I’m not really sure how many more matches I’ll be watching out and about during this World Cup. It’s not that I’ve lost interest now England have gone, far from it, just that of the remaining teams there’s a high proportion of teams that I don’t really want to go and support in a national pub. Like Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Portugal. Germany I could definitely enjoy supporting, although there seems to be such a high percentage of Germans in London that it makes it trickier to get into places. Netherlands maybe. Chile I definitely could but I’m not sure they’ll get past Brazil tonight. Uruguay I definitely could but there’s so few Uruguayans here (or anywhere).

Anyway, that all means that I’ll be spending more nights in watching the matches from home (like tonight) which means I can write some slightly more considered posts (like this).

This has, so far, been a World Cup of pleasant surprises. Here are a number of them.

THE BEST PLAYERS HAVE (ALMOST) ALL PERFORMED

What does any fan want from the World Cup (apart from his/her team to win) other than all the best players playing, and playing well. Arjen Robben was one of the few absentees from the world stage but he announced his arrival today with a lovely goal. Other than that, the big names are all here and they’re all playing really well; David Villa looks every inch a Golden Boot winner, Leo Messi might not have scored but he has been the same player we saw in La Liga last season, ditto Xavi and Alonso. Torres hasn’t really fired but is still part of a winning team. Klose has the scoring touch, and the emergence of Ozil has been a joy to behold, even when he was ravaging Gareth Barry. Suarez and Forlan have lived up to their reputation for Uruguay, ditto Landon Donovan. Even Drogba did well for Ivory Coast despite his busted arm. Kaka has been unfit and then suspended but the brilliance of Robinho and Luis Fabiano has made it a moot point. Practically every team’s talisman has “come to the party” as they say. The only flop of note is, of course, Wayne Rooney.

INTERESTING FORMATIONS & TACTICS

Rarely have I found football as tactically interesting as this tournament. England’s rigid 4-4-2 aside, practically every team has latched onto a modern ideal of football as a fluid game that plays in between the traditional lines of defence, midfield and attack, exploiting space or, equally as fascinating, nullifying potential threats. Brazil play 2 holding midfielders with the effect of being near-impregnable and thus allowing their two full-backs to play as advanced wing-backs in support of two free-moving attackers around the centrepoint of Fabiano. Germany play a sort of 4-2-1-3 with Ozil floating to devastating effect behind Klose, Muller and Podolski. Chile’s 3-3-1-3 beggars belief.

But really, we shouldn’t be too surprised. What is a formation but a nominal deployment of 10 outfielders? The beauty and the craft is in how those 10 move and are instructed to move. England seem to be the only “major” nation not to have grasped this. That’s not to say that it would have done them any good; you can’t craft shit into gold simply by rearranging its structure, as a philosopher once said. Maybe.

Overall, there seems to have been an emergence that 3 defenders vs 2 attackers is comfortably enough, so you can afford to commit players elsewhere in an attempt to swing the game your way. This leads me to the next point:

A NEW BREED OF COACHES

A lot of the innovation on show is coming from a new breed of younger, less-experienced coaches while a lot of the old guard have fallen by the wayside: Rehhagel, Hitzfeld, Capello, Lippi, Eriksson to name a handful. In their place are emerging some exciting new names: Dunga, Low, Bradley, even Maradona. Bob Bradley I will turn to first because, although his tactics have been flawed from the outset in many of his games, he has shown remarkable nous to recognise this weakness and take steps to remove it – witness his first-half substitution when 1-0 down against Ghana. Similarly his deployment of the drifting Ds, Donovan and Dempsey, caused all hell for England and made the USA a pretty exciting side to watch. Overall, more than any of the other names above, he made his side better than the sum of its parts.

The rest are significant because they have had precious little managerial experience prior to taking on some of the biggest jobs in international football; Brazil, Germany and Argentina. Low is the most experienced with 8 years or so at a number of smallish clubs before stepping in to assist Jurgen Klinsmann in 2006. Maradona had almost no managerial experience anywhere, Dunga none at all.

While eating my breakfast this morning I heard Andy Gray say “it’s time for an English manager”. I was about to berate the TV but then he made what I took to be a very salient point, if not wholly linked with the previous one: international management is very different from club management, and therefore you don’t need experience to do the job. This thought had genuinely never occurred to me. I honestly find the idea that Beckham could manage England hilarious, but who knows? International management is different: all your players are there, there’s no wheeling-and-dealing, no day-to-day running, just limited training sessions, maybe 15 games a year and an emphasis on picking the right players and getting them to play the right way.

Low, Dunga and Maradona have all done that. All are blessed with extraordinarily good players. But Maradona’s laissez-faire approach is just perfect for his attack-heavy exhibitionist team – has has set his side up and said “let Veron and Mascherano do the dirty work. The rest of you, go play”. And they certainly are playing.

THE UNDERDOGS

Everyone loves an underdog. Until all the decent teams get knocked out and you’re left watching Portsmouth v Cardiff City in the 2008 FA Cup Final. The World Cup so far has had some wonderful shocks and surprises but, at the end of the group stages and through most of the last 16 games, all the best teams are still in it. Some might say that’s to the tournament’s detriment, I would say see Point 1 above.

This time round we’ve had Switzerland beating Spain in a result that looks more improbable with every passing game. Italy were done by Slovakia in arguably the game of the World Cup so far. France imploded spectacularly, giving South Africa a memorable win. Serbia beat Germany. New Zealand drew all three games against the odds, including against the champions Italy. The only underdogs to really miss out were Honduras and North Korea, but even they did themselves enormous credit in that first 50 minutes or so against Brazil.

FINALLY…

I would like to add here the pleasant surprise of discovering today that everyone outside of the FA and the media is in fact not in a frothing frenzy of hate or blame about England’s demise. 4-1 might be the best thing that happens to this generation of English football, on the pitch and in the stands.

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