In every one of those countries that have just lost in the World Cup quarter-finals (apart from Ukraine), the mother of all blame games is on. These postmortems are particularly emotional because even though everyone agrees that there are no easy games at that stage of the World Cup, these countries were supposedly the favourites to win against their now victorious opponents. But while in each case there are seemingly more fundamental factors responsible for their exits, I believe the immediate cause of the losses is the Ranieri disease that inexplicably strikes managers at some point on the big stage.
When Argentina and Germany walked out in front of the 72,000 capacity crowd at Berlin’s Olympiastadion, not a few quizzical looks would have greeted Pekerman’s decision to start Gonzalez ahead of Cambiaso in midfield and Tevez ahead of Saviola in attack. Of course, the Argentine side is so talent-studded that these unforced changes needed not to make much difference, but this is the World Cup. Here momentum, performance, togetherness and the idea of keeping faith with a winning squad are crucial factors in determining who wins at the latter stages of the competition when all weak teams have been eliminated.
After the game against Serbia and Montenegro not a few would have wondered why Pekerman continued to insist on playing Gonzalez ahead of Cambiaso. The former had started that game ahead of the latter, but he was soon substituted after only 16 minutes due to injury. Cambiaso, whom most had expected to start the game as he did against Ivory Coast then came on and scored the most beautiful goal of the tournament (after 24 passes) in a performance that has been largely acclaimed as the best so far in the competition. Though Saviola was substituted before the hour mark, it was more to save him, because up to that point, he pulled all the strings and set up two of the three goals already scored in what was to be a six-nil demolition of the opposition.
The Argentina team that was on the pitch after Gonzalez left, after two games in the group stages, was deservedly heralded as the best in the competition. By the time they were going to play Holland next, a win wasn’t necessary, so playing the second string was understandable. However, Pekerman dutifully reverted back to the same side (apart from the forced change of bringing in Scaloni in place of the injured Burdisso). In fact, in that same game against Germany, Pekerman was to replace Scaloni, who had a surprisingly peerless performance against Mexico with Coloccini. Though, I didn’t think that particular change had any negative impact on its own, but taken together, too many changes to a winning team dilutes it negatively, no matter how good the new replacements.
Also, in terms of tactics and mobility, Gonzalez inclusion ahead of Cambiaso was indeed a hindrance of sorts to Mascherano. Gonzalez tries to do what he does, but less effectively and sometimes actually gets in his way. Gonzalez is not a very confident passer of the ball; strong, no doubt, but clearly lacks ability to boss such a vibrant midfield. Even in Porto, he’s hardly first choice. On the other hand, Cambiaso is a well-experienced campaigner and a mainstay of the Inter Milan team. He’s a very intelligent reader of the game, a quiet but effective operator whose slight build belies his great strength and hard-tackling ability. Cambiaso’s control and vision create spaces for the more attack-minded players to run into and do their thing. Anyone can see that when he plays, he liberates the attackers and gives more confidence to the young Mascerano.
But Pekerman’s worst tinkering actually came during the game. While it was obvious that the game needed Cambiaso, he waited until the 72nd minute to introduce him, and when he did, instead of recalling the largely ineffective and clearly struggling Gonzalez, he took out Riquelme! By doing this, he knocked out one of three pillars in the Argentine team. Six minutes later, Pekerman struck another pillar in attack by substituting Crespo with Cruz. Two minutes after that, the Germans took advantage and equalized. Not unexpectedly, a few minutes earlier, the Germans had brought on Borowski for Schweinsteiger, which is what the Germans have always done at that stage in their games (except in the first game against Costa Rica when he started in place of the injured Ballack and the last group game where he came in for Frings when they actually didn’t need the points). It was clear by the hour mark that Ballack needed support in his attempt to launch a German offensive from the edge of midfield. Borowski’s strength is his versatility. He can play the holding midfielder’s role or playmaker and he can join the attack effectively or defend as effectively as well. He’s more direct and uses his height and his menace value very well in the opponents’ area. It was no surprise that he was the one that made the all-important equalizer for Klose with his flick-on header.
