In just over 8 weeks World Cup 2018 kicks off in Russia. Scotland may not have qualified for this one, or indeed any within the last twenty years, but we can still participate – as armchair analysts, fans of adopted nations and of course green eyed ‘anyone but England’ onlookers! Here at Pure Fitbaw we will be previewing a first round group each week in the lead up to June 14th’s opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia by highlighting a key element of a team, a star player and a Scottish connection.
In addition to Russia and Saudi Arabia Group A includes Egypt and Uruguay and it is those two nations which feature predominantly in our first preview with a look at the South American team’s spine and Egyptian star Mohamed Salah.
Team Feature: Uruguay’s spine
The ‘Hero Shrew’, a mammal found in the Democratic Republic of Congo has unique interlocking vertebrae in its spine which makes it five times more robust relative to its body mass. This small animal has incredible spinal strength and can lift logs and rocks with its back. Uruguay too is small but strong and, in footballing terms, its strength is contained in its spine. It has a land mass smaller than every other country in South America except Suriname and, at a current population of under 3.5 million, is the least populous winner of a World Cup ever.
The first interlocking vertebrae in the Uruguayan football spine is the manager Óscar Tabárez, aka ‘El Maestro (The Teacher)’, who has overseen the most games (173) in charge of a single national team in the recorded history of football. In 2006 at the start of his second period managing Uruguay, he implemented ‘El Proceso’ which was a plan to standardise tactics and coaching throughout the national team’s age groups. This will be his fourth World Cup in charge of the country and he clearly brings great stability and know how. This level of experience is also evident on the pitch due to the number of stalwarts who developed through ‘El Proceso’ and have been trusted players for Tabarez over the last decade. In fact, seven current squad members are among the ten most capped players ever for Uruguay and their recent victory over Wales in the China Cup Final featured five starting players with over 90 caps.
As seen above they tend to line up in a 4-4-2 and the spine runs directly through the middle. It begins with 96 times capped goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. The 31 year old was actually born in Argentina but to Uruguayan parents and, despite a dip in form for Turkish club side Galatasaray in late 2017, is considered a dependable last line of defence with fine shot stopping skills. The next link in the chain, Diego Godin, is the clearest embodiment of the necessary, functional – wow, you will really miss it when it is not there – back vertebrae. Godin is a ‘proper’ centre back with the blandest of cuts done to his – still just about there – hair, no visible tattoos or whitened teeth; just an immovable fury of heroic blocks, crucial tackles and the echoes of Uruguay’s motto ‘Libertad O Muerte’ thundering out from each heavy footstep. He has been a vital part of one of the meanest club defences in football since signing for Atletico Madrid in 2010; claiming individual accolades such as spots in the UEFA Champions League Squad of the Season three times and contributing to a La Liga win in 2013/14. Even this season, at the age of 32, he has helped his club to limit opposition xG per shot from open play to just 0.07 (the likelihood of a shot resulting in a goal where a certain goal is 1.0 and for example a penalty is around 0.75) and concede just 15 goals in 31 La Liga games whereas local rivals Real Madrid have let in 34 in the same number of matches.
Next to him, in central defence for Uruguay, is his partner at club level for Atletico Madrid; 23 year old Jose Maria Giminez. Although younger and heavily tattooed Gimenez espouses many of the same gritty qualities and, while he hasn’t featured in most league games this season, forms a key part of the international spine and is a future world class centre back.
Spines need some moving parts, intervertebral discs, to act as shock absorbers and in Uruguay’s system that mobility is provided by a pair of central midfielders. There are three candidates to fill those two positions and the most exciting is the least experienced and probably least likely to start. Lucas Torreira, who gained his first senior caps with two substitute appearances during Uruguay’s recent China Cup win, has had an outstanding domestic season as the combative, dynamic fulcrum to Sampdoria’s 4-3-2-1 formation. This season in Serie A the 22 year old has attempted 4.3 tackles every 90 minutes, scored 4 goals and has been man of the match in 3 of his 30 appearances. The other central midfield options also play their club football in Italy; 20 year old Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus and 26 year old Matias Vecino of Inter Milan. Both are good players and Vecino certainly offers more experience but based on a statistical comparison and the eye test over this season one should sit out for Torreira in Uruguay’s 4-4-2 set up.
The heavy, heroic, lifting at the business end of the pitch is done by two world class centre forwards: Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. Both are now 31 years old and have faced some criticism this season at club level – Barcelona’s Suárez for the diminished contribution he is perceived to be making to overall play and chance creation and PSG’s Cavani for being a flat track bully in a lesser league. Regardless, they will be one of the most experienced and talented attacking pairings at the World Cup and, as their xG and shots on target numbers in the radar visualisations of their club performance this season below suggest, are the deadly final element of the spine.
A solid defensive structure and a high scoring forward can take a team a long way in an international tournament and, if Uruguay can utilise the strength and experience in their spine while rotating in younger prospects such as Torreira and forward Maxi Gomez, they should improve upon their 2014 Round of 16 exit this time around.
