Lotta goals in the desert – World Cup Daily Diary: Day 8

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Both of these results set up the group to be Group Chaos come Thursday, as all four teams can go through.

Belgium 0 – 2 Morocco

Now here’s a team that doesn’t give a shit. In the latest installment in why Roberto Martinez is a blithering idiot, it appeared that today he sent out his Belgium side to at least attack in a 4-2-3-1, but with Kevin De Bruyne wide on the right of the attack. Which is great if all you want him to do is hit crosses, but he happens to be the best midfielder in the world for a host of other reasons and abilities. It also forces the attack to hinge on Eden Hazard in the middle, who is both cooked and out of shape and practice thanks to not having played regularly in three seasons. De Bruyne is effective when getting three or four runners ahead of him at City. Belgium essentially gave him one, and that’s Michy Batshuayi, which as everyone knows isn’t an answer at all. No wonder Belgium looked so utterly without spark or verve.

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And if Martinez isn’t going to get his formations or tactics right, then his job should be about creating a harmony or energy within the team that carries over that and lets the talent on the team (admittedly old talent) go on display. Belgium slogged through this match with all the spice of a trip to their boss’s son’s bar mitzvah. Morocco didn’t really have to work all that hard to keep the Belgians at bay, nor to look threatening when attacking at pace. All it took was one Tibault Courois fuck-up and it was over.

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Croatia 4 – 1 Canada

Nice stories don’t get results. Neither do analytic stats on their own. Yeah, Canada was better than Belgium in their opening game. Yes, they should have one, but their lack of finish is also their responsibility. They don’t have to worry about either of those things now, because today they did find a way to finish, as Alphonso Davies finally scored their first ever World Cup goal just three minutes in. And then they got their ass thoroughly kicked afterwards. 4-1 tells no lies as the 1-0 against Belgium did. No injustice from the soccer gods here.

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Canada tried something similar to the US did against England, which is defensively setting up in a 4-4-2 to cut off the Croatian midfield from the defense and using their wide players to try and spring attacks against fullbacks that aren’t all that fast. Here’s the problem: The US midfield contains players that are very mobile and very energetic. The Canadian midfield contains Atiba Hutchinson, who is 39 and moves like an ice float (and Canada should consider putting him on one after this match). When any of the Croatian midfield wanted to drop a little deeper to get the ball, he couldn’t follow. Or when they wanted to dribble by him, they did it while facing barely toilet paper level resistance. So even after going behind, Croatia strutted to a 2-1 halftime lead thanks to their midfield’s dominance and ease they could find killer passes. To wit:

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Canada attempted to switch to a 3-5-2 at halftime, but with Hutchinson still out there Modric, Kovacic, and Brozovic still had the run of the place, and Canada was lucky they didn’t rack up more than two goals. So Canada’s World Cup is already over, their plucky underdog story vanquished before we even had time to care. But don’t worry, it didn’t keep their journalists from acting smug:

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He’s not mad guys, really.

Goal of the day

Not the cleanest strike but given how late and how dramatic, has to be Fuller’s goal to give Costa Rica all three points.

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Did VAR fuck anything up?

Dodged that today, and actually the rapidity with which Antonio Rüdiger’s goal for Germany in the first half was ruled out for offside was a demonstration of how the system is supposed to work.

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Did Alexi Lalas say anything stupid?

Ducked that too, As they say, even God rests on Sunday. 

World Cup Daily Diary Day 4 — Germany are who we thought they were

Did VAR fuck anything up? Of course! Canada can feel totally screwed because they should have had a second penalty 10 minutes after their first. Eden Hazard, looking as rusty as someone should who hasn’t played regularly in years, deliberately passes the ball back to Tajon Buchanan in the Belgium box, which makes Buchanan onside. He was then completely cleared out by Jan Vertonghen But because the assistant was flagging for offside, wrongly, the foul was ignored. Janny Sikazwe never went to review nor was he asked to, as it was claimed that Vertonghen got a touch on the ball, which I can’t find with a microscope.

