There is no shortage of great players in the World Cup quarterfinals. No fan could be disappointed watching Thomas Müller or Lionel Messi leading their teams. What I’m interested in here are players who could be crucial to the outcome of their matches, for tactical reasons peculiar to the quarterfinal matchups.
In the opening match between Brazil and Colombia, the most likely goal-scorers are Neymar and James Rodriguez. The two have nine goals between them already. Neymar’s scoring has been necessary for Brazil, which has struggled at times to find a breakthrough goal. I have argued that Brazil seem to be going through a finishing slump, but still, subjectively the hosts do not seem to be combining properly in attack. One problem here might be the use of Oscar.
Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari pushed Oscar from his usual role behind the striker to a wide position so that Neymar could roam freely. This has brought Neymar more directly into the attack but shunted the team’s best playmaker into a support position. At the same time, both Neymar and his attacking partner Hulk have taken on little defensive duty. It has again fallen to Oscar to sacrifice his own glory for the team, and he’s been the team’s best forward defensive player.
Oscar is among the tournament’s leaders in tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes played, making the list with fullbacks like Janmaat and Rodriguez, or battling defensive midfielders like Mascherano and Luis Gustavo. Oscar’s work has been key to Brazil maintaining its defensive solidity, but this has left the midfielder relatively separate from the attack. Brazil will be looking to get Oscar back into his creative attacking role, rather than continuing to shunt him into a protective defensive position. If Scolari can find the right balance and re-integrate Oscar, we should see a more effective Brazil against Colombia.
The problem, for Scolari, will be figuring out how to contain Colombia’s advanced playmakers while still freeing his own to create chances. So far James Rodriguez has been the man having a breakout tournament, but he should not fully overshadow his creative partner Juan Cuadrado.
There is nothing wrong with James’ open-goal finish, but it is Cuadrado’s spectacularly athletic headed pass that should take the headlines. So far Cuadrado has primarily contributed assists and key passes for Colombia. He and James have both assisted five danger zone shots, three not by crosses, which puts both among the tournament leaders.
With two playmakers as skilled as Cuadrado and James in the same lineup, Colombia’s opponents have a difficult decision to figure out how to mark them. Oscar can help Scolari here with his defensive ability, but that has a corresponding negative effect on Brazil’s attack. How these creative midfielders assert themselves in the match may determine the outcome.
The other player I will be watching is Mathieu Valbuena, the danger zone key pass leader from the above chart. France’s diminutive right winger has been fantastic the entire tournament, terrorizing opposing left backs with his speed and trickery. Against Gemany, he gets perhaps his most favorable matchup yet.
German manager Jogi Löw has been playing a back line of four center backs, and his makeshift left fullback Benedikt Höwedes has been the worst of the four. While there is some expectation that Löw will return Philip Lahm to his natural right back position, that would still leave the Germans without a true left back to match up with Valbuena. Unless Löw assigns one of his attacking players to mark Valbuena and help out the overmatched fullback, there should be great opportunities for the Marseille star to impose himself on the match. Valbuena is likely either to throw Germany’s defense out of shape trying to mark him or to be a key creative outlet for France. In either case, he’s a man to watch.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.
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