The first round of games should serve as a wake up call to the heavyweights
The World Cup has produced everything you could hope in less than a week. Russia decimated Saudi Arabia to kick things off, Portugal and Spain gave us a thriller. There are already a few worthy goal-of-the-tournament nominees. Hearts have been broken by last-minute goals and, if you're German, near misses.
Portugal and Spain are the only big teams who have clicked so far. [England had an early thrust against Tunisia then muddled through] Spain seems to have moved on from Julen Lopetegui, playing their classic, beautiful possession-based style. Portugal, on the other hand, appear to be a side revitalised and raring to go. Neither could put the match away, but their systems are set for greatness in Russia.
Then there are sides like Iceland and Switzerland. Maybe their results were more about the big guns not firing rather than anything they did, but, along with Mexico, they worked their socks off for their results. The question is whether their victims should be alarmed? Let's ask the question of each, one by one.
France ground out the win against Australia. Les Bleus have work to do if they have any aspirations of winning the World Cup. Without technology, they might be in a worse position. Video review changed the referee's mind after he had first denied the penalty Antoine Griezmann converted. Paul Pogba's winner was given due to the goal line technology. It was also later credited as an own-goal through VAR.
Notice that I wrote 'through', not by VAR. Too many people seem to have this notion Video Assisted Review is like Skynet in the Terminator movies, a malevolent artificial intelligence trying to rule human endeavour. It is not. Rather, it is what it says: one referee in a video studio and the one on the pitch reviewing a play to decide whether the call is correct. The mistakes everyone complains about, like ignoring Harry Kane being mugged by Tunisians in the box, are human errors. We'll never be fully rid of that [I hope].
So, keep that in mind.
The point is if VAR doesn't exist you end up like Frank Lampard more often than not.
Anyway, France set up in a 4-3-3 with Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele as the front three, N'Golo Kante, Corentin Tolisso and Pogba behind. It's safe to say, that did not work against Australia. The Socceroos were spot on with their tactics, defending deep in numbers with compactness, denying any space between the lines to the fearsome French attack.
Dembele and Mbappe were shadows of themselves. There was no space for the front three to exploit their pace. Olivier 'Plan B' Giroud came on but didn't have much impact. The real change arrived when Blaise Matuidi entered the game. He took Pogba off his leash in the backyard and let him terrorise the entire neighbourhood. Pogba's flicks, tricks and quick layoffs resulted in the second goal.
France faces Peru and Denmark to finish the group phase. Both are better teams than Australia. If they collectively decide to park the bus, it could be au revoir for Les Francais. The midfield needs to play with more urgency and Didier Deschamps may need to revert to crossing to Giroud in the box to score against the deep blocks if Griezmann, Mbappe and Dembele cannot raise their performances.
Speaking of improvements, Samuel Umtiti should not channel his inner Diego Maradona ever again.
Deschamps needs to plan out another system for this French side and must do it soon.
Iceland has done it again. They have got the better of superior opposition. This time, the victim was Argentina.
The 'new' Argentinian side was a Who song, same as the old side. Supposedly to be well drilled and an improvement to 2014 under new coach Jorge Sampaoli, it showed no organisation or imagination. Sampaoli's Chilean side played a much better brand of football with higher intensity and urgency. The Argentina side that faced Iceland was hesitant.
La Albiceleste set up in 4-2-3-1 with Eduardo Salvio and Nicolas Tagliafico as the full backs. Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo were the centre-halves. Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia formed a double pivot, Messi was in the hole [in more ways than one]. Maximiliano Meza and Angel Di Maria manned the wings. Sergio Aguero led the line. On paper, this seems a good line-up. On the pitch, it isn't.
Iceland, just like aforementioned Australia, parked the bus and man-marked Messi. The midfield offered no alternatives. Di Maria was almost non-existent. Salvio was inefficient with the ball at his feet. He took too much time to cross. When he managed a delivery, it was intercepted by the first man.
The defence was at sea. Rojo-Otamendi consistently lost aerial battles with Alfred Finnbogason. Gylfi Sigurdsson kept finding pockets of space between the lines. Iceland, by contrast, was efficient with their long balls and rigid defensively.
Reports are suggesting [or hoping] Sampaoli intends to make numerous changes to the starting XI and the formation to a 3-3-3-1. Biglia and Di Maria may give way to Christian Pavon and Marcos Acuna in a 3-3-3-1. Sampaoli should also start Ever Banega or Giovani Lo Celso to provide creativity from midfield, allowing Messi to push further forward.
The World Champions had the worst possible start to their title defence. The Germans lost to a well-drilled Mexico side 1-0 in an epic clash for the neutral. Many wondered if Germany had a weakness. With Manuel Neuer not in top form, the answer is pace in behind.
Mexico began the game with intent and were rewarded. El Tri's game plan was spot on. Joachim Low had no answer. Germany's fullbacks push up high, leaving the two centre-backs behind. Sami Khedira was tasked with protecting Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng but failed miserably. The defensive midfielder didn't register a single tackle in the game and made no interceptions either. Toni Kroos is no ball-winner. Marvin Plattenhardt replaced Jonas Hector in the starting XI but offered nothing. Hirving Lozano, Chicharito, Carlos Vela and Miguel Layun had a field day. They should have scored more than one.
Die Mannschaft was not good offensively either. They failed to create sufficient clear-cut chances. Even when the chances came, the strikers didn't put them to bed. Timo Werner was profligate. The crosses to Mario Gomez and Thomas Muller were poor. The so-called best playmakers were struggling to create anything. Julian Draxler and Mesut Ozil both had games to forget. One wonders what a certain Leroy Sane might've done coming off the bench.
Looking forward, Low might need to add another body in midfield, preferably Leon Goretzka. Sweden does not play on the counter-attack, but South Korea does. The midfield and fullbacks must remember their defensive duties and not leave the central defenders outnumbered.
Low has his work cut out. The opposition will only get better as the tournament progresses. Is the Champion's Curse falling again?
Switzerland channelled it's inner David to snatch victory away from the Seleção.
In the game's opening quarter, Brazil dominated. They were fluid, played like they were having fun, showing us what the hype was about. As the game progressed, Tite's men kept going down. Especially Neymar. He was fouled ten times, more than any other player in a World Cup since 1998. That is where the Canarinha lost. Neymar held the ball more and more after each tackle, trying to win free kicks by drawing fouls. It didn't work. It slowed the whole team down, exactly what the Swiss wanted.
All the quick passing and movement was gone by the latter parts of the first half. Brazil looked like a one-man team from that point, and that one man was not Neymar. It was Coutinho.
Switzerland grew in confidence, eventually levelling. A point was all they wanted.
Verde-Amarela struggled to create in the second half. Renato Augusto and Fernandinho came on for Paulinho and Casemiro. Neither was what Brazil needed. Fred paired with either Casemiro or Fernandinho might do the trick. He's another ball-carrying option in midfield, along with Coutinho.
Gabriel Jesus had a stinker. So did Willian. Both may be replaced. Jesus is an excellent poacher, but what will he do if there is no service? Roberto Firmino offers much more than Jesus in terms of build-up play. Douglas Costa could also replace Willian on the right-wing.
Tite, like his counterparts, must increase the tempo and restore a sense of team. Neymar cannot be allowed to do as he pleases.