Star Player: Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
There’s often a pause, just one heartbeat long, shortly before Mohamed Salah scores. For South American playmakers it has a name; La Pausa, and it allows a scan of the field, prompts a defensive error of movement and precedes a killer pass to a teammate. Salah’s pause happens in the box and rarely requires a teammate. He swivels his low hips, turning the top half of his body almost 90 degrees anti-clockwise and pulls back his left leg. Then, for that quarter second, nothing. Silence in Anfield. In his head an army officer shouting; ‘Hold. Hooolllddd.’ down at his boot as it clamours to scramble out of the trench and sprint across no man’s land. Still he waits. Then the enemy fires first, giving away their position. Otamendi of Manchester City diving low, feet first, and seeing a clipped shot glide goalwards above him. Mustafi of Arsenal backing away, backing away – scared – before leaning out a timid leg and allowing the shot to be curved around it and into the back of the net. A row of three Watford players – joined by a fourth and then a fifth – being yo-yoed back and forth with multiple pauses before a final pause elicits a sprawling, diving Keystone Cops mess and Salah can stab the ball past them all for a goal. There have been more goals, many more; 38 so far this season in the Premier League and Champions League for Liverpool.
Egyptian Salah’s extraordinary ability to arrive in dangerous areas at great speed but to then slow things down to increase his chances of scoring can be traced back to his early days, as a teenager, in the youth team of El Mokawloon. He was a left back and in one match did not score despite being was through on goal five times. His coach felt that, although he was exceptionally quick, he was mentally exhausted from the long sprint by the time he was taking each shot. The decision was made to switch him to right wing and by the end of the season he had scored thirty five goals. That goal scoring ability has always been there and was particularly evident during his two season long spell at Roma but it has reached a new level at Liverpool. The club and player are an ideal fit for each other; Jurgen Klopp provides a level of positive man management and coaching orientated leadership which Salah responds well to along with a tactical system which maximizes his qualities. Liverpool’s use of aggressive pressing, quickness to second balls and counter attacking through transitions suits Salah’s elite acceleration, deceptively stocky build, brilliant close control and mental quickness. In addition the right full back, lately youngster Trent Alexander-Arnold, is being instructed to stay back more which allows Salah to take more risks and prompts him to drive at goal more often. Finally, the centre forward Robert Firmino is a superb facilitator with his movement and passing and opens up space for the Egyptian to sprint in to and attempt to score from.
Egypt, who begin their World Cup against Uruguay on June 15th 2018, must be hoping that their talisman is able to bring his stellar club form into the international tournament. At present Salah is among the very highest performing attackers in club football; in the English Premier League getting 2.2 shots on target every 90 minutes, making 2 key passes every 90 minutes and scoring 1.1 goals per 90 minutes. In the Champions League, where he has helped Liverpool to the semi-final stage, he is getting 2.2 shots on target every 90 minutes, making 2.3 key passes every 90 minutes and scoring 1 goal every 90 minutes. In addition, in the Premier League he makes 2.6 successful dribbles every 90 minutes and in the Champions League that number is 2.8 every 90 minutes. Salah has been awarded the Premier League Player of the Month award an unprecedented three times this season and has been shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Season award. He has already performed to a high standard on an international level, scoring 33 goals in his 57 caps and helping his country to second place in 2017’s Africa Cup of Nations, but Egyptians must be hoping he can help them win a match for the first time at a World Cup in this their first Finals appearance since 1990.
Scottish Connection: Saudi Arabian Robbery
The 1989 FIFA Under 16 World Championship was hosted by Scotland, drew a total attendance of over 250,000 and featured future stars Roberto Carlos and Luis Figo amongst its participants. Scotland progressed from the group stage by drawing with Ghana and Bahrain and beating Cuba. They defeated East Germany and Portugal by solitary goals in the knock out rounds before facing 2018 World Cup Group A member Saudi Arabia in the final in front of over 50,000 people at Hampden. A 2-2 draw in normal time was followed by a 5-4 penalty victory for Saudi Arabia despite the best efforts of the player of the tournament, Scotland goalkeeper, James Will.
The tournament is mostly remembered in Scotland for accusations made by then SFA chief , the late Ernie Walker, that the Saudi Arabian team included a number of over age players. Walker is quoted to have said; “It was a fantastic tournament but like everyone my primary recollection is how the Scottish boys were cheated out of the Final. It was an appalling thing to happen. It was a problem that was identified pretty early on by everyone involved, including the media. I mean, it was so obvious – the Saudi keeper looked like Peter Shilton.” His views were backed up by the Scotland team’s coach, future senior Scotland national team manager Craig Brown.
There is also a cautionary lesson about international youth football to be learned from the tournament. Only three of the Scottish players in the final played for the senior Scotland national team and of those Paul Dickov was the most successful wining just 10 caps. The aforementioned James Will made just 8 senior club appearances before retiring and becoming a police officer. Finally, Saudi Arabia’s top scorer, Khalid Al Rowaihi, sadly died in a car accident at the age of just 20. Life, and footballing success, is fragile and Scotland should be proud of its performance in 1989 regardless of any alleged age related robbery.