THURSDAY’S BIG STORIES
Well That Was Unexpected
Football, as Gary Lineker once said, is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end the Germans win. And you know what? It’s amazing how sticky this is. Of course Germany win. Germany always win. It’s practically a law of motion.
Kane fit to play against USA on Friday – Southgate
18 MINUTES AGO
It helps, of course, that Germany were genuinely pretty good going forward. There are half-written paeans to Jamal Musiala out there that will never see the light of day. The teenager stamping his authority on the World Cup. The future of German football. The one that England let get away. Hang on, there’s a game of football happening here.
Germany won the xG battle and they won the eye test. Japan, however, won the football game, and they did so thanks to a radical, rarely-seen tactic: they used their substitutions to get better. At half-time they brought on Takehiro Tomiyasu to fix the huge hole on the right of their defence, and then began to retool their attack: Kaoru Mitoma and Takuma Asano came on just before the hour, Ritsu Doan joined the fun on 71 minutes, and Takumi Minamino completed the shift on 74; the equaliser came a minute later. Japan, pouring forward from a back five, had gone from vulnerable makeweights into extremely irritating opponents.
And they just punched right through Germany, whose soft centre was brutally exposed. The winner is emblematic here: Asano’s touch to control the long ball is beautiful, but it’s his strength that holds off Nico Schlotterbeck, his speed that gets past him, and the power in the shot that nearly removes Manuel Neuer’s head. Stereotype demands that Japan turn up, play tidy technical football, and then make a dignified exit to the faint howls of a thousand hipsters. This lot, on the other hand, are delightfully scrappy.
The extent to which Germany are in real, proper, early exit trouble here cannot be underestimated. We’ll get to their next opponents Spain in the next bit, but it was the showing – the total lack of showing – from Costa Rica that will be giving Hansi Flick the shivers. If Japan win on Sunday morning, then that makes Germany’s game against Spain an (almost) must-win. Which seems absurdly early in the tournament for knock-out football, but we don’t make the rules.
Finally, we are once again forced to consider one of the World Cup’s most enduring questions. Can an upset really be an upset if a psychic animal has called it? Here is Taiyo, a small-clawed otter, making the right prediction ahead of the game. Some psychic animals are obvious frauds. But look at Taiyo’s face here. That is the crumpled, dignified coupon of an animal that has seen all the futures laid out in all their horror, and has survived to tell what he can. We believe him.
Pass, Pass, Pass, Pass, Goal!
To look at Spain’s teamsheet before the game was to look deep into Luis Enrique’s soul. Midfielders in defence, midfielders in midfield, midfielders up front. Rodri at centre-half. Marco Asensio up top. Three players aged 33 or older; the other eight with an average of 23 and a half.
Worked though, didn’t it? Seven goals and a thousand passes later, Spain emerged from their first game with three points, and with the first World Cup no-hitter – that’s no shots from Costa Rica, not even one – that we can remember. They could almost certainly have got away with another midfielder in goal, although that might have provoked their opponents into shooting from anywhere. Or violence. Or crying.
Common sense insists, of course, that this team is still a little too young in key areas, and a little too makeshift in others, to be considered a proper contender. Common sense, however, can do one: look at Gavi. Look at Dani Olmo. Look at Pedri. Giddy scurrying children with thousand-year-old football brains and the self-confidence of volcanoes. We were pretty scared, and we were watching on television. Imagine how Costa Rica must have felt.
Beyond the amusement value of the various shock results, what we’re seeing in this first round of games is essentially a test: which of the big teams have plans that work with basically no rehearsal. England, France and now Spain have all arrived and slipped straight into a groove that makes the most of their strengths; Argentina and Germany have been caught cold. The last game of any tournament asks the question: “Are you good enough?” The first asks something simpler but much more important. “Are you awake?”
We know how this all ends, of course. Over the course of the next few games Luis Enrique adds more and more midfielders to his line-up, and Spain get more and ever more themselves, before they eventually run into a proper team, put together 107% possession, and lose 1-0. The problem with trying to turn football from a two-sided game to a one-sided game is that the very best teams don’t need much of the ball. But that’s for later.
Fun fact: Germany had more shots on target against Japan than Spain did against Costa Rica (8 against 7), and nearly twice as many off-target (17 against 9). The xG numbers vary depending who you ask, but most have Spain only slightly ahead. And yet here we are, with one team in existential despair and the other feeling pretty damn good about things. This isn’t meant to be a point about the virtues or otherwise of watching football through a calculator. But it does suggest that Sunday evening’s game could be very exciting indeed.
