Friday, February 20, 2009
There are great goals, and then there are immortal goals.
When Esteban Cambiasso connected with a Hernan Crespo backheel to drive the ball hard into the roof of the net in a world Cup Group Game between Argentina and Serbia & Montenegro on June 16th 2006 to put the Argentines 2-0 up, an instant classic was recognisable. An immortal goal. It came at the end of a sequence of 24 passes, involving eight players, in a classic move redolent of the purest aesthetic of Argentinean football - moving the ball on the ground quickly in a sweeping sequence of short passes, back and forth, dragging the opposition team all over the pitch until their defence leaves a gap which is then ruthlessly exploited. It was a breathtaking thing of beauty and a pleasure to behold. What was so beautiful? There are few instances of breathtaking skill, nothing really spectacular beyond a couple of truly superb touches. The beauty lies in the communal effort of a team, the combination of solid technique and hard work to create and exploit an opportunity. Pure football.
We'll begin almost halfway through the passage of play. Serbia had been attacking, an urgency evident in their need for an equalizer to Maxi Rodriguez's opening goal, just minutes before. Maxi had begun the match on the right wing, his usual position with Atletico Madrid and the National team, but Lucho Gonzalez had left the game early with an injury, replaced by Cambiasso. Maxi switched to the left with a licence to roam infield to support playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme. This World Cup would be the making of Maxi. He scored two fine goals in this game and probably the second best goal of the tournament in the first knockout round against Mexico with his chest-and-volley from distance into the top corner. He ended the tournament badly, however, banned for his part in the fighting at the end of Argentina's quarter-final with Germany. If he is best remembered for the sublime technique of that volley against Mexico, it is worth noting that Maxi is as much a grafter as he is a technician, and tracking back, he nipped in and won the ball deep in his own half with a sliding toe. It rolled to Gabriel Heinze, playing at Centre Back alongside the legendary veteran Roberto Ayala in a formidably cynical pairing. Heinze, with a directness borne either of his time in England playing for Manchester United or his relative lack of sparkling technique, passed it forward instantly and it was received by Javier Mascherano.
Having Mascherano and Cambiasso on the pitch together may seem a little redundant - both holding midfield "destroyers" who like to shield a defence. But Cambiasso is an intelligent and underrated player, clever enough to realize that his position as first-choice holding player had been usurped by the emergence of Mascherano as possibly the World's best in that role (Fernando Gago would push him back to third choice in the following year or two). So he showed he could be versatile. Lucho, the player he replaced, is a midfield all-rounder, good at everything, and for Argentina he played as the third point of a triangle with Riquelme and Mascherano. He tracked back, he supported the forwards, he kept chalk on his boots and he ferreted infield for possession. Cambiasso aped his teammate, his formidable engine driving him all game.
For the moment he loitered in right midfield. Perhaps loitered is the wrong term, for rewatching this goal is a lesson in good movement. All of the Argentines move constantly, running towards one another, away from each other in angled lines, slowing down and twisting away, a ballet of perpetual motion from all of the front six. Riquelme, in particular, is a master of slyly evading his markers and finding an empty patch of pitch in which to receive possession. In this passage of play, he, Mascherano, Captain Sorin and Maxi exchange a series of short passes in tightly congested areas, the ball zipping around between them in simple straight lines, Serbs turning and tracking them all the while. What is fascinating is their eagerness to play the simple ball. Riquelme, the most technically gifted player on the pitch, is never afraid of playing the ball first-time back the way it came. He knows that maintaining possession is more important than always seeking the killer ball, that even such a simple ball has meant an adjustment has been made by an opposition defender. And for Riquelme, such adjustments are opportunities. He is patient. He waits for an opportunity, confident that he will spot it when it comes.
Ayala plays an easy ball forward to Cambiasso, who has pushed infield to join the ceaselessly evolving passing triangles being worked by the others. Mascherano pushes forward into the Serbian half while Riquelme and Maxi make runs between Serbian players. Mascherano doesn't push forward often in a game. His tactical discipline is part of his brilliance. But he will surge upfield in an attempt to present a teammate with a better passing option, to drag opposition midfielders after him. His pace and fitness allow him to get back to cover any breakaways. No other player in modern top level football displays the same hunger to be first to the ball, the same shattering power in his tackling. But his distribution is excellent, too, his passing varied and accurate with either foot, his brain unhurried and calm.
Cambiasso sees him and plays an easy square ball. Easy passes are a funny thing. Part of the criticism of British football abroad - one of the reasons it gets branded overly simple and tactically naive - is the British instinct to attack. Players look to play the forward ball at every opportunity, the crowd demands it, the opposition has to press to prevent it, and so we have the helter-skelter pace of the average Premiership game, which is what makes the league so attractive to viewers worldwide. But possession is not quite the precious currency it is in some football cultures, because in the English game, