Leading through technique
Watching Germany as a neutral used to be perceived as an exercise for the masochist. Even if they weren’t as dull as typecast, they’d invariably provide some threat – however implicit – to the English national team’s future health. This time, though, it feels a little wrong to see the rolled eyes and “typical Germans” remarks that follow a result and performance of supreme efficiency. Germany are fun; they’ve injected some vigour and a little genuine star quality into the World Cup at the close of a weekend that was, at times, reasonably hard going.
I’m not sure that we’ve learned too much from the opening three days, except that Peter Drury has an excellent command of Swahili and harnessed it to superb effect in reaching a new commentating nadir after Siphiwe Tshabalala’s cinematic Soccer City moment. To my mind, almost every team so far – and we’ve seen half – has performed pretty much as expected.
So what’s been confirmed? Mexico entertained but lack a convincing central attacker; South Africa are the most expressive of their continent’s sides but need to find a consistent rhythm – which they may find hard in what should be two tight approaching games. Uruguay seem to disprove the adage that you’re as good as your strikers (who don’t look like a partnership, sadly); France are joyless and straining to seem interested. Greece will never be able to chase a game; South Korea attack interestingly and neatly but reservations remain about their defence. Argentina played nicer stuff than might have been expected and created encouragingly, but need better efficiency at both ends to beat the top sides; Nigeria struggle for ball retention and genuine creativity but have a better chance of progression than I predicted.
England need better options in four positions (GK, CB, LM, CF/SS) and Ledley King should not have been taken to South Africa, but they showed a reasonable goal threat; USA themselves would be quarter-final material with a striker. Slovenia and Algeria were playing for high stakes and were paralysed, showing decent enough organisational qualities and nothing whatsoever in attack. Serbia were the weekend’s bad surprise, seemingly reverting to type of four years ago for no apparent reason and passing very poorly when they actually tried to; Ghana always get forward in numbers and were rewarded accordingly with a giant and deserved step towards qualification for the second round.
Back, quickly, to Germany. A hugely attractive feature of their team is that Schweinsteiger and Khedira, the two deeper central midfielders, can both look after the ball exceptionally and are more than comfortable combining with the attackers. Each can travel tirelessly between the two boxes. We might wonder how those two will do if and when they face a team that matches them for possession, but their qualities are pretty unique in a tournament where players in these positions lack much playmaking ability. They’re the heartbeat of the side but the star turn is the wonderful Ozil, the timing and intelligence of whose runs was enough to make you gasp at times. He can certainly count himself fortunate that, playing behind the front man, he has team-mates yet further back who have the technique and intelligence to read those darts of his – as I say, dovetailing of this type will be rare in this World Cup. There is no slower team in this competition than Australia, and they were set up lamentably by Pim Verbeek, but the ease with which Germany clicked into gear will have raised antennae pretty much everywhere.
Perhaps short, quick passes and interplays along the ground will be rewarded more than ever in South Africa. The brow-furrowing over the Jabulani ball may seem like nothing new, but to my eyes there’s something in it. Mexico frequently switch the play to their raiding full-backs using long-ish diagonal passes, but on Friday the ball skipped up and away on several occasions – bouncing surprisingly high and picking up considerable speed, either going out of play or being very hard to control. The same was noticeable for Serbia, not that their showing merited too much sympathy. And even though Chaouchi was to blame overall for Robert Koren’s goal, take another look at the bounce from an angle in front of the goal. Add to this the number of overhit crosses, and you suspect that – allowing for the fact that chaos theory football will sometimes pay off – accurate, measured, quick, short passing could be particularly privileged ahead of styles more speculative (to clarify, Mexico more than fall into the former category but this comment about the effect on one facet of their play does ring true). Even if it’s something of a default measure to the advantage of flowing football, we should all take it.
The first round of group games seems to get cagier by the tournament – largely, I think, because there’s so little to choose between most of the sides on view and they all know it. A greater number of goals will follow as sides have to risk more, of course. But so far, we’ve at least seen encouraging signs that those who do set out on the front foot are rewarded. With the Netherlands, Chile and Spain all to come over the next couple of days, some of the relative drudgery we were put through in the past 48 hours or so should prove worth it. The Germans have shown World Cup 2010 the way – and, with the oldest player in their excellent midfield being just 25, perhaps we’d better get used to that.