The World Cup heads to some mouth-watering clashes in the business end, with the looming quarter-finals being the next stop. This had been a tournament of surprises, and after the goalfest that was the group stages which fetched goals at a whopping rate of 2.85 per game, the first knockout round has been somewhat more subdued with goals being scored at a rate of 2.25 per game. Specifics and statistics apart, there were quite a few intriguing tactical things of note in those eight Round of 16 matches, as we touch down on them one by one.
1. Flawed defences:
The defences in this World Cup wouldn’t have made the likes of former winners Spain and Italy proud, a facet that seemingly looks more damning if you factor in the fact that the amount of goals scored so far in the tournament has already surpassed the final tallies of the previous two World Cups.
Germany have found it difficult to incorporate two center-backs into the full-back positions with captain Philipp Lahm moving into a more advanced holding midfield role. Benedikt Howedes and Jerome Boateng were the preferred full-backs heading up to the knockout rounds, but Mats Hummels’ injury meant that the previously untested Shkodran Mustafi slotted into the right-back role against Algeria. It was an uncomfortable night for Mustafi as he failed to find the right balance between defense and attack, and ultimately succumbed to a hamstring injury.
Algeria, mostly attacked through their wingers, Faouzi Ghoulam from the left and Sofiane Feghouli from the right, and troubled Germany all night long attacking behind the German full-back s with aggressive high pressing and troubling the lumbering Per Mertesacker all night long. The fact that Manuel Neuer came out of his box so many times puts the flawed German defence to context. And this becomes more conclusive when you consider the fact that Ghoulam is only a left back.
Netherlands, too, were shaky for most parts against Mexico. If not for the heat and the fortunate late breaks, the Dutch could’ve been home by now. Dirk Kuyt was stationed as a left wing-back, while Paul Verhaegh made his World Cup debut as a right wing-back. Both looked suspect on paper, and were no more than passengers until coach Van Gaal rang the changes and went for a flat back four, and shifted Kuyt to the right after seeing his team go 1-0 down. Van Gaal’s interesting tactical switch saw Kuyt and Georginio Wijnaldum interchanging, with Kuyt getting more advanced as the game progressed. It was a defensive gamble against an unpredictable Mexico side, but once, which nearly turned to be a busted mission.
2. Belgium’s too many cooks
Belgium produced arguably their best performance of the World Cup against USA but there was a feel of Marc Wilmots’ side mixing it all in a bid to win. Belgium’s plan at the tournament’s start was to play around teams and use the trickery and incisiveness of the wingers to break teams down, and also Romelu Lukaku’s good form helped matters. The alternate plan was to use the aerial prowess of Marouane Fellaini and the raw pace of Kevin Mirallas to take advantage of weary opponents late into games. But after the initial shock of going a goal down to unfancied Algeria in the very first match, things have rarely remained as they were expected to.
Belgium started with their vital cogs against the USA, and failed to score past an inspired Tim Howard in the USA goal. At times they were caught in two minds; whether to play through the grass or to take a more direct, aerial approach. The number of crosses attempted (42) alone is evident of Belgium’s lack of a clear idea of how to go about scoring the goals. Jan Vertonghen was one of Belgium’s chief attacking threats on the night; the full-back was all over the Belgian attacking third, but he was, one more occasions than one, caught between whether to pass to Kevin de Bruyne and Hazard or to try crossing into the heads of Fellaini and Origi.
3. Sweeper goalkeeper
One of the more fascinating tactical aspects emerging out of the Round of 16 games was the sweeping goalkeeping of Germany’s Manuel Neuer. As stated above, Germany were found out against the aggressive Algerians and their running behind the last line of defence caused Germany more troubles on the night. But Neuer was always on hand to play as another defender, so high was his overall positioning on the pitch. His most notable contributions were not in front of his goal; they were outside the German box where he thwarted Algeria’s pacey forwards who found ways to take advantage of the lack of pace of Per Mertesacker.