Nothing To See Here
Attention, England fans: he’s fine. Nothing to worry about. Just a scan. Harry Kane loves ankle scans, we all know this. No ankle has ever been scanned more. He’s fine. Panic over. One ankle, two ankle, both present and as correct as is possible, for a 29-year-old footballer with bad ankles who gets kicked a lot.
Besides, who cares? He didn’t even score against Iran, and everybody scored against Iran.
The World Cup isn’t really a place for intellectual exercises, but from a neutral perspective, the prospect of England having to do without Kane – don’t worry! he’s fine! it says he’s fine right here! – is a fascinating one. England, being a proud football nation with a strong league and lots of money, have plenty of attacking options in their squad. But none of them are quite a Kane. Nobody is.
So how would Southgate solve the problem, if there were a problem to solve? (To be clear, there definitely isn’t.) The last three times Southgate has sent out a team without Kane up front – Italy in June, Ivory Coast in March and Andorra last October – he’s brought in another striker to do the job. Excitingly, none of those strikers – Tammy Abraham, Ollie Watkins and Patrick Bamford – have made the squad. Not the greatest of preparations, then. But the signs are good for either Callum Wilson or Marcus Rashford. There’s a lot more to Kane than his finishing, of course, including those magnificently healthy ankles. But England’s manager does like to have a finisher.
On the other hand, there’s the chaos option. (This is the option we would like to see.) Phil Foden as false nine. Or Jack Grealish as even falser nine. You could put together a pretty good argument that the most important thing about Kane isn’t his finishing, or his goalscoring, but all the other stuff, the look-I’m-pretending-to-be-a-midfielder stuff. So, replace him with a midfielder? To be clear, this will not happen. Kane’s ankles are both A-OK, and Southgate is not a gambler. But it absolutely should. Imagine the pretty patterns that Foden, Saka and Sterling could weave. Imagine just how Spanish it could all get…
Kane, who is healthier than an ox that takes activated charcoal, will definitely start against the USA. And if England get the result they need, then perhaps Southgate will take the chance of resting him and his (fully functional) ankles against Wales. Probably the wrong way round, those two games, from an England point of view: the USA leave a lot more space to run into than the Welsh. But then none of this really matters, since Kane is fine, and his ankles are fine, and nobody needs to worry about anything.
Pickford: ‘Our real aim is to win the World Cup’
IN OTHER NEWS
It’s not a World Cup until Brazil have played, so they say. This lad agrees.
IN THE CHANNELS
Hey look, it’s England’s two false nines. Now, there’s a thought… has anybody ever tried playing two false nines, both at the same time? In something we’re calling a 4-4-2-0? Or is this World Cup fever starting to get to us just a little.
Last night, Canada battered Belgium all over the pitch, and lost 1-0. A cruel lesson in the realities of a World Cup, perhaps, or maybe just one of those things. Either way, Canada coach John Herdman wasn’t too downhearted: “We’re gonna go and ‘F’ Croatia, that’s as simple as it gets. That’s our next mission now.”
If you’re wondering, kids, the “F” stands for “football”.
In 1993, a 17-year-old Herdman […] boarded a flight to Spain and began chatting with the pilots. His cheeky side got the best of him, and while discussing the film Top Gun, he coyly asked if he had a bomb, what would happen? “You’re not aware of the consequences of that sort of conversation,” he says. Herdman was arrested once the plane landed in Spain before being released. “A lot of learnings happened for me very young,” he says.
If you like “mad genius” coaching stories – that delightful place where Brian Clough meets David Brent meets TED Talks – then this is pure catnip. Here’s how he dealt with the fistfights that broke out during his first day in charge of Canada’s men’s team:
“Having filmed training via a drone, Herdman pulled his team together to show them footage of the aftermath of the punch-ups rather than the session. Players from different backgrounds stuck together, and walked their separate ways when the fights broke out.
‘This is why you’ve not qualified for a f***ing World Cup. Unless you f***ing fix this, we are going nowhere,’ he remembers telling his team. ‘Because when the s*** hits the fan, when things get tough, this team splits.'”
And here he is, back in the day, trying to persuade the English to play futsal.
Switzerland vs. Cameroon, Uruguay vs. South Korea, Portugal vs. Ghana, then Brazil vs. Serbia. And then everybody will have played once, and we’ll be able to work out the winner!
More Andi Thomas tomorrow. But no more on Harry Kane’s ankles. Because they’re fine. Totally fine. Completely fine.
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