Brazil claimed their fourth Confederations Cup title with a convincing victory of World champions Spain.
It was a result many would have never predicted and it left football fans around the world with hope that Spain can be knocked off their perch. More so, the much-maligned Confederations Cup that takes place every four years, one prior to the World Cup, went against the cliché of being a pointless tournament.
Over the past two weeks, we have witnessed high quality football matches – the three matches featuring football minnows Tahiti were blowouts, yet even the small nation with a population of approximately 267,000 people gave us something to cheer about. A tournament consisting of Brazil, Italy and Spain was never going to disappoint, and although it looked certain that these sides would finish in the top three, it was never guaranteed.
This tournament was always going to be a great chance for Brazil and Italy to establish themselves as contenders for next years World Cup, while Spain was looking to covet the one trophy that has eluded them during their phenomenal five-year run – but the key question that needs to be raised is did these teams achieve their goals? And who was the real winner over the past two weeks?
Cesare Prandelli has done a remarkable job in transforming the identity of the Azzuri since taking over the Italian side. Reaching the European final last year was a fantastic achievement, but the Italians have taken a few steps back over the past 12 months. Prandelli’s obsession with a possession-based system has been no secret, and the Italian has been keen on playing in a 4-3-2-1.
The importance of dominating the midfield has become essential, and a midfield containing Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi is more than capable of achieving success. Surprisingly, besides the opening game against Mexico, the midfield trio failed to impress – they struggled against Japan, missed the Brazil match and were better against Spain, due to their lack of pressure.
Despite his mediocre displays for Roma, Daniele De Rossi has once again rose to the occasion under Prandelli – his ability to break up play, drop deeper to provide another passing outlet, spray positive forward and diagonal passes and getting forward to provide the final ball and score goals, displays why he’s one of the top midfielder’s in world football.
Along with De Rossi’s star performances, Mario Balotelli also demonstrated that he has the qualities to be a top striker at the international level. The AC Milan striker’s presence was missed in Italy’s final two games, as he played an integral role in the Azzuri’s attack. Balotelli’s ability to hold up the ball and turn on either side, along with his brute strength to shrug off defenders was key – it’s also key to highlight the two goals scored in three games played, one being a winner against Mexico.
Prandelli will also be pleased with Emanuele Giaccherini and Antonio Candreva – both men showcased their tactical discipline and awareness throughout the tournament. Giaccherini linked play with the Italian striker, got into dangerous areas throughout the final third, and his versatility to play in a wingback role against Spain was pivotal.
Candreva was the odd man out prior to the tournament, but injuries and suspensions earned the Lazio winger a place in the starting lineup, and he failed to disappoint. His performance against Spain was memorable – he sat back to protect Maggio, and on the attack he would drift centrally to receive the ball, along with relentlessly attacking Jordi Alba. Prandelli’s dilemma in finding suitable floater’s to play in his 4-3-2-1 may be solved with the emergence of Giaccherini and Candreva.
Surprisingly, Italy’s weakness throughout the tournament was their defence – the days of scoring a goal and defending deep as a unit may have past us. In five games, the Italians conceded 10 goals, keeping only one clean sheet against Spain. The Juventus trio in Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli looked comfortable playing in a back three, opposed to a back four, where they left large gaps available and made several errors.
Gianluigi Buffon patched up a few blemishes throughout the tournament with the three penalty saves he made in the third – place penalty shootout, but the errors made should never be overlooked. Like the Juventus centrebacks, Buffon looked a shadow of himself, and although it’s certain he’ll be in Brazil next year, questions must be posed on whether he should be Italy’s starting keeper for the future. With more games under his belt, Mattia De Sciglio has the potential to be a top-class left back in the near future, while Prandelli still faces issues on the right side. Ignazio Abate hasn’t been consistent enough, while Christian Maggio continues to thrive in a wingback role, but is a liability in a fullback position.
Some positives have come out of Italy’s Confederations Cup campaign, but Prandelli shouldn’t let their third place finish overshadow the issues that need to be addressed over the next 12 months. Prandelli has yet to find the perfect starting 11 for his 4-3-2-1 that he seems keen on playing in – but the Italians have displayed their tactical versatility to play in multiple systems, which is key at this level. If the Italians can address these issues heading into Brazil, there’s no reason why Italy shouldn’t be in contention to lift their fifth World Cup.
Out of the three contenders in this tournament, Spain looked to be the closest thing to complete. Del Bosque was disappointed to hear that Xabi Alonso would be unavailable for the entirety of the tournament – handing Javi Martinez, arguably the best player in that position this season, a chance to play in the double pivot with Sergio Busquets. Another surprise was the squad selection – many were expecting Del Bosque to select a younger squad, so the first-team could finally get a well-deserved rest, but to also implement a few fresh faces. Spain failed to lift the Confederations Cup, once again losing by a large margin – but unlike their 2-0 loss to the Americans in 2009, this time Del Bosque’s men were thoroughly out played.
Del Bosque stuck with a 4-3-3 throughout the tournament – Spain was now fluid in attack and creating more chances – but they were vulnerable to quick direct counter attacks. The reason why Del Bosque introduced the double-pivot upon his arrival was to prevent the likeliness of Spain being carved open on the counter – this made his decision to keep Javi Martinez on the bench peculiar. With Jordi Alba being one of Spain’s main attacking threats, this left del Bosque with three defenders and Sergio Busquets – Gerard Pique has declined over the past year, Alvaro Arbeloa a generally decent defender had a shocking tournament, leaving Sergio Ramos as their only competent defender.
