Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Underdogs refuse to submit, a pitch that makes Fir Park look like a bowling green and the return of the 4-4-2

I remember watching the first round of fixtures at last year’s World Cup and wondering why I had wasted money on backing a first goalscorer or the amount of goals, when clearly the smart money was on the first half finishing 0-0.  Fast forward a year and I am left wondering why I decided against betting altogether and haven’t instead cashed in on this revelation from the last international tournament I found myself engrossed in.  

The matches last night, contested by Uruguay, Peru, Chile and Mexico, both had first half goals, however, the previous four matches were all goalless going into the break.

It has been well documented that managers at international level tend to focus on more on organisation and the like, as opposed to more enterprising or experimental strategies, due to the little time afforded with the squad together.  And who can blame lesser sides from sitting ten men behind the ball in the knowledge that they have no chance of defeating the likes of Brazil or Argentina at their own game?

Results thus far prove that it is logical strategy to implement.  Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru have held the three tournament favourites to draws, whereas Ecuador secured a respectable point against World Cup quarter-finalists Paraguay, and the under-23 sides of Costa Rica and Mexico only narrowly lost out to their respective opponents.

Part of the reason for the sluggish start of the big guns may very well be down to the state of some of the pitches, which have been pretty embarrassing for the organisers despite it being the middle of winter.  The bobbly surface at the Estadio Ciudad de La Plata no doubt contributed to the poor first touch of many of the Brazilians on Sunday night, and the patches of mud at the same arena in the opening match between Bolivia and Argentina has surely left the Motherwell groundsman thinking he is doing a stellar job.

Argentina and Brazil were nowhere near their best over the last few days but both dominated possession and found themselves frustrated for the most part by the dreaded two-banks-of-four-parked-in-front-of-the-goalkeeper formation.  Yes that’s right, the minnows of the South American continent are intent on bringing the supposedly dated formation back to the top level, by means of frustrating the hell out of the top sides with it.  No less than a third of the sides – Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Paraguay – employed a variant of 4-4-2 and only conceded one goal between them.

Of those teams avoiding the innately-gung-ho (according to most UK pundits anyway) 4-4-2, the most interesting feature was perhaps the amount of defensive midfielders deployed.  Argentina started with a midfield three of Javier Mascherano – although he played as deep as a centre-back at times – Ever Banega and Esteban Cambiasso, before withdrawing the latter in favour of Angel di Maria and moving to a 4-2-3-1.  It could still even be argued whether the ‘2’ was necessary here given that the Argentine full-backs failed to provide much attacking impetus.

Brazil began the tournament with Ramires in more of a holding role, as opposed to his more familiar shuttling role, alongside Lucas Leiva.  It wasn’t so much the positioning of the Chelsea midfielder as his tendency to sit deep.  He did burst forward on occasions but was notable more for his breaking up of Venezuela’s increasingly frequent forays into the Brazilian half.  Perhaps Elano, who was used as a tucked-in right-sided midfielder at the last World Cup, albeit in a different formation, would have been a better option.

As well as this, Uruguay decided that two holders were required to face up to an injury-stricken Peru and Chile manager Claudio Borghi sent out Arturo Vidal as a defensive midfielder alongside Gary Medel, ignoring the fact that he has scored fourteen goals from a more advanced position for Leverkusen in the Bundesliga over the past season.  Despite scoring the winning goal, Vidal looked sluggish and almost uninterested in a more defensive role, surrendering possession cheaply on a few occasions.

Both Borghi and Argentina manager Sergio Batista saw their sides improve after withdrawing one of their defensive midfielders in favour of someone more attacking – Chile dropped Alexi Sanchez from attack into midfield where he had much more of an influence and moved Vidal to the left leaving only Medel holding.  Even though Chile’s goals came from set-pieces, they looked more dangerous and could have added more towards the end of the match.

Tim Vickery has argued that the climate, the state of the pitches and the quality possessed by some of the lesser sides mean that we are in for a “tight and dramatic” tournament.  Added to this that a remarkable eight of the twelve sides currently competing will make the next round and you get the feeling that ‘all to play for’ will be the most-used cliché by Craig Burley over the next week.

The upshot is of course that there will be very few, if not zero, dead rubbers going into the final round of group fixtures.  And it may just work to the advantage of the superior sides.  An opening day disaster fails to pile on as much pressure as it would in a World Cup and it means that there is scope for tinkering with tactics or else persisting in the hope that the players peak and everything clicks into place at the right time.

An unspectacular start in the group stages can sometimes be followed by blistering and, therefore, tournament winning form in the knockout phase.  Perhaps now is the time for sides like Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay to sort out their inadequacies in time for when it really matters.

Or maybe they just need to wait until the final nail is put into the coffin of the dreaded 4-4-2.

*For more tactical analysis of the Copa America please check out Zonal Marking and Holding Midfield, and for a daily podcast check out this effort at the website of the Independent.

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