In a World Cup with an unusual dearth of talented top-class strikers, the remaining few could prove the vital difference in the top nations’ quest for glory.
The last decade of international football has been dominated by the midfield generation, epitomised by the likes of Spain’s Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez. The writing does seem to be on the wall for Spain after their 5-1 trouncing at the hands of the Netherlands, although it may be churlish and premature to start writing the obituaries of these players after one World Cup game.
The humiliating result could go one of two ways. It could act as a catalyst for a complete turnaround or lead to trend of buses being parked across 18-yard boxes. It is easy to forget that Spain also lost their opening game in the 2010 World Cup against Switzerland and went on to win the tournament, but the defeats look to be worlds apart in manner and impact.
This does not necessarily suggest that the Spain way of playing does not work anymore. But the players who have enjoyed its success for the past five or six years no longer possess the legs or the will to implement it properly. Recent results seem to show this. Both arguments are debatable and the correct answer will surely be revealed in the subsequent matches and postmortems that will follow after the tournament.
The masters of possession football seem to have slipped from their peak. This may represent a shame for the admirers of this style of football, but it may offer an exciting prospect for the rest of the World Cup. It will be fascinating to see if another country can take the place of the reigning World Cup and consecutive European Champions?
There now appears to be two possible paths to glory as a result of Spain’s apparent demise:
A team will either set up defensively, trying to lock out opponents and nick goals from counter attacks or set pieces. Or we may see the resurgence of ‘The Striker’ as a means of powering a team to World Cup glory.
Defences have dominated some of the most recent major tournaments. Greece in Euro 2004 and Italy in the World Cup in 2006 were two sides that won tournaments built on excellent defences. Spain have dominated the most recent major tournaments. It was not a case of Spain setting up in a defensive manner, but a look at their goals concession gives an incredible stat.
In three major tournaments Spain conceded only six goals, and they subsequently went on to lift those three consecutive major trophies. In qualification for Brazil 2014, Greece and Switzerland based their teams on sound defensive qualities, while Spain maintained their impressive defense conceding only three goals. But despite these statistics, the World Cup so far has seen a shift in power.
Attacking football has been the way to go and the stage could be set for the world’s few top class strikers to step up for their respective countries. For a variety of reasons though, some of the worlds best strikers are absent from the World Cup. Sweden failed to qualify depriving Zlatan Ibrahimovic of a place in Brazil while injury struck Colombia’s Radamel Falcao preventing him from showcasing his goal-scoring prowess. Therefore, the World Cup has only a handful of world class front men.
The last team to win the tournament with the aid of sheer firepower up front was Brazil in Japan/South Korea in 2002. Ronaldo, with the help of Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, stayed injury free and showed the world what he could do. He won the Golden Boot and his goals were the main reason behind Brazil’s triumph.He went on to become the all-time top-scorer in World Cup history in 2006 and still leads that list on 15 goals.
The next two tournaments were won based on the strength of a squad in the form of Italy in Germany 2006. Striker Luca Toni and defender Marco Materazzi were the Azzurri joint top-scorers with a grand total of two goals. Defender and captain Fabio Cannavaro was named Player of the Tournament, such was the Italians defensive quality. Although Spain had sufficient attacking talent up front, their World Cup win in South Africa in 2010 was built on their midfield’s dominant possession and concession of two goals in the whole tournament.
Pre-tournament, doubts were being cast over the likes of Germany due to their lack of options in the striker department. They undoubtedly have a lot of talent on show, but they only have one out-and-out striker in their squad in the form of Miroslav Klose, who has scored 69 international goals in 132 games. The veteran forward isn’t a classic number nine; he tends to come looking for the ball deep and tries to be involved in the build up as well as the midfield. With the likes of Mario Goetze and hat-trick hero Thomas Mueller, Joachim Low could have the movement in midfield to take up Spain’s mantle, playing either of the two in the newly famous false nine position.
Brazil’s hopes are pinned on wonder-kid Neymar (33 goals in 51 appearances for his country); and although the young Brazilian has a good record for his national side, it remains to be seen if the likes of Hulk and Fred can give him enough of a platform on which to perform. The result against Mexico would suggest that they may not have the capacity to do so.
Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo (49 goals in 112 international appearances), but the Real Madrid star is prone to attempting to do everything himself, leading to frustration among fans and team-mates. Can the likes of Helder Postiga hold up at this level?
France’s clear star up front is Karim Benzema but Didier Deschamps has been known to play the forward on the wing to accommodate a wider range of attacking options up front. Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud made a decent impact in the Premier League this season, but he was nothing spectacular and and Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery has succumbed to injury. Benzema’s full potential is surely in the number nine role and he proved this against Honduras, scoring twice and creating the chance for the own goal.
Italy will always be dangerous opponents. Mario Balotelli performed very well in their opening game against England. Recent Borussia Dortmund signing Ciro Immobile shone in pre-tournament friendlies and they now look quite dangerous offensively. Their goals could help the Azzurri to make an impression on this World Cup.
Belgium have good attacking talents such as Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard. Uruguay have Edinson Cavani who started the tournament poorly, but the return of talisman Luis Suarez should aid their situation. England posses the in-form Daniel Sturridge and the much spoken about Wayne Rooney. All of these attacking players could prove decisive, and will influence their teams ability to have a chance of winning the tournament outright.
While question marks may remain about their defensive side, Argentina and the Netherlands are looking better as the weaknesses of other teams get exposed. While the addition of a striker in Diego Costa seemed to hinder Spain’s ability to an extent in the opening fixture, the Netherlands have their record goalscorer Robin Van Persie at his peak and with the right attitude he can be a match winner. Allied with Arjen Robben and supplemented by Wesley Sneijder, Louis Van Gaal’s side could prove a very difficult one to beat in this World Cup.
Argentina boast a mouth-watering line-up in attack; Lionel Messi (40 goals in 87 appearances for Argentina), Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain are a top three that would strike fear into any defence before even mentioning the likes of Angel Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi. The question mark remains if the Netherlands’ relatively young team can cope with the pressures of the very top level and whether or not Argentina can marry their outstanding attacking options on paper with their defence and midfield options.
Of course, there is still scope for midfield domination; bursting runs, passes and goals from that area of the pitch will always be part and parcel of the game. The likes of Mario Goetze, Mesut Ozil, Yaya Toure and Arturo Vidal will surely delight viewers worldwide as will the emergence of new stars to surprise and astound. But the tournament is nicely poised for the big names in attack to step forward. There is so much more action to come, but with memories of Ronaldo in 2002 in mind, Brazil represents the strikers time to shine.
John O’Connor, Pundit Arena