Ghostgoal’s Team of The World Cup

13 07 2010

The obligatory Team of the World Cup:

Iker Casillas

Saint Iker is widely regarded to have had a below-par time at the Bernabeu this past season. When Spain’s World Cup began with a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Switzerland and Casillas was partially responsible for the goal, the whispers grew louder. Victor Valdes? Pepe Reina? What followed was six straight wins with just one (deflected) goal conceded. Casillas’s handling in the final itself was exemplary and the save from Robben when clean through was one of the pivotal moments in the biggest match of the tournament. History is written by the winners… and winners don’t come much bigger than the World Cup winning captain.




Maxi Pereira

The Uruguayan full-back has long had a reputation for being a whole hearted trier but Maxi Pereira showed so much more at this World Cup. His energetic performances were a standout in Uruguay’s remarkable run to the semi-finals. Indeed, by the end of the tournament only Xavi & Bastian Schweinsteiger of the other 736 players at the World Cup covered more yards than Maxi Pereira. As a wing-back responsible for providing attacking support as well as defensive solidarity, Pereira played an important role in both facets of the Uruguayan success story. It represented a colossal ongoing effort that reached a crescendo with his fantastic goal in the dying stages of the semi-final against the Dutch.




Carlos Salcido

The fact that Mexico’s Carlos Salcido is the only player in this XI to have played in just four World Cup matches is testament to the impact he made in those games. The right-footed left-back was virtually faultness and adapted brilliantly to the various demands of the flexible Mexican system. He switched between full-back and wing-back with ease, proving defensively adept whilst always proving a threat going forward. His long range efforts and capable crossing caught the eye in some bright Mexico displays, the highlight being the 2-0 victory over France that exposed the extent of the Gallic malaise.

John Mensah

The failure of every other African nation to reach the knockout stage only served to concentrate the continent’s efforts upon the Ghanaians and they performed admirably – disposing of the USA in extra-time and following up with the controversial penalty shoot-out defeat at the hands (literally in Suarez’s case) of Uruguay. In the case of Ghana, and John Mensah in particular, cliches about naive African defending feel more offensive than ever. Their success this World Cup centred around organised defence and solid defending and this is emphasised by their conceding just four goals in over eight and a half hours of football in the tournament. Mensah was a colossus throughout.


Paulo Da Silva

Da Silva was a rock throughout Paraguay’s World Cup campaign as they battled their way to the quarter finals. He competed endlessly and was the key figure in their defence. The Paraguayans defended resolutely through their five games, conceding a goal in the opener against Italy and another in their last eight tie with Spain but with three clean sheets in between. I accept that the inclusion of a second Sunderland centre-back is somewhat bizarre and it does feel a little harsh on the efforts of bigger names such as Puyol, Lucio and Friedrich. However, Da Silva’s performances in one of the better defensive outfits caught the eye and deserve a nod.

Bastian Schweinsteiger

You don’t need to go to the statistics to know that Bastian Schweinsteiger had a stunning World Cup. He was the central figure in Germany’s impressive campaign – controlling games from midfield, prompting and probing, driving the side on. That said, the stats do bear it out – 2nd most passes, 2nd most distance covered. He was excellent in the destruction of England but his finest hour was surely the 4-0 demolition of Argentina. Schweinsteiger fought hard when out of possession and stuck the knife in superbly when the time came. He had already established himself as the star turn by the time he danced through the Argentine defence to lay on Friedrich’s goal, sealing a tour de force display from the German.

Xavi Hernandez

What is there left to be said about Xavi? Such is his status in the game now that it is easy to take his performances for granted. He covered more ground than any other player at the World Cup – 80.2 km. He completed more passes – 544 of them. He took more corners (47) and he completed more crosses than anyone else (14). Of players who had more than 200 minutes of action, only Xavi played more passes than minutes he was on the pitch for: 669 passes in 636 minutes. Basically he was a constant force at the hub of the finest team in the tournament. I think you can call that a well-deserved World Cup winners medal.