This forced Spain to defend cautiously, along with the high temperatures and fatigue issues during the latter stages of the tournament. Nevertheless, Diego Forlan found space behind Busquets in the opener, Nigeria was allowed space in midfield to penetrate when Spain dropped into their shape, Italy nullified Jordi Alba’s threat by cleverly attacking the Spanish fullback and Brazil’s explosive direct counter attacks exposed del Bosque’s men. Del Bosque stuck with the 4-3-3, but it left Spain exposed, and the heat, along with the span between games hindered their chances of being successful in this tournament.
Another key factor was the injury of Cesc Fabregas – the Barcelona midfielder has finally secured a starting role, and was a key loss to la Roja. Fabregas provided Spain’s attack with an extra reliable passer/passing option, and his ability to find space between the lines was key. He was positioned narrow to allow Alba to surge forward, but he often linked play with Pedro Rodriguez, and got into advanced positions from midfield. His overall presence was integral to Spain’s fluidity going forward, which could have played a part in Spain failing to score in their final two games.
Spain has an abundance of world-class midfielders, but del Bosque has struggled to implement his top-class midfielders in Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata into the side. Both midfielders have struggled to adapt to Spain’s tiki-taka approach, often playing more direct balls, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s affected the balance and fluidity in the side – with the decline of David Villa and Fernando Torres, along with del Bosque not fancying Roberto Soldado, the balls provided from Cazorla and Mata haven’t been needed.
Is tiki-taka dead? Has Spain’s dominance come to an end? Both questions can’t be answered with full confidence, but it’s key to note that these same questions were posed after Spain’s defeat to the Americans four years ago – then they went on to win the World Cup and the Euro Cup two years later.
“I won’t make excuses – they were better than us and that is that. Sometimes it’s convenient to lose so you don’t think you’re unbeatable.” – Vicente del Bosque
Del Bosque’s decisions were stubborn, and he ignored the deficiencies that his side possessed – similar to Tito Vilanova’s situation against Bayern Munich this year, albeit Vilanova’s bench was much weaker. Based on the past, Spain should still enter Brazil in 2014 as favourites, but del Bosque will need to make some alterations to his system – preferably playing with a double pivot – if Spain intend on winning their second consecutive World Cup.
Luiz Felipe Scolari had many critics to silence ahead of his second stint with the Brazilian national team. Scolari inherited a side that had failed to impress over the past 24 months, failing to make an impact in the Copa America, along with the loss to Mexico in the Olympics last year. In a nation where expectations are so high, Scolari had to not only convince his side that they were winners, but the fans as well.
One of Brazil’s main strength’s going into 2014 is their defence, which could explain why they only conceded three goals throughout the entire tournament. They relied on direct play from their fullbacks, David Luiz’ reliable passing out of the back and the leadership of Thiago Silva. Surprisingly, it was the offence that needed to be ironed out, as there were many questions about Brazil’s tactical discipline and awareness. Nevertheless, three of Brazil’s front four were superb – Oscar moved into pockets of space to receive and play incisive passes, Neymar showcased the talent he possesses scoring four remarkable goals and Fred’s ability to link play with the attacking three, along with leading the press was vital.
Scolari made one change to his starting lineup during the tournament, when Hernanes started ahead of an injured Paulinho. It was shocking to see Hulk start in all five matches based on his form and the fact that Lucas Moura was available – a player that offers more pace, danger in the final third, and has a higher tactical IQ than the Zenit St. Petersburg player. Brazil developed a perfect blend of defence and attack in their starting line up, and Scolari displayed his ability to make tactical alterations in matches – specifically against Uruguay.
Although, Brazil won all five matches, there are still some questions to pose. Brazil’s ability to take over games once their opponents settle has yet to be seen, and there was a heavy reliance on players such as Neymar and Oscar – Scolari can get away with a small bench here, but he’ll need to rotate throughout the World Cup and be able to cope if one of the aforementioned players is sidelined.
On the other hand, they scored 14 goals in five games, conceding four, and finished the tournament unbeaten. Scolari was able to find cohesion between midfield and attack, building a potential starting 11, which showcased his sides tactical flexibility. Brazil have been here before, but have failed to replicate their success the following year, and Scolari will need to do so if he wants to mark his reign as a successful one.
We now sit 12 months away from arguably the biggest tournament on the planet, and three potential contenders have showcased their progress thus far. Italy’s tactical versatility, Spain’s fluid attack and Brazil’s energetic starts were positive – but defensive errors, naivety in tactical changes, and failure to take over matches will be one of many flaws to fine-tune.
“Now I am able to dream that we have an idea, that we have a path ahead of us, and that we have a good team to play in the World Cup next year as equals with other strong contenders.” – Luiz Felipe Scolari
“But as far as the team is concerned, one thing that is important is that in the last 30 days we have beaten four former or current world champions: France, Uruguay, Italy and Spain,” Scolari said.
“We are a team still being formed, facing a lot of difficulties and I think this win upgrades the team, giving us more confidence. It’s something that will make us play in a different way,” he said.
Nevertheless, although no team has ever won the World Cup after a Confederations Cup triumph, Scolari’s men were the real winners over the past two weeks.
They found a distinct balance in skill, power and tactical awareness – luckily for the other 31 teams, a lot can change in 12 months.