The World Cup is undoubtedly the pinnacle of any footballer’s career and, despite what any misinformed nonce might tell you about the Olympics or anything else, is quite simply the biggest sporting event on the planet.
Having qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1998, we travelled to Brazil with little expectation of making any sort of impression on the tournament. Little expectation but perhaps a quiet ambition to get out of the groups and see what madness ensued once knockout football came into play.
We’d been drawn in a reasonably kind group consisting of ourselves, Uruguay, Cameroon and Honduras. Pre-tournament, I considered Honduras to be the whipping boys, Uruguay to be clear favourites and predicted that ourselves and Cameroon would fight it out for second place.
When I last updated, I’d nominated our 30 man-squad and the first thing that I needed to do was to trim this to 23. Bizarrely, this was required before I’d played any warm-up friendlies. Not sure if this is another bug but, like many things with international football, it seems to have been poorly implemented by SI.
Nevertheless, I chose my 23, moved on to the warm-up friendlies and embarked on the first of what I hope to be many major international tournaments with Das Team…
First up, I had to trim the 30 man-squad down to the 23 that would see us through the tournament. After much deliberation, this is the squad that I decided to take to Brazil:
Probably the biggest surprise, for the media at least, is the inclusion of newgen forward Jens Hoeneß at the expense of Andi Weimann and Patrik Burger. In the end, it came down to the fact that I felt Alar and Harnik were better suited for the advanced forward role whilst, even at 18, I don’t think there’s a better deep-lying forward available to me than young Hoeneß… it proved to be a fine choice.
There was also a decision to made in defence with, Dragovic aside, my options being much of a muchness. In the end, I opted for the experience of Prodl and Pogatetz backed up by Hinteregger and Dibon. This meant that Rapid’s Sonnleitner and Lens’ Remo Mally missed out. Mally was always likely to be cut but I did procrastinate over Sonnleitner v Prodl for a while with the latter eventually winning out thanks to his extra experience despite my concerns over his pace… more on that later.
Couldn’t really hope for much better than that from the friendlies. We absolutely spanked Costa Rica which was to be expected although the manner of the victory was most pleasing.
The two games against the club sides also went well before we made really hard work of beating America. This last game was noteworthy, however, in convincing me to go with Lindner in goal rather than Konigshofer who I had previously favoured following impressive performances for the club side. The Everton reserve ‘keeper was outstanding in this game, keeping the score down before we finally came to grips with USA’s midfield and got the two late goals.
As I’d said before, we couldn’t afford a slip-up in the first game as we faced off against the team I saw as our main rivals for second place – Cameroon.
The Africans are a very strong team with the superb Eto’o the obvious threat along with Alex Song, Nicolas Nkoulou and Léonard Kwueke.
Having looked through Cameroon’s previous games rather closely, I came up with a general plan to ensure that, first of all, we didn’t lose the game and give us a foundation to push for a win.
The basic idea was to build on the main strength of the 3-4-1-2 by utilising our numbers through the middle to pack the central area. Eto’o was the main threat and I figured that we’d sit narrow and deep, allow Cameroon to have the ball in their own half but hit them hard as soon as they got within 40 yards of our goal.
Having taken the best part of half an hour to come up with this game plan, you can imagine how disappointed, and a little embarrassed, I was when Eto’o went clean through after just 9 minutes and put an absolutely delightful chip over Lindner’s head and into the bottom corner. Not exactly the ideal start…
However, as with all the games at the World Cup, I was watching the full game and was generally pleased with how we were performing.. Sometimes you can do everything right but the opposition just finds a way through. With Cameroon having a team filled with talented players then it’s even more likely that they, just like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, will “find a way”. I’m really not sure what Jurassic Park has to do with this but despite being behind, I decided we were on the right track and kept ploughing on.
And as it turns out, I was exactly right to do so. The defence were magnificent throughout as we repelled Cameroon time and again, allowing them to keep the ball in their half as often as they want. Prodl, Dragovic and Pogatetz made 17, 10 and 10 interceptions respectively as only failed in 3 of the 31 attempted tackles.
With the defence sorted, it was only a matter of time before our probing attacks finally broke through and it was no surprise that Martin Harnik came up with the goods. He’s been top scorer since I took over and his pace has been an absolutely vital part of the team throughout.
The tactic I employed in this game obviously comes with an element of risk in that we’re surrendering the wide areas to an extent and there’s always the chance that allowing the opposition to maintain the majority of the ball will eventually cost you – as it did early in this game.
But that Eto’o goal was Cameroon’s only shot on goal in the entire game which pleased me greatly but not so much as taking the win in an absolutely crucial game.
Taking morale from that win, we faced Uruguay next – a game I really didn’t expect to get much from.
Knowing that they were going to play a 4-4-2 diamond, I went with an entirely different approach by trying to push the defensive line up and playing narrow to restrict the space Gastón Ramirez was looking to exploit in front of my defence. And then, when we had the ball, look to exploit the flanks which should be exposed with Uruguay likely to have their fullbacks pushed up to support the attack.
Sounds reasonable right? Well it didn’t really work out. In fact, it didn’t work out at all and Uruguay gave us a proper doing. Despite that high line, Ramirez was finding as much space as he wanted and with Cavani constantly pulling out to the left flank to run at the painfully slow Sebastian Prodl, we got taken apart time and time again. Nothing that I was trying was working and all that was happening was that I was plugging one gap for two or three to spring up in their place.