Thomas Mueller

He didn’t get a Panini sticker and he only made his full International debut in March. In fact, his rise has been so meteoric that he wasn’t even a part of the much vaunted German U21 side that won the European Championships last summer. A year on, he is in just about everybody’s World Cup XI. Mueller’s all-action displays were central to the German success story as they surpassed expectations to come 3rd in the tournament. While Mesut Oezil took the early plaudits it was Mueller who grew as the competition went on – 2 goals against England and 1 against Argentina before missing the semi-final defeat to Spain through suspension. A 5th goal against Uruguay in the 3rd place play-off win sealed the Golden Boot for Mueller, thanks in part to the 3 assists he also managed at the World Cup… boys own stuff from the Bayern star.

Andres Iniesta

He’s a gorgeous player to watch but boy is there end product with Iniesta. He is the youngest player in over 30 years to add a World Cup to Euros and Champions League success. There were loads of the little touches and feints, plenty to enjoy, but Iniesta was key to almost all of the pivotal moments of Spain’s success. There was the goal against Chile to secure qualification. The incisive passes that led to the only goal in the knockout victories over Portugal and Paraguay. And finally, brilliantly, the World Cup winning goal with just 4 minutes of extra time remaining. A wonderful tournament for a wonderful player.

David Villa

When you score 5 of the 8 goals that the World Cup winning side manage in the tournament then it makes you a hard man to ignore. Villa impressed from the left-wing in the early stages before moving to a central role to do a job for the team following Fernando Torres being axed. Villa grabbed both goals against Honduras – one a contender for goal of the tournament as he slalomed through players before firing into the top corner whilst stretching. By the time he had followed this up with a goal against Chile and the winners against both Portugal and Paraguay, Villa had established himself as one of the stars of the World Cup.




Diego Forlan

The Uruguayan has been a revelation at the World Cup. It is a bit of a cliche to say that he was the only guy to master the Jabulani but at times it did feel that way. Comfortable striking the ball with either foot he sparked – scoring 5 goals in 7 games – as Uruguay surprised many to reach the semi-finals. He’s still suffering at the hands of some of the bafflingly short-sighted British media who feel the need to constantly refer to the remarkable turnaround from his time at Manchester United. Well, he has been one of the finest forwards in the world for many years since then, twice a winner of the European Golden Boot. He nearly added the World Cup Golden Boot, only denied on the basis of assists, but the Golden Ball as the outstanding player of the tournament tells you all you need to know..  Diego Forlan is a class act.


Top 5: Future Stars to Watch at the World Cup

11 06 2010

Alexi Sanchez

The Chilean man is one of the most exciting prospects at this World Cup and will have every chance to shine against Switzerland & Honduras before the mouthwatering contest against Spain. Sanchez will play from the left in an advanced role in Marcelo Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 and th 21 year old could add to his impressive 11 goals from his first 28 internationals.


Marek Hamsik

Slovakia’s star player, Hamsik is an attacking midfielder who has had another good season for Napoli bagging a dozen Serie A goals and has every chance of making a similar impact in the World Cup. A kind group sees Slovakia up against New Zealand in their opening game and it would be no surprise to see the 22 year old further enhance his reputation by leading his country to the knockout stages.


Milos Krasic

Lightning quick, hard-working and with a touch of class. It’s a pretty good combination. Serbia have every chance of progressing from their group if they get things right and, in the absence of top-class strikers, Krasic will be key. Capable of operating on either flank in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 he is likely to start from the right-wing – expect to see him catch the eye in the early stages and perhaps beyond. At 25 years old, the time is now for Krasic.


Nicolas Lodeiro

The Ajax playmaker has just a handful of senior caps but could prove to be a key man for Uruguay in this tournament given the opportunity. Lodeiro has the pace and skill to provide a goal threat himself but with Forlan and Suarez up front he has the tools to provide the ammunition for them too. This could be a breakthrough tournament for the 21 year old.


Mesut Ozil

Another 21 year old with the opportunity to light up events in South Africa is Mesut Ozil. Germany’s 4-2-3-1 will be geared up to give him room to manoeuvre and expect him to be central to much of their offensive work. Klose will take the hits up top and, with Schweinsteiger and Khedira able to feed him from deep, there should be plenty of opportunity for the Werder Bremen man to impress.

