Spain are convincing, Argentina look shaky
Now that all the teams have played once, it's time for a first assessment of this World Cup. And right from the outset I can clearly say this: This World Cup is really fun. The football is disciplined and fair, there are no nasty fouls, and so far the video assistant referee (VAR) has been working decently, even though in two, maybe three scenes I would have ruled otherwise. But so far the VAR has fulfilled its task very well.
This is a tournament being played at a good level, also because one can see that the so-called smaller teams are good for a surprise. I am not going so far as to say that one of the smaller teams will be the next world champion. But they can be counted on to continue to achieve things against the favourites. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, so far no team has disappointed. This shows that international football is drawing more and more closely together and that athleticism is increasing. In addition, the organisation of the smaller teams is getting increasingly better, and so that's why some of the favourites are having some problems.
Fast football at World Cup 2018
What I especially like is that there has been fast-paced football even from those teams that one had not expected it from. This means a rapid changeover from defence to offence, the kind that defending world champions Germany had major problems with against Mexico. I had expected this from Mexico, but other teams also are confident in this style of play. Even Panama tried it against Belgium.
This World Cup has also shown how important the set piece situations are in football. These should be practiced more. Set pieces could particularly benefit the big teams in helping them live up to their favourites billing. When an opponent lies so deeply back in its own area, not too many scoring chances can be created. Set piece situations are a weapon that can decide matches. Just think of England's Harry Kane against Tunisia or Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo against Spain. This looks to be an emerging trend.
And talking about Ronaldo: for me, the tournament got off to a really good start with the Spain-Portugal match. Despite giving up three goals, Spain have been the most convincing among all the favourites. Their defence was not as bad as it would appear, for one of the goals resulted from a mistake by the keeper and the other two were a penalty shot and a free kick, in other words, two set piece situations.
Up front, the Spaniards have so far demonstrated the highest quality of play, and after setbacks when the other team scored, the team showed its character. Among the top-name teams, I have also been very pleased by England, even though I don't count them among the circle of favourites. But their style of play was convincing.
Iceland were outstanding
When it comes to team unity, then Iceland were outstanding. I have never before in my life seen how a team played as a disciplined collective with a very clear strategy the way Iceland played and maintained for the entire match against Argentina. The 93rd minute was a mirror-image of the first second in terms of their system and order. That was remarkable.
But Argentina also did a few things wrong. They were always trying to attack through the middle, and their game is also much too focussed on Lionel Messi. This is not good for the team, but also not for Messi, who constantly was surrounded by four or five opposing players. Like a magnet, he was being sought out by his team, a tactic that is too transparent. Argentina also have some problems in the defence as well.
What Cristiano Ronaldo achieved with his three goals was sensational, even if, as already mentioned, they resulted from a keeper mistake, a penalty and a free kick. But with his technique he is predestined for such set piece situations. Moreover, one notices that he has better contact with his teammates than Messi does. Messi is the player they are looking for and shift the responsibility to, but I'm missing the communication with his teammates.
Messi and Ronaldo: very different players
With Portugal it is a completely different story. Ronaldo is the leading figure who organises and directs the others. With his free kick at the end of the match he illustrated his uniquely individual quality. In their own ways, Messi and Ronaldo are world-class players, but they are not comparable. Messi thrives on his dribbling and so is more the magician. Ronaldo wins with the power of his shots, with his sheer force. He is more the ice-cold type.
To me, Argentina are, among the major teams, one of the most in danger of being eliminated in the group phase of play. They are in a strong group with such other opponents as Croatia and Nigeria. Those are two teams that are tough to play against. Brazil, despite their 1-1 draw against Switzerland, should go through. And if Germany find their usual form against Sweden and South Korea, they too should reach the last 16.
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