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Sikazwe is the same ref who blew a game final short of the final whistle twice during the AFCON, though it was later revealed he was suffering from heat stroke. But this is what having two sets of eyes is supposed to solve. This was glaring, and it didn’t even get looked at.

Did Qatar fuck anything up? Nothing more than usual, it would seem.

Did Alexi Lalas say anything stupid? Not today, though his clear jealousy of not having a shared handshake that Clint Dempsey and Stu Holden have from their time on the national team together was kind of adorable.

This is what inexperience looks like

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Sargent to Pulisic to Weah and pick that out. It made you wonder what the US could have done had they moved the ball quicker more often, but having it under total control was hardly a bad thing. Sure, they could have played more balls over the top to Weah or tried more quicker interchanges, but leading 1-0 at half without facing a shot on target or even anything close to one, with Gareth Bale merely a rumor, is everything you’d ask for.

But then there’s another 45 minutes.

In a vacuum, wanting to counter when Wales came looking for their equalizer is an excellent plan. But it’s an excellent plan for the last 10-15 minutes, not the whole half. And what the US lacks, which Musah or Adams or Reyna could turn into one day but aren’t now, is that midfielder who decides and forces whatever tempo is necessary. In the second half, the US needed the proverbial guy to “put their foot on the ball” and take the air out as Welsh pressure grew. Someone who forces the rest of the team to play the ball around, be the release valve for the mounting anxiety, and calm things down. Sure, there were openings for counters, but you have to choose them when they’re obvious. The US was in too much of a hurry at times to get on the counter when it wasn’t on offer. Just keep the ball. The US doesn’t have some midfielder sitting at home who could perform this service, unless they can somehow de-age Michael Bradley or Maurice Edu 10 years. This is just what happens when you bring a squad full of children to this tournament.

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That doesn’t mean there weren’t windows, and the US just chose the wrong pass too many times or missed the right one by just enough to not kill the game off. At this level, there isn’t an unlimited supply of good looks on the break that you get. You have to choose correctly between firing a cross across the six-yard box or going for the pullback. You have to connect. It only takes getting one right to end a match like this, but a team has to make that one out of a limited supply.

All that said, the US still had Wales at basically arm’s length. While the Dragons had the ball a lot, they only created two chances off the same corner, with Matt Turner saving brilliantly from Ben Davies and then the ensuing corner being headed over by Kieffer Moore when Turner also decided to go for a roam that seems to be contagious among keepers so far this tournament. That was in the 64th minute. Wales didn’t have another shot…until…

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There’s no reason for Walker Zimmerman to make this challenge. Bale has his back to goal and he’s contained. But this is Zimmerman’s biggest game of his life, on a stage he’s never seen. The chemistry is there to do something rash, and voila. It’s hard to get too angry at him for that, because this is how players learn, but this is the most frustrating time to have to learn a lesson. The US also fell asleep on the throw-in right before this, which is something an inexperienced, tiring team just does.

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Yes, the US should have been more in the face of Wales for the second half. They dropped their lines, and the Welsh midfield had more time to ping balls up to Moore where in the first half every time they took their first touch they had a Yank up their ass. Moore then was able to be a focal point to get Wales up the field and attack. Did the US run out of energy? Young players tend to be rife with nervous energy, which is the most draining. There’s no other reason this team should be out of gas after an hour.

So now what? It feels like this group will come down to how badly either or both of Wales and the US can beat Iran and have a goal-difference-off. It’s hard to see how the US can keep England out when under the cosh for a full 90 minutes, after they let a pretty limited Wales side grow pretty big over just 45 minutes. England will leave more space for counters, but you still have to defend first. England have so many weapons from so many angles.

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It’s hardly over. It’s just going to be a tortuous path. But the USMNT has never known any other way.