Diego Maradona will not be running naked through the Buenos Aires streets. We won’t see Dunga’s face awash with a blend of relief and self-approval. Argentina played romantically. Brazil played pragmatically. Both were eliminated at the quarterfinals, just as they were in 2006. Fans of the South American favorites will be searching for answers. Both sets should look at the hubris of the men that were hired.
Sex, love and four forwards failed for Brazil in 2006. Dunga had the panacea. A defensive midfielder as a player, he created a team of eleven Dungas. They were athletic, physical, organized and uncompromising. They pressed, absorbed pressure and pounded teams with a brisk counterattack. He slotted players into the system and stocked the bench with like-minded replacements. He left the fancy boys, such as Ronaldinho, Pato, Neymar and Adriano, at home. It worked quite well, until the World Cup.
Brazil were exuberant when attacked against Ivory Coast and Chile. They struggled against North Korea and Portugal, who defended and forced them to dictate the game. They were abysmal and ineffective when they went behind against Holland, because they could only play one way.
The Brazilian workmen could not switch styles to chase a goal. There was no samba, little flair and zero spontaneity. Behind and down to ten men, they looked not like Brazil but like a slightly less crazed version of Greece. No image was more emblematic than the geriatric Gilberto Silva racing down the wing to spur the attack. Ronaldinho is an instinctive free-spirit. Starting him in that system would have been counterproductive, but not having a dynamic specialist of his type when you need a goal is inexcusable.
Dunga constructed a cynical, practical team, but, ironically, it was his idealized version of his own vision that cost him.
And then there was Diego…Until the Germany match, the consensus was that Maradona knew what he was doing. After the match it was clear he had no clue.
His team squeaked through qualifying playing a horrifying, pedestrian style unbefitting the talent available to him. It was like taking the finest Kobe beef and grinding it up to make hamburger helper. Maradona fed Argentina their World Cup qualification, but in a manner that was grotesque and shameful.
Maradona was criticized for being negative with his tactics. He responded in this World Cup by fielding skillful, attacking sides that embodied his mystique. Argentina overwhelmed lesser teams and fooled much of the media. But, facing their first quality opponent, Germany, they were exposed, ruthlessly. Maradona came to play Risk. Loew brought Axis and Allies.
Diego fielded the same diamond 4-4-2 formation he sent out against Mexico. It was far worse against Germany. The formation was exceedingly narrow. This let the Mannschaft defend a smaller stretch of grass and throw three or four guys at Messi every time he touched the ball. It left the German fullbacks uncovered and the vulnerable Argentine fullbacks completely exposed.
Argentina had one defensive midfielder, Javier Mascherano. The rest of the midfield were all primarily attackers. Maradona also had three forwards – Messi, Tevez and Higuain – who did not track back to defend. Argentina had just seven players defending. Only five of them were good at it. Mascherano had to choose between letting Ozil run wild behind him and leaving the middle of the field exposed for Schweinsteiger and Khedira. He chose the former and the rest of the German team exploited that space.
Besides leaving Argentina’s defense unsheltered, Maradona’s midfield selection also stymied the attack. Argentina had no creator to link up play with the forwards and distribute the ball efficiently. Mascherano is a straight ball-winner. Maxi Rodriguez and Angel Di Maria are both runners rather than playmakers. Instead of getting forward into dangerous positions. The forwards were searching backward to find the ball.
Playing the game Maradona set up for them, all Germany had to do was defend narrowly and deeply, get the ball wide and pick out passes in the middle of the field. They did this simply, efficiently and effectively and won 4-0. Maradona had opportunities to change tactics, to change personnel and to stem the tide and try to make something of the match. Instead he sat there completely dumbfounded. Players who would have solidified that formation, Inter Milan’s Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso were left off the team.
Both Dunga and Maradona constructed teams in their own image. The trouble is they weren’t complete players. Teams that are organized and defensively sound needs some inspiration to win the World Cup. Teams that are inspired need organization and a sound defense. Teams must be fresh, versatile and able to adjust their play. Brazil and Argentina could not and would not. That is why they were eliminated.
[Photo via Getty]