Top 5: Italia ’90 Moments

26 05 2010

 Italia ’90 is one of my favourite World Cups, the great players involved, the official song that sent shivers down the spine and the sensational haircuts sported by the protagonists. The tournament sadly didn’t go to plan. Instead of an England vs Italy final pitching Roberto Baggio against Paul Gascoigne, we had the brutally efficient Germans against the barbaric Argentinians, both of whom arrived in the final on penalty shoot outs in games they should have lost. The final fittingly featured the first two sendings off in a World Cup Final and was decided by a German penalty. Anyway, bitter rant aside, here are my top 5 moments from this tournament…


Roberto Baggio’s goal against Czech Republic

From the gentle, swaying symmetry of the run, to the delicate drop of the shoulder before the exquisite finish, everything about this goal was so perfect.  It was the goal Nessun Dorma was meant to accompany and it marked the arrival of Il Divino Codino at the tournament.


The Cameroon team’s efforts  in stopping Claudio Cannigia in the opening game

Those who referred to Cameroon as a ‘breath of fresh air’ in Italia ’90 were almost certainly football romantics and definitely not from Argentina. Their 1-0 win over the defending champions in the opening game was down in no small part to their robust approach to defending (given Argentina’s performance against the Italy and Germany later on in the tournament, no sympathy is due), which is perfectly summed up by the two unsuccessful attempts to stop Claudio Cannigia and the final successful one.  


Frank Rijkaard spitting in Rudi Voller’s ear

There’s no love lost between Holland and Germany (those darn continentals can be such a fractious bunch) and this bad tempered clash finally came to a head with Rijkaard and Voller being sent off for a spot of handbags. Rijkaard’s timing and accuracy were typically Dutch, while the look on Rudi’s face when he realises what Frank has done to his favourite mullet is priceless.


David Platt’s last minute winner against Belgium

Make no mistake, this game was pretty turgid. England were appalling (I recently saw a rerun of the entire fixture on ESPN, for those of you questioning my memory skills), with the exception of Scifo’s shooting it had few highlights. But the conga-inducing finish by Platt means England fans will always remember this game fondly.  Gazza’s surging run to win the free kick should be taken in the context of two hours played in Italian summer heat, what an engine that boy had.


Gazza’s Tears

I’m sure you don’t need a youtube clip to picture this. Having picked up a booking for a frankly atrocious and unnecessary tackle against Belgium, Gazza went into the semi final against Germany knowing one booking would see him miss the final. There are many enduring images from that night, Lineker’s look to the bench, Bobby Robson wistfully staring at his feet and Gazza’s anguish written all over his face. It’s only when you look back at Italia ’90, you realise what a talent he was. A genuine box to box midfielder, who would put his foot in when needed, but could also ghost through the opposition like they weren’t there.

Tactics at the World Cup – A Look Back and Forth

25 05 2010

When you think of the  World Cup what comes to mind? Maybe it is 1966 and all that, Pele’s near misses in ’70, the Hand of God in ’86? Maybe its Tardelli’s celebration or even Roger Milla’s. However, as well all the magical moments it is worth remembering that, traditionally, the World Cup is often a showcase for tactical innovation too.

From an English perspective, the 6-3 Wembley defeat at the hands of Hungary in 1953 is often considered the watershed moment. The first time England had been beaten at home by continental opposition.. and it was a thrashing, both technically and tactically. The rematch in Hungary only served to highlight the point as England were stuffed 7-1. However, it was the 1954 World Cup that gave the Hungarians the chance to showcase their team to the world.

England vs Hungary 1953 – WM vs embryonic 4-2-4

The Miracle of Berne, a first defeat in 37 games, may have denied Puskas et al their World Cup win in ’54 but the tournament still served as a reminder they were streets ahead. By withdrawing the centre-forward in the then ubiquitous WM formation to a deeper playmaking role, Gusztav Sebes’ Hungarians were able to control games and cause significant confusion for their opponents. The centre-half simply did not know who to mark as the WM faced this newfangled formation. As Jonathan Wilson points out in Inverting The Pyramid – ”Two full-backs, two central defensive presences, two players running the middle and four up front: the Hungarian system was a hair’s-breadth from 4-2-4”. They had invented the formation of the future.

The Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann claimed that his leaving Honved for Sao Paolo in 1956 saw the 4-2-4 transported to South America. The lineage of the formation is far less clear than that. However, the next two World Cups were won with Brazil, aided by the stunning wingplay of Garrincha, using variants of that famous formation first unleashed on the world by the Hungarians years earlier.

