I felt that Belgium were the best team in the tournament and that Roberto Martinez was the most innovative coach in the 2018 FIFA World Cup but then there is many a slip between cup and lip. We must also realise there is a shadow line between success and failure at the highest level of football.
Following the 2-1 win over Brazil, Martinez was hailed as a tactical genius, for his use of Marouane Felliani as a defensive midfielder to block both Philippe Countinho and Neymar, Kevin de Bruyne as a false No 9 and shifting Romelu Lukaku to the wide right to curb Marcello’s attacking forays down the right. He got his tactics spot on.
However against France in the semi- finals he floundered. In reacting to the suspension of regular right back Thomas Meunier, he used Moussa Dembele as a defensive midfielder. Felliani was allowed to roam all over the field. However this switch in formation did not work. Dembele and Alex Witsel could not curb France’s lightening quick counter attacks spearheaded by the mercurial Antoine Griezmann, especially towards the end of the first half and early in the second half.
Initially Belgium looked very fluid in their approach play but gradually faded as the dynamic French midfield N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi choked the supply line by their incessant running and interceptions. Matuidi often moved wide to counter Belgium’s quick inter-change of positions. The French coach Didier Deschamps got his tactics spot on. He knew Belgium would launch a blitzkrieg like they did against Brazil and try for early goals. Hence the French defence and midfield kept their shape, played deep and frustrated Belgium.
At this juncture Belgium should have had another option. Lukaku did not get the support he wanted from the flanks till after the hour mark. After sixty minutes, when they were a goal down, Martinez brought in Dries Mertens instead of Dembele and Belgium got their balance correct. Mertens slung crosses from the right and Eden Hazard also posed a danger from the left. The French right back Benjamin Pavard played with restraint against the speed and thrust of Hazard and left back Lucas Hernandez also had to curb his overlapping runs. Belgium looked menacing but could not get a goal due to the aerial brilliance and positional play of their rapidly improving central defenders Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti.
This duo has matured into one of the best central defensive pairs in the World Cup and resemble the famous duo of Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly when France won the 1998 World Cup. However Blanc and Desailly were at the peak of their careers two decades ago. Varane (25) and Umtiti (24) have age on their side and could frustrate forwards for many years to come.
If Martinez had played Mertens from the start, maybe France would have been under more pressure and could have conceded a goal. Fellaini would also have been more effective as a defensive midfielder then as a roving midfielder.
But it was not to be. France entered their third World Cup final in the last two decades, the best among all countries. During this period, 1998-2018, Brazil have been in the final only twice 1998 and 2002 and Germany twice 2002 and 2014. France have not conceded a goal in quarter-finals and semi-finals and with many young players in their side, this could be the start of the French dynasty.
England’s coach Gareth Southgate has also developed a team for the future with many promising young players. Kieran Trippier, the "Bury Beckham" has a great future as does, 24-year-old goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and the 6'4 feet tall central defender from Sheffield, Harry Maguire who went to Euro 2016 in France after purchasing match tickets to witness games.
However after the defeat to Croatia, Southgate must be regretting not having a creative midfielder like Jonjo Shelvy or Jack Wilshire in his squad. As Croatia gradually established control in midfield especially in the second half, England lacked a clever passer of the ball. There was nobody who could release through passes to utilise the speed of Raheem Sterling. Harry Kane had to drop deep to play as a provider, which helped Croatia’s cause as the tough, tenacious but slow on the turn deep defenders Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida had only one player to mark. Either Sterling or later his substitute Marcus Rashford.
The 51-year-old Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic, proved to be another unsung hero. After a shaky half hour in which England scored once and could have scored again and wrapped up the match, Dalic changed tactics and helped Croatia wrest the initiative. Their wide midfielders Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic played more upfront like regular wingers. This compelled England’s Trippier and Ashley Young to fall back. Suddenly England’s five-man midfield got outnumbered. Luka Modric who should be a firm contender for the golden ball (Best player of the tournament) and Ivan Rakitic started dominating the game with their shrewd passing and experience. England started getting pegged back and conceded both possession and territory. The game was being played in England’s half and their back three were defending desperately at the edge of their own 18-yard box.
Till then England had played such composed football, building from the back and rotating passes but Croatia stifled them and they fell apart. It was at this juncture they needed a ball player to provide probing passes and take the pressure off their defence. Instead they used aimless long balls which were gobbled up the Croatian defence.
Croatia won because they had the greater fire in their belly. This was evident in their two goals. Perisic equalised when at full stretch and with a kung fu type kick. Mario Mandzukic reacted quicker than the beleaguered John Stones to snatch the match winner in extra time. Incidentally this was the first World Cup semi-final, which was decided in extra time. Since 1982, whenever a World Cup semi-final went to extra time it was decided on penalties. In the 1990 World cup both West Germany and Argentina reached the final beating England and hosts Italy respectively on penalties.
With a modest population of just about 42 lakhs, Croatia are the smallest country to get to a World Cup final since Uruguay back in 1950, and in the modern game it is a staggering achievement. They do not have a world class stadium to stage a top level international game but then as this World Cup has shown neither size of the population nor wealth of the country matters as regards football success.
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Updated Date: Jul 12, 2018 19:23:35 IST