing. It is said that the passion that English fans have for football creates undue pressure on England’s players. More indirectly, the intense interest for football in England causes its clubs to over-schedule games, which means that the players are knackered by the summer.