Uruguay are a very handy side but I’m honest enough to say that I got this one wrong time and time again. I should have gone with the defensive 4-5-1 that I’d used against Germany previously. I didn’t and we were 3-0 down inside 20 minutes. By the time I’d learnt my lesson it was too late. Prodl got hooked and played no further part in Brazil as his lack of pace was completely exposed.
Once we’d switched it up, we got a 2-2 result but, of course, we couldn’t ignore the first half hour and a 5-2 defeat was probably a fair reflection on the doing we got over 90 minutes. Lesson learned.
Despite that pummelling, we were still in a good position. With 3 points in the bag and Cameroon defeating Honduras in the other game, all we had to do was better Cameroon’s result against Uruguay and we’d go through. Facing Honduras, supposedly the group’s weakest side, I was very confident.
Hmm… we really got away with that one. We were awful and put in our worst competitive performance since I took over. Honduras played a standard 4-5-1 with the midfield trio of Hendry Thomas, Wilson Palacios and Luis Ramos completely dominating the midfield. Fortunately, our defence were the only discipline to put in a decent performance and largely restricted the Central Americans to efforts from distance. Although, to be fair, at least they managed some attacking intent.
We nicked a goal from a corner and simply held on from there. With Uruguay comfortably disposing of Cameroon, we were safely through in second place – the table ending thus:
For a side that wasn’t even expecting to get to the World Cup, qualifying from any group is a major achievement. I’m incredibly lucky that the one decent performance we put in came in the game that we really needed it in. We’d probably have lost to Uruguay anyway whilst Cameroon would have destroyed us had we put in a performance like the Honduras game.
Nevertheless, we were into the Second Round along with the 15 best teams in the world… well I say that but there were some strange results in the other groups. Slovakia won all their games to top their group ahead of Brazil whilst knocking out Mexico and Ghana; Portugal and Holland went out winning just one game between them whilst Bosnia, Nigeria and Switzerland all progressed. I was only particularly interested in Group H, however, as it would provide our opponents in the next round.
Unsurprisingly, Spain topped a group of Croatia, Algeria and Oman with a perfect record. The European and World champions would be our next opponents… bugger.
There was absolutely no way I was going to make the same mistakes as the Uruguay game and so the 3-4-1-2 got a bit of makeover. The deep-lying forward role was withdrawn, with Pehlivan dropped into the DMC position and Gorgon starting in a box-to-box role in midfield. With Spain playing an orthodox 4-2-3-1, Pehlivan would mark the AMC and I’d again rely on numbers through the middle to keep the defence solid. Did it work? Did it ever.
Boom! Take that tiki-taka.
Ok, we were lucky. More than lucky, downright jammy as hell. But you need that luck against the big sides and we took our chances supremely well. When Jordi Alaba scored, I feared a capitulation but, having taken the pressure off both before the game and at half time, the team didn’t get downheartened. Two goals in 4 minutes shocked the champions and 20 minutes of abject anti-football saw the game out.
What was even more pleasing was the source of the winner. Rapid’s very own newgen superstar-in-the-making Jens Hoeneß showing his class to overpower Javi Martinez to win the through ball and then fire unerringly in off the post.
So, having just beat Spain, we could go on and win this thing right? We’d just beaten the best side in the world, nothing could stand in our way.
England waited for us in the quarter finals and would end our superb run in comprehensive fashion. I decided to play the tactics which had been so successful against Spain which, in hindsight, was a critical error as Hodgson set his side up in a very English 4-4-2.
Carrick ran the show in midfield whilst Rooney denied my defenders and DMC any time on the ball, making a quite ridiculous 12 tackles in the game. To be honest, I don’t really have much to say about this game. We played poorly, fluffing an early chance from Harnik that could have meant a very different game but really failing to impose any sort of control in any area of the pitch.
In truth, we desperately missed Raphael Holzhauser and his controlling influence on the game. He’d been injured in the closing minutes of the Spain game and missed out on the quarter final, something which didn’t prevent him from winning the Young Player of the Tournament Award. It’s no coincidence that our two worst performances – England and Honduras – were the two games that the playmaker missed. He looks set to be a vital part of the team for years to come.
England eventually went on to win the tournament (booooooo!) but, as you can see below, it was a mightily odd tournament.
If you win a World Cup, you’d expect to play at least one game against one of the best sides in the world. As it is, England won the thing with their hardest game being that against France in the group stage – a game they lost 1-0.
When Peter Crouch and Jack Cork score the winning goals in the World Cup Final, you know something has to be wrong.
In terms of Austria’s performances, I have to be delighted. I did not expect to make it to the quarter-finals and, to be honest, I’m a little worried that this will now lead to tough expectations from the FA who already expect me to make the playoffs in qualifying for Euro 2016.
Those worries are for another day, though. Not only has this tournament been better than expected but it’s also given me an opportunity to assess the players against top class opposition. As such, Sebastian Prodl will find himself on the fringes of the national side from here on in and he’ll be replaced by the increasingly impressive Christopher Dibon. Yasin Pehlivan was excellent and will find himself used regularly in future whilst Holzhauser is now a key player and Hoeneß is definitely good enough for international football.
I’ve also been found wanting in the right midfield position with neither Garics nor Junuzovic covering themselves in glory. Perhaps it’s time to try out Schimpelsberger or Farkas.
Before I start rambling too much, it’s time to wrap it up… quarter finals and beating Spain!! It might look like a great tournament but we played two good games and three bad games – that shouldn’t be forgotten. Plenty of improvement is yet required.