Samba No More!

One overwhelming question has stuck with me since the completion of the World Cup. Is it possible to do it “samba style” anymore? Not since ’86, when Maradona dazzled the crowd, have we witnessed a team win the World Cup by playing free-flowing, attacking football. Even Brazil, who invented “samba style”, have not been there true selves since Zico’s side in ’82. So is this switch to a more tactical, organized style of play a good thing, and is it here to stay?

“Pragmatic”was a word I heard used about 400 times by analysts throughout the tournament. It was used to describe just about every team bar the French, who could only be described as sad. So lets look at these teams and see just how pragmatic they were. The Dictionary defines pragmatic as, “dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.”

Enter exhibit A, our prime candidate for pragmatist of the year, Joachim Loew. The German manager will come out of this tournament correctly recognized as one of the top young coaches in world football. He took the 2nd youngest squad, to a 3rd placed finish, and did so, for the most part, with great style.

The quick, counter attacking approach was a joy to watch and made the Germans the highest scoring side in the tournament. Players like Thomas Mueller and Mesut Ozil announced themselves as the future of German football and they looked like a team who enjoyed themselves. The Germans had every right to be optimistic about a fourth title.

After destroying English hearts again in the last 16, and then embarrassing Argentina and “the anti-pragmatist“ Maradona in the quarters, they came to a semi-final match-up with pre-tournament favorites Spain. Germany and Loew were bursting with confidence. They were coming off back to back 4 goal games, and with a burning desire to avenge their defeat to Spain in the final of Euro 2008.

However, look at the team sheets and you see that Spain would have been confident also. On paper they are some way ahead of the Germans. Loew knows this, and because he has lost to this side before, he begins to fear Spain a little too much. He may call it respect but it’s the same thing in this instance. Germany respected the tip-tap approach of the Spaniards and they feared the threat of Villa.

So Loew approached the game like any sensible, pragmatic coach would. He told his team to defend, to reduce Iniesta and Xavi’s space and to try and snatch a goal somewhere. The adventurous Schweinsteiger patrolled the middle and only attacked if need be. Lahm made 3 runs into the final third, compared to his usual 18 and you see a strategy emerging.

Spain thrived on this. They had seen it before. Their starting line up contained 7 Barcelona and 3 Madrid players. What kind of strategy and defense do you think they face every week in La Liga? Probably pragmatic ones – you see where I am going.

They didn’t panic when 60 minutes passed by without a goal. They continued to probe in their typical fashion because they knew that Germany would crack. Sure enough, a defensive blunder led to Puyol’s headed winner. It was un-realistic to expect the German defense to be focused for 90 minutes without fault. As it was, Germany had no back-up plan. They crumbled just like Portugal and Paraguay and all the others who tried to be pragmatic against Spain; they are just too good.

The Spanish team celebrate after Puyols headed goal.
The Spanish team celebrate after Puyols headed goal.

Earlier I described Joachim Loew as the ultimate pragmatist, and then criticized his use of pragmatism. So does this mean that pragmatism is bad? Well ask Brazil manager Dunga. He, like every Brazil manager, had one task, win the World Cup. He did it as a player and captain in ’94.

However he was widely scolded amongst the media in Brazil prior to the tournament. He built his side on the fundamentals, starting with a solid defense led by Lucio, Dunga’s captain. He chose two defensive midfield players and chose to leave Daniel Alves out in favor of the more cautious Michel Bastos at left back.

The media and the public did not like this in Brazil. But all would be forgotten if Dunga’s boys could bring home an unprecedented 6th title. They cruised through the early stages of the tournament brushing past Chile and into the quarters. There, they met a Holland side, equally comfortable throughout the tournament.

After 7 minutes Robinho scored and put the Dutch on their knees. They had no response and seemed their for the taking. But this was Dunga’s pragmatic Brazil, they didn’t go for the jugular as Pele or Zico would have, they sat back and defended their lead. Dunga was being realistic, he thought the chances of his side turning the Dutch over were slim, he was happy to escape with the 1-0 win.

Unfortunately for Dunga and Brazil. Wesley Sneijder and Holland had other ideas. They sent the “samba boys” packing, and as for the pragmatic Dunga, he lasted about 40 hours more in the job before he was fired. Brazil will be back, Dunga may not.

The Brazil coach was critisized throughout his time in charge. He was fired just 40 hours after Brazil were eliminated by Holland
The Brazil coach was critisized throughout his time in charge. He was fired just 40 hours after Brazil were eliminated by Holland

So where is the argument for pragmatism. Well it is everywhere, where it worked. Uruguay, who managed their best finish at a World Cup since 1950, were chief pragmatists. It was evident the moment they chose to shut up shop against France. That 0-0 draw was the catalyst for their impressive tournament.

Uruguay relied on heroic defending and Diego Forlan. They defended as a team right from the front. Just ask Luis Suarez, who became the villain of Africa after his handball sent Ghana out in the quarters. When Uruguay did score at this World Cup, you could bet Forlan had something to do with it and he deserves tremendous praise for his performances at this world cup.

Uruguay went into every match as the underdog or at least with a 50/50 chance of losing according to the experts. So they approached each game pragmatically and it worked for them. The fourth placed finish was way beyond anything the Uruguayan people expected prior to the tournament.

Pragmatism strikes back it would seem, in the shape of Uruguay. Other teams such as Paraguay and Ghana got their rewards for the way they approached each game sensibly and should be copied by other nations. But only other nations with similar ability. Should Holland, who were unbeaten in 25 games have been pragmatic against Spain?

Maybe somewhat, but not to the level they were. They eventually received the same punishment as the Germans for respecting the Spanish tip-tap too much. So who should be pragmatic, and should that always be the philosophy of football teams from now on?

Pragmatism should be used when necessary, by teams who feel they have an inferior level of quality in their ranks. If I were a doctor who could diagnose pragmatism to world cup teams who flopped this year. Argentina need constant prescribing. There disregard for anything to do with defending was exploited in their qualifying campaign, and while they rode a wave under Maradona in the early stages, they were out smarted badly by Germany.

Cameroon would also need a high dosage and even maybe England. While England are right to think they have a good enough squad to go out and beat Germany they were wrong to disrespect their young players. Ozil, Muller and co. ran riot against the un-suspecting English. They paid the price for their lack of pragmatism and must re-evaluate their own impression of where they stand in world football.

On the other hand a doctor sometimes has to cut some addicts off. Germany now know their talent level and need not be so cautious in big matches in the future (look out for this side to be favorites at Euro 2014). Cote D’Ivoire and Sven Goran Erikkson need to go cold turkey completely. The talent they had at their disposal, especially in the attacking third would have told you that the only way they could have beaten Brazil or Portugal was to attack, but they paid the price for their lack of adventure.

It is true that we will never again see a side as beautiful to watch as Hungary of ’54, Brazil of ’70 or Holland of ’74. The level of media scrutiny before each match, makes it impossible to play with freedom. Everything in football is so public for other coaches and teams that preparation is a huge element of the game.

Therefore we must face the fact that for every Spain side, there will be a Uruguay. And just because your country look good at the start of the World Cup, do not be fooled into thinking they will play that way throughout. Football has changed and shows no signs of going back. Like it or leave it, we are now watching the “Pragmatic Game.”

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