By 1966, wing wizards were the last thing on the agenda. The greatest month in England’s footballing history can be remembered in terms of a Russian linesman and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary but it was as much a tactical victory for Sir Alf Ramsey as anything else. Like Viktor Maslov had discovered in the Soviet Union almost simultaneously, Ramsey had realised the benefits of tucking his wide men inside to become de facto right and left-midfielders as opposed to out and out wingers. In doing so, his side was able to dominate the midfield, with the added bonus of Nobby Stiles being able to sit deeper as a holding midfielder with no real creative responsibility. The ‘Wingless Wonders’ were born. As Ramsey put it: ”To have two players stuck wide on the flanks, is a luxury which can virtually leave a side with 9 men when the game is going against them”. The new formation saw England able to defeat an Argentina side in the quarter finals that had baffled them in the Maracana two years earlier, before going on to defeat Portugal and Germany to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy.

Eight years on, it was the turn of the giants of South America to be humbled. It was an eye-opening experience for both Argentina and Brazil as they found themselves given lessons in the Total Football being served up by the great Dutch side of ’74. Argentina were beaten 4-0..

A 2-0 win over Brazil followed. In many ways, the flexibility of the Dutch system had its forerunners in the Brazilian teams of years gone by. However, the possession game had been fused with a more high tempo pressing style and the results were astounding. As Tim Vickery points out, they also left a long-term impression on the humbled World Champions of the time:

”Johan Cruyff.. has often lamented that Brazil have turned into an overly pragmatic, counter-attacking team, but Cruyff’s superb Holland side of 1974 played its part in that process. They beat Brazil.. in that World Cup and the pressure they put on the ball left a huge impression on Brazilian coaches. Brazil decided that in order to face the European challenge their players would have to be bigger, stronger, faster, more explosive”.

Dunga’s Brazil perhaps has its roots therefore, in a footballing lesson taught nearly 36 years earlier. His counterpart Maradona is, one could argue, faced with a similar history lesson in attempting to get the best out of Lionel Messi for Argentina. In 1986, Carlos Bilardo took his Argentine side to Mexico on an unimpressive run of form despite the presence of the finest footballer on the planet within his ranks. He decided, maybe in desperation, to unveil to the world a new formation in order to bring success – the 3-5-2.

Bilardo’s reasoning was that with teams no longer using wingers then there was no real need for full-backs – they could be converted to midfielders and played higher up the field. By the Quarter Finals, Maradona was operating as a support striker making it closer to a 3-5-1-1. As Bilardo put it: ”When we went out to play like that, it took the world by surprise because they didn’t know the details of the system”. The rest as they say is history as it took them all the way to World Cup victory.

By the time of the next World Cup in 1990, with the wide midfielders in the system now perhaps more accurately decribed as wing-backs, variants of Bilardo’s formation were all the rage. Even Brazil and England, previously wedded to their back 4’s, were now experimenting with 3 at the back on the grandest of stages. The World Cup as a driver of change once again? It made sense on two counts – firstly, the desire to mimic success; secondly, the desire to ‘match-up’ in order to eliminate any tactical advantage for the opponent.

In more recent times, it may be considered harder than ever to spring a tactical surprise (We still see innovation – even in calamity, Rene Higuita’s antics in 1990 could be considered a forerunner to the sweeper-keepers of the backpass rule era). Things are more homogenised though as cultural diversity diminishes. Almost all the teams at major tournaments have at least a handful of players with experience of top level European football. Furthermore, when you consider the  increase in video evidence and improved scouting in the modern game, you may conclude there is no reason for major tournaments to be the focal point for tactical innovation they once were. For example, the driving force for the decline of 3 at the back probably came from the 4-5-1 in high level club football.  

And yet, as recently as 2004, the European Championship victory of Otto Rehhagel’s man-marking Greek side could be seen, perhaps more than anything else, as a monumental tactical triumph. It has not proven an influential tactic, frankly appearing to be more of a one-off. As the UEFA Technical Director Andy Roxburgh memorably put it though, ”the Greeks had posed a problem the rest of the world had forgotten how to solve”….. Could we see such a thing in South Africa this Summer?

