Thoughts on The International Break
More and more, it seems like international breaks are merely distractions from league football, similar to taking a phone call in the middle of your favourite video game or book, or having to do one domestic chore or the other. On top of this, the fitness of players away on international duty is monitored with keen interest. One mishap while playing for country could deprive a club of a key player or players for significant portions of the season, throwing plans into disarray. The examples of this are too numerous to mention.
Nevertheless, there are still some interesting events worthy of mention. I will run through a few below:
1. Dunga is back. We should be afraid: Carlos Dunga is back as Brazil coach, after the shambles that was their World Cup, conceding 10 times in their last 2 games. This is his second spell in charge, and his first spell was very impressive: Under his guidance, Brazil won the 2007 Copa America and the 2009 Confederations Cup, as well as coming first in the South American qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. In fact, his overall win percentage was 70% overall, and 67.6% in competitive games. In the 4 years between the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Brazil had a legitimate claim to the title of ‘Second best team in the world’ behind Spain, and had Brazil beaten Netherlands in the quarters, we would have seen them fight it out. Now that he is back, he has also started with 3 wins from 3, beating Colombia, Ecuador and eternal rivals Argentina without conceding a goal in the process, and he clearly prefers Miranda and Filipe Luis at the back, as well as Willian and Ramires in midfield, and Diego Tardelli upfront, who has proved an immediate upgrade on the ineffective Fred. Others like Marcelo, Hulk, and Jo have either been relegated or cut off altogether. Dunga’s style is unlikely to be different from the first time. He prefers to play on the counter, with a solid defence as the foundation, and while such a style is not what Brazil fans want to see, it will be difficult to put even one goal past the Brazilians, never mind seven.
2. Germany’s hangover continues: The world champions lost 2-0 to neighbors Poland, which is their 2nd defeat in the 3 games since that victory at the Maracana, the other being a 4-2 defeat at home to the team they beat in the final, Argentina. This has prompted talk of ‘crisis’ in some quarters, but that is very far from the reality. Key members of that World Cup triumph were missing against Poland: Lahm has retired, Schweinsteiger is injured, as are Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil. Beyond that, the players who are available are understandably shattered physically and emotionally, and will need time to recharge. Spain also went through similar struggles after winning in 2010: in the 6 games after beating the Netherlands in extra time, they drew with Mexico and lost 4-1 to Argentina and 4-0 to Portugal. Come the turn of the year, though, after the winter break, I suspect they will be fine and back to their dominant best.
3. Spain struggle to fit in Costa: Before the Slovakia game, which Spain eventually lost, Vicente Del Bosque was quoted as saying that the best Spain played under him was when they had no recognized striker on the field. In that, he was absolutely right. Spain won Euro 2012 despite having an out and out striker on the pitch only half the time, just the same way Barcelona were most effective with Messi as a false 9. The extent to which they dominate possession means that teams sit very, very deep, and thus rarely give any space in behind. A striker will often be left up by himself for long periods, while his team mates look for an opening, openings that are often finished off by midfielders who end up in the box. At Atletico and now Chelsea, this is not the way Diego Costa has prospered. Both teams often invite pressure and look to transition quickly from back to front. Pablo Alcacer of Valencia looks a better fit for this kind of style, but in Costa, Spain have one of the best strikers in the world with a real killer instinct that is hard to replicate. If Del Bosque can find a style that plays to his strengths, it will be a formidable plan B. The question is: Can he?
4. Sterling in the middle: Raheem Sterling found himself on the end of a lot of flak a few days ago, when England coach Roy Hodgson said the player ‘complained’ he was feeling tired before the game against Estonia, which England won 1-0. Apparently, a lot of people think you can never feel too tired to play for your country. Well, in Sterling’s case it is entirely possible. The 19 year old has had a very busy 2014, being a central figure in a title push, playing in the World Cup, as well as league and European duty this season. In sport, heck in life generally, ‘burn out’ is a very real problem, and some players are more susceptible to it than others, especially very early on in their careers. For example, burn out is very likely to be a factor behind Mesut Ozil’s inability to turn up game after game for Arsenal. It just so happens that he is playing an average of 12 minutes more in England, than he did in Spain, according to this article. Over time, it adds up. I am actually very happy that Sterling summoned the courage to tell his manager he was feeling jaded. Many players would not, because of the pressure of expectation to perform, and then play well below their best for a period. Sterling is a great talent, so it is understandable that his coaches will make demands on him, but those coaches also have a choice: Do they want Sterling close to his best as often as possible, or are they prepared to simply field him without prioritizing his development and protecting him? If used right, he could be a very good player for a long time, but overuse will only deprive his club and country of his services, at precisely the point he should be reaching his peak. That goes for other clubs as well. Playing ‘through the pain barrier’ seems noble in theory, but it should not be at the expense of a footballer’s long term health. In most other jobs, you could work 40 years before retiring at 65, but as a footballer, especially since the game is so physically demanding, you are lucky if you get half that at the very top. No matter how obscene a weekly wage is, that fact does not change.