FRIDAY’S BIG STORIES
Another One Bites The Dust
Do we judge a football manager on how they want their team to play, or on how it actually plays? We ask because we were pretty sure that Luis Enrique had grand plans to make Spain into something exciting, thrilling, and most importantly sharp-edged. “Our idea is never going to change. We will attack, want the ball, play in their half, defend near halfway, press high, take lots of risks. If we have the bravery to stay faithful to that idea, I will consider that we have done our best.”
It was fascinating to watch Spain in this tournament. Rampant against Costa Rica, relaxed against Germany – an equaliser? fine, whatever – and then utterly spooked, from the moment Japan roused themselves into something like a comeback. Forgive the analogy, but we can’t really think of another way of putting it: they looked constipated with fear.
It’s possible, of course, that we all got a little carried away after that 7-0. That Costa Rica were unusually vulnerable to Spain in a way that others were not. But as the games got tighter, the callow nature of the squad came into sharper relief. Having the next Xavi and Iniesta is all well and good, but Spain needed an Iker Casillas, a Carles Puyol and a David Villa to win in 2010. Also extra-time, and a good number of 1-0 wins.
Or it’s possible, of course, that we’re getting a little carried away now. Three missed penalties might be an indictment of an entire regime, or they might be well, just three missed penalties. Two days before the shootout, Enrique revealed that his squad had been told to take “1,000 penalties”, in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the shootout defeat to Italy in 2021. Is there something to be said for 2,000, perhaps?
One of the oddities of a defeat on penalties is that the immediate cause of elimination is obvious, and yet so clearly not enough. Three fairly reliable penalty-takers missing three penalties might just be a strange statistical hiccup, but it invites deeper readings. It begs you to look into the souls of these players and find them trembling. It invites you to look back at the game and demand that this position should never have been reached.
It’s like Al Capone getting done for tax evasion. You’re not going to argue with the verdict, but you have to imagine that there are one or two other sins lurking in the background.
The promotion of Luis de la Fuente – who has coached his way up through the national age groups – suggests that Spain will continue with this youthful project. As for Enrique, he will now head off to his family and his Twitch account, ready to be linked with every Champions League club in a poor moment from now until forever. Spain’s loss is the rumour mill’s gain.
Alvaro Morata of Spain during the World Cup match between Morocco v Spain at the Education City Stadium on December 6, 2022 in Al Rayyan Qatar
Image credit: Getty Images
Cast your mind back a year or so, and you’ll find Marcus Rashford deep in the funkiest of funks. The tail end of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign was a bleak time, and things didn’t pick up much when Ralf Rangnick came in. His body was tired, his mind was all pretzeled up on itself, and worst of all he was out of the England squad.
Not to rain on his parade, but there are a couple of reasons we can think of. First, Manchester United have an option to extend his contract by a season, one that even elite football’s strangest boardroom can’t fail to pass up. And that, then, gives United a whole extra year to get a new contract in front of him. Not even elite football’s strangest boardroom.
Of course, if Rashford decides he wants a new adventure, then more power to him and his agents. There are United fans out there who will tell you that United should move him on, and who knows, they may be right. But either way, his improvement over the last few months stands as an object lesson in the importance of management as something more than just coaching. Get the head right, and the heart and feet will follow.
And that’s why the player that barely seemed to be able to kick a ball last year is now taking, and scoring, laser-guided free-kicks. That’s why he’s gone from an outside bet for the squad to the chosen game-breaking substitute. And that’s why, if England do find themselves in a penalty shoot-out, Southgate won’t even have to ask.
Hype Hype Hype
Not all World Cup games are created equal. Some games are more World Cup than others. Brazil v Croatia, for example, is only moderately World Cup: it throws together two typically strong nations from different continents, and the contrast between the two kits is delightful, but for obvious reasons there isn’t much of a history between the two sides. Plus this Croatia side are very, very tired.
But the Netherlands against Argentina. Now. That’s a game that resonates.
A clash of continents? Check. One bright colour against a striking pattern? Checkity check. And a little bit of history— woah, woah, that’s too much history.
It’s hard to watch the highlights of the 1978 final with a truly glad heart, given the service that the tournament performed for Argentina’s military junta. But it would be a shame, too, if the misery of the context were allowed to wholly override the wonder of Mario Kempes. Look at the first goal here. It’s not that he finds a gap – it’s that there isn’t a gap. Not really. The covering defender is there, and somehow that still isn’t enough.
Or then there was 1998. You’ll be seeing and hearing this on the television later, of course, but you can’t ever see or hear it enough. Jack van Gelder watching Dennis Bergkamp and completely losing the run of himself. There’s always something new: until we re-watched it just now, we’d never noticed that Van Gelder slips a little “Inter Milan” into the “Dennis Bergkamp, Dennis Bergkamp, Dennis Bergkamp.” Outstanding professionalism, at a moment of such high excitement.
And then there was the first goal in that game, a gorgeous thing that you’ve almost certainly forgotten. And Javier Mascherano’s tackle in 2014. This is the stage of the World Cup when the stakes really start to swim into focus, and the weight of all that history comes to bear on the shoulders of those currently wearing the shirts. This has happened before, and all being well it will happen again. Orange v blue-and-white in the sunshine, and the loser goes home. What more could anybody want?
To be fair, the last time Brazil and Croatia met at the World Cup it was a pretty decent game. It was the first game of the 2014 World Cup, it was played in Sao Paulo – and Croatia only went and took the lead. A gentle tap from a baffled Marcelo into his own net. It didn’t matter too much in the end, however. Neymar got his team level, Fred won the softest, squidgiest of home-team penalties, and then Oscar added the gloss to the win. Brazil were on their way to their destined sixth trophy, and anybody that thought they looked a bit messy at the back was simply not worth listening to.
Only three players have survived from the 2014 disaster through to the 2022 squad: Neymar up front, and Thiago Silva and Dani Alves at the back. The rest of Brazil’s envied forward options were teenagers when Germany humiliated the hosts in Belo Horizonte; Gabriel Martinelli had only just turned 13. They really did tear it all down and start again.
“Football’s finished and now whatever this is has emerged, I don’t dare name it. The purpose of the game has been subverted — now they’re looking more for consumers than fans, the industry needs TV money. But, even so, I’ve seen every game at this World Cup, I always do.”
Extremely relatable. And then he goes on to degrade his whole profession. “The best players come together for international football and, thank God, they’re not trapped by the omnipotence of the manager because there’s no time to coach. It’s wonderful, the fact that managers can’t change the game as much at a World Cup for the ones who really matter — the players. It really is wonderful because we, the managers, have too much influence. It’s unbearable. We have our own ideas and we say that we espouse them to help people to understand the game. Bulls***! It should be for the players to understand the game as they understand it.”
He then goes on to lament the globalised homogeneity of football, take his younger self to task for this obsession with two-touch football, mock the obsession with fancy technical terms, lament the fact that James Maddison hasn’t got on the pitch, and compare footballers to mushrooms.
A couple of massive games today. Huge. Era defining, even. That’s right, it’s Wolves v Empoli and then Spurs v Motherwell. And if you can stomach any more football after that, we’ve got Croatia v Brazil and then the Netherlands v Argentina.
Enjoy! We’ll be back tomorrow.
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