Tactically speaking, the side which is attracting most excitement among afficionados is probably Chile. The Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has them playing his trademark 3-3-1-3 formation and they certainly qualified in style, playing a fluid attacking system.

My personal view is that whilst tactically interesting, we could just as easily be talking about spectacular failure as success. With David Pizarro on board you could argue it may have been different but the fear has to be that their defensive frailties could well be exposed by Switzerland let alone Spain. Bielsa attempted a variant of this formation with Argentina in 2002. They had more possession, more chances and more corners than any other side in the group stages but still found themselves on their way home. In striving for width high up the field and control of midfield possession, they found themselves vulnerable at the back. Tactically, it would be a shame if one of the teams attempting something different was to do so again but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

A more likely candidate to go all the way in South Africa whilst playing a curious system has to be Brazil.

Dunga has built a team playing an almost unique assymetrical formation with one centre forward and a winger, Robinho, playing high up the field on the left. There is no like for like player on the other flank with Ramires instead operating as a right-midfielder. Of course, this suits Dunga as it will allow him cover for when Maicon (or Dani Alves) advance forward. Thus he has width as well as retaining the element of defensive control he wants centrally. Their strength will lie on the counter-attack as evidenced by the 2nd and 3rd goals against Italy at the Confederations Cup last year:

It may be that this assymetrical approach of Brazil’s – providing a variety of threats to suit the players available – will be the tactic of this World Cup. Intriguingly however, the biggest weakness facing a side that prefers to soak up pressure and hit the opposition fast on the break, is the possibility of coming up against a side that refuses to engage and relies on ultra defensive tactics. Their first opponents will be a North Korea side that shackled Paraguay reasonably effectively last month and against whom even a 1-0 victory could bring disquiet back in Rio de Janeiro. Fascinating.

Elsewhere, we may well be looking to two of the most maligned coaches at the World Cup for the most talked about formations on view. Focus on Maradona’s handling of Messi is inevitable and will most likely remain a talking point for as long as Argentina are in the competition. The traditional Argentine 4-3-1-2 with the playmaking ‘enganche‘ as the ‘1’ has been abandoned in favour of what, to English eyes, will be a very familiar 4-4-2.. even down to the defensive full-backs. Clearly the relationship between Veron and Messi will be key, but with Veron’s legs unlikely to last the pace, the real fascination could be how the formation adapts if they go deep in the competition.

Maradona’s chief rival for ‘most eccentric coach in the tournament’ is France’s Raymond Domenech and he is another capable of springing a surprise. The loss of Diarra presents a quandary for the coach and there is speculation he could utilise a 4-3-3 with Malouda and Gourcuff in midfield. This would be a significant tactical shift and an untypically attacking reaction to the problem, but in a very winnable group it could well be the making of the French side. 

There are others of course. Are Paraguay set to make a 3-4-3 work? Will North Korea’s defensive strategy be the talk of the early stages in the so-called Group of Death? Closer to home, in the possible absence of Gareth Barry could England be set to reinvent the box-to-box midfielder with Lampard and Milner in midfield?

Whatever happens in South Africa you can be sure coaches everywhere will be picking the bones out of it, analysing it and ruminating upon it for some time to come. What new problems will sides pose? What solutions can be found? We’ll soon find out, and I cannot wait…

Time is Now for Messi & Co

7 05 2010

They’ll all scream about how Messi is only 22.. ”imagine how good he’ll be in a few years!” .. they’ll tell you that there will be other chances for Rooney and Ronaldo.. ”they have years left at the top” .. and, of course, in some ways they’ll be right. Do not kid yourself though – the opportunity for greatness is theirs, here and now, in South Africa this Summer.

Pele won his 1st World Cup at 17 years old in Sweden in 1958. Maradona was 25 years of age when he mesmerised the world in 1986. Likewise Ronaldo in 2002. Zidane turned 26 on the eve of France ’98.

Come Brazil 2014, Messi will be 27, Rooney 28 & Ronaldo 29.. Ancient? Of course not.. but history suggests that if they want to dine at the top table with the greats then now is as good a time as any.

As Lionel Messi himself told El Mundo this week: ”To be a legend, to be great, you have to win a World Cup.”

Over to you lads.