Brasil 2014 – the demise of the midfield maestro?

The World Cup in Brazil continues to provide us with some great football, entertainment and above all, great excitement. Five of the eight last 16 matches went to extra time and two of these were only decided by a penalty shoot-out. While Colombia comfortably beat Uruguay, the other two 90 minute matches were only won in the final minutes. Breathtaking, edge of your seat stuff, which confirms Brazil 2014 as one of the best World Cups ever.

Now that we have reached the quarter-finals a few tentative conclusions can be raised about the football.  Three developments stand out for me – the demise of the midfield maestro, the rise of the superstar striker and the heroics of some of the goalkeepers.  This has been a high scoring tournament so far, but we could be celebrating even more goals were it not for some truly outstanding goalkeeping performances. With one or two notable exceptions, goalkeepers have excelled themselves in Brazil. In part they have had to, due to the generally poor defensive performances of most teams. Even so, some of the stops have been breathtaking. Both of last night’s matches illustrated this point wonderfully well. Romero in the Argentina goal, almost single handedly kept his team in the competition with some incredible saves. In the other match Tim Howard made an amazing 15 saves for the USA, which helped take the match into extra time and kept everyone on tenterhooks until the final whistle. Other goalkeepers have performed equally well.

However the main development from my point of view has been the demise of the midfield general. The type of player who can control a game by his vision, passing and reading of the play. Players such as Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta of Spain and Andrea Pirlo of Italy are three of the greatest of this kind of midfield maestro. Their influence on matches goes a long way to explain why Spain won the World Cup in 2010 and Italy in 2006. Not this time though, as both Italy and Spain tumbled out of the tournament at the first hurdle. It is not that there are no first class midfield players around. Oscar from Brazil, Kroos from Germany, Sneider from the Netherlands and Pogba from France have all demonstrated great skill. Yet none of them has dominated a game in the way that Xavi and previously Pirlo were able to do.

On the whole the current generation of midfielders are more physical than their predecessors. The recent relative decline of FC Barcelona has been a harbinger of this development. The most successful teams, both at club level and at national level, try to move the ball as swiftly as possible from defence to attack. Often this is done by bypassing the midfield altogether. A long ball out wide to an attacking player has been one of the features of this tournament. The other notable feature has been the willingness of midfielders to run at the opposition and either force a way through or at least unsettle them and open up space for a rebound. All the teams left in the World Cup play more or less in a similar way. We seem to be returning to a more direct, running style of football.

Another feature of this World Cup is what might be termed the rise of the superstar striker. This development could with equal justice be described as dependency on a single, outstanding player. Both Portugal and Uruguay for example rely heavily on Ronaldo and Suárez respectively for goals and inspiration. it is very similar with at least three of the surviving teams to make the quarter-finals. Without Messi, Neymar or Robben it is hard to see how Argentina, Brazil or the Netherlands could have made it so far. All three teams seem to be excessively dependent on their superstar to score the goals as well as make them for others. James Rodríguez of Colombia may fall into this category. I haven’t seen enough of Colombia’s games to judge, but he certainly scores most of their goals.

It will be fascinating to see if one of these superstars can lead and inspire their team to the trophy. It has happened before. Argentina with Maradona in 1986, France with Zidane in 1998 and Brazil with Ronaldo in 2002 are recent examples where the winners were heavily, if not totally dependent on one exceptionally gifted player. However on the whole the winning team has tended to be a team with a more balanced squad. Neither Italy in 2006 nor Spain in 2010 had particularly gifted strikers. They did have well organized and balanced teams from defence forwards. France, Germany and Belgium are the teams which most fit this particular bill. Pretty strong all round with no dependency on any one player. Place your bets!  Whatever the outcome, the World Cup just promises to get better and better.

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