All things being equal, with everyone getting a fair shake of the dice and the vagaries of good fortune being evenly distributed, just what does it take to win a World Cup?
I’ve been speaking to a number of coaches in Brazil, and the general consensus of opinion is that success in football should be built the same way as a sturdy four-legged table. Remove one leg and it might still stand up, but it won’t be anything nearly as solid. Take away a second leg and you’re in trouble. Saw off a third and you’re dead.
Leg No. 1 involves physical fitness and general condition. Teams that have been unfit, tired or both (Spain, for one) were soon resting on the beach.
Costa Rica—although now out because of penalties against the Netherlands—showed just how important physical fitness has been for sides in this tournament. The Ticos had an outstanding showing in Brazil.
Secondly, even among this gathering of the greatest players in the world, the presence of individual magnificence that turns up for the party fighting fit and raring to go will always give you a head start.
If you want to see how important it is for the cream to rise to the top, look no further than Leo Messi’s influence for Argentina. Or, look at the Brazilian gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts that followed Neymar’s premature departure from the competition.
Then there’s the structure and organisation that exists—be it defensive or offensive. Without a plan that everyone believes in and can work with, a plan that is flexible enough to adjust during the course of a match if necessary, the ultimate prize will almost certainly be unattainable.
Think of the Netherlands, for example. The Dutch were just six minutes from being knocked out in the round of 16 before the tactical intervention of Louis van Gaal, who brought on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, combined with the clinical brilliance of Wesley Sneijder—not to mention the cuteness of Arjen Robben—and the momentum of the match turned. It took only a moment before Mexico was destined to pick up their boarding passes.
Germany also showed in their quarter-final against France just how you change tactics midstream. Having gone a goal up after just 11 minutes, Joachim Low's side reverted to the good old days of solid lines and well-marshaled defence. In a match played in horribly humid conditions, the order of the day was to not surrender possession but always with the aim of getting the maximum result for the least-possible effort expended, and it worked a treat.
And Van Gaal brings me neatly to the fourth leg of the table: A leader who brings everyone together, the super glue that bonds the whole thing. He's a leader who can be loved and loathed in equal measure, but is always, unequivocally, the man in charge.
Think also here of Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari—spikier than a prickly pear as he throws himself into almost daily battles with a media that is not hostile, but that he wants to use as enemies—putting himself in the firing line to protect his men in an artificial "Us vs. the World" battle.
The four remaining teams in the competition have all, or at least most, of these four legs. But what else has this World Cup shown us?
Well, to start with, we can now see that South American sides have added a defensive organisation previously seen predominantly in Europe.
The best example of this is actually with Central America's Costa Rica, and while football matches aren't exactly chess or played on paper, you get the feeling they would be if their tactically obsessive coach Jorge Luis Pinto had his way.
Having learned his trade with 19 jobs in 30 years, no one encapsulated the organisational and structural ethic—even at the expense of individual quality—more than Senor Pinto, and, as a result, his side finished within penalty kicks of causing the biggest upset in World Cup history.
With 11 disciplined guys all killing space and working hard for each other, coaches admired the way Costa Rica went about their work, and the same applies to the likes of Mexico, Colombia and especially Chile.
In the final analysis, though, Costa Rica always needed that little bit extra to make the game plan more efficient.
Having said that, the Netherlands needed luck in the penalties, but you always felt Van Gaal’s team had put more—at least offensively—into that game than Costa Rica.
We also learned that against organisation and efficiency, what is needed is rapid counter-attacks, quick transitions and the occasional display of brilliance doesn’t go amiss, either.
Every single aspect of that was covered by Angel Di Maria’s 118th-minute winner that saw off Switzerland and put Argentina into the quarter-finals.
But there is a new way, something Germany represents more than anybody. They want to have an organized attack.
It is not as simple as it sounds, and it is where football is evolving. They reverted to their old style against France, but Germany is trying—with positional game, a clear idea of how to attack and alternatives upfront—to put a new gear into international football following the teachings of Pep Guardiola.
Football has evolved everywhere, although in some places—predominantly Asia, Africa and Australia—countries seem to be stuck between two stools, uncertain whether to import the latest idea or carry on playing the way they always have.
Australia, for example, have in the past brought in English, Dutch, German and Australian coaches and are currently looking for a new technical director. Foreign and with modern ideas. I will watch closely which path they take as it is potentially a strong sporting country.
But what they should be looking for first of all is the discovery of whatever style they are looking to produce, and where they want it to take them.
Then they can decide just who should lead them on that journey.
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