Generally, as the game went on, especially after those ill-advised substitutions, Argentina became more negative. Pekerman thought he could defend a one-nil lead with an essentially collapsed midfield. Yeah, Cambiaso is a versatile player, but one role he can’t play is that of Riquelme. The latter’s class and passing ability required that the Germans put more than one player on him and as far as he was on the pitch, they were very uncomfortable. They couldn’t commit many men forward so as not to be caught by a through pass or a sucker punch of the sort he was well capable of producing. Once he was substituted, the Germans breathed a huge sigh of relief and just when they thought they couldn’t be luckier, Pekerman removed his best striker, Crespo and replaced him with his worst, Cruz. Of course, the Germans did what they couldn’t do in the first 79 minutes – they surged forward and scored the equalizer. They wanted the penalty shoot-out more than the Argentines, because they knew Lehmann’s class will give them the edge against the substitute Argentine goalkeeper, Franco. It was no surprise that Pekerman took responsibility for the loss and made the decision to resign immediately.
Carlos Alberto Perreira also suffered from the Tinkerman’s disease when for such an important game against a resurgent, politically-riled and highly-motivated French side he opted to replace the powerful forward, Adriano with Juninho, a substitute midfielder. The result of this was that the obviously weak links in the French defence, such as Barthez and Thuram weren’t put under enough pressure as the clearly unfit Ronaldo was left on his own upfront. Perhaps, Perreira chose Juninho because he thought someone with good knowledge of French football needed to be on the pitch, but then only three of the starting outfield players on the French side actually ply their trade in France. The practical effect however was that Juninho’s inclusion only served to hinder Kaka and Ronaldinho, as all three got in each other’s way in their attempt to control the midfield. Zidane, Ribery and Vieira sensed this early and thus decided to take them on. What resulted thereafter was the unimaginable – France teaching Brazil the creative arts of the Beautiful game with Prof Zidane in full flow! Once Henry scored with that brilliant volley from Zidane’s cross, it was clear that the game was as good as over, especially with the continued French domination. Though Adriano came in six minutes after the goal and made Brazil more threatening, the French didn’t look like losing after then. Like their game against Spain, the goal further liberated their creative players and kept Brazil on the back foot till the end.
As for England, Eriksson’s tinkering disease had already infected him well before they boarded the plane to Germany. His players’ list had more players he didn’t need and less of those he actually needed for the task. An unfit Owen, an injured Rooney and a never-intended-to-be-used neophyte, Walcott were part of a slim strike force of four! Owen struggled until the game against Sweden when predictable injury put an end to his World Cup hopes only 4 minutes into the game. Eriksson and his team placed undue pressure on Rooney who was evidently rushed back from severe injury; but, even in playing him, no consideration was given to the fact that he was relatively unfit and could not play the lone striker role without real support from midfield. While not condoning his act of stamping on an opponent’s groin, I think Eriksson and his team must take responsibility for his frustration. Of course, an extended view of that conduct will have one conclude that Eriksson had since showed that he couldn’t control the boy and had indeed, like Sir Alex, always raised all sorts of ridiculous excuses on his behalf in the past when he misbehaved; but in this particular World Cup affair, his conduct was directly as a result of misuse of his talent.
But Eriksson’s real gaffe was in tinkering with the team that beat Ecuador. Though, the win against the South Americans was unspectacular, England had a more solid performance than the first three games. They rarely looked troubled (apart from Terry’s mistimed header that had Carlos Tenorio sniffing and Ashley Cole thwarting him). The team had better shape, better movement, better organization and this was due principally to Carrick playing the holding midfield role diligently. He passed the ball very well and made Ecuador do the chasing. The only problem was that the other players weren’t adapting very well to the formation (4-1-4-1 or 4-5-1, depending on your interpretation). Gerrard and Lampard especially were not going forward enough to give Rooney the much-needed support. They were mentally locked in a 4-4-2 mode where they need to take the ball forward when what was required was that they themselves get forward to receive the ball and try to put Rooney through or take opportunities themselves where possible. The result was that no genuine attack could be built or sustained. What was therefore required was for the coaching staff to explain to Gerrard and Lampard what was needed of them, rather than dropping Carrick and replacing him with Hargreaves. Carrick may not have the reputation or presence of a Makelele or a Xabi Alonso, but he’s a natural for the role of a holding midfielder. This he showed during the US tour with the national team where he was easily England’s best player. He’s also showed this consistently with Spurs, where last season he was arguably their best player and one of the main reasons they almost made the Champions League for the first time in their history. The guy has consistently been good. What he needed was the confidence of the coaching staff, and that confidence can only be expressed by trusting him with that role and by encouraging him to make the role his own. Only then would his teammates and the potential major beneficiaries of his work, Lampard and Gerrard begin to trust him. Playing him against an uninventive and toothless Portugal could possibly have won it for England. Indeed, it could have gone a long way to make them a better team and one prepared to go all the way.
Of course, I’m aware that FIFA chose Hargreaves as man of the match in that game, but I do not think that was because he performed the role of holding midfielder brilliantly. Rather, I think he was chosen because he showed a lot of drive and determination all over the pitch in a vain attempt to take the game to the wily Portuguese. In typical bulldog fashion, he was all over the place, running from the front to the back, tackling anything moving, doggedly dashing into the Portuguese area, but each time thwarted by well-timed tackles by the Portuguese defenders and so on. Yeah, clearly, he covered every blade of grass on the day and attempted several things at once, but that exactly is the reason he isn’t fit for the role of holding midfielder. He’s a great utility player and I have no problem with him being included on the side, but it’s a travesty for him to keep Carrick on the bench. The role of the holding midfielder is a selfless, quietly efficient and visionary endeavour. It’s about breaking up opposition play in the middle of the park, reading the game and anticipating movements and intents, holding the ball perfectly, making simple passes and releasing teammates going forward when you spot openings. A holding midfielder is an initiator, not a mere reactor. Indeed, he’s the man to initiate attack from the back to lure opponents out of position. Hargreaves was good at reacting, but he initiated very little. He defended well, tackled well, but couldn’t provide the necessary passes to Rooney, Gerrard, Joe Cole or Lampard.
The last straw on the day was not Rooney’s sending off, but Eriksson’s response to that sending off. It’s easy to associate the passion showed by England after that with typical British resilience and heroism when pushed against the wall, but in truth it is a reaction that tells us that Eriksson and his coaching team couldn’t motivate the boys. The boys needed that kind of adversity to show their true mettle, not anything the manager could tell them. Nonetheless, it was the kind of energy that a good coaching staff could have harnessed against an opposition which, without the invention and guile of Deco or the organizational acumen of Costinha, was by then clearly playing for a penalty shoot-out. Immediately Rooney was sent off, Scolari responded by withdrawing Pauleta. He possibly anticipated that England were going to pull back into midfield and keep it very tight there. This meant he had to abandon the idea of using Pauleta as a distraction to open up the midfield for others to exploit. Instead, he chose to bring in Simao, who though is a winger, he usually deploys as a second striker. It was a jittery move borne out of fear. Scolari knows how difficult it is to break down ten men, so he chose the easy option of playing for penalty shoot-out, knowing that his goalkeeper is one of the best shot-stoppers in the world and that England’s Robinson has a very poor record in that regard.
Yet, with the substitution of Pauleta, England could have afforded to play three at the back and still continue to seek ways to improve their attacking options. Rather than concentrate on defence (as Scolari expected), their formation should have reflected an attacking intent and would have given the Portuguese something else to think about. Thus, Eriksson should have removed one from the back, send in Crouch and leave Joe Cole to support him in that Rooney role, with Lennon on the right. By removing Joe Cole, Crouch became as isolated as Rooney before him and even though he showed good touches and was able to hold the ball admirably a few times, he just couldn’t do anything with it as the Carvalho-marshaled defence simply shepherded him away from dangerous positions before dispossessing him each time. As there was no one with him to pick up the second ball or support him in attack, the substitution was clearly a strategic waste.
In conclusion, I admit that not one factor alone is responsible for the failures of these teams. After all, some of us have had cause to make deeper analyses of why we think England weren’t prepared for glory this time around even before the competition began. But in this business, you can’t get a perfect preparation and adversity is relative. Nonetheless, there is basic wisdom in noting that in this kind of high-pressure cup competition, except a change is forced on you by injury or suspension, changing a winning team or continuously being unsure about who is to play in what role in the team brings with it a host of unexpected problems. The worst of these problems is draining the team of confidence when they need it most on the pitch. It is no coincidence that the countries that have made the semi-finals are those whose coaches have kept faith with their winning teams, except where change has been forced on them at one time or the other during the competition by injury or suspension or in games they did not need the points to qualify for the next stage. In other words, the successful ones are those who didn’t tinker with their teams when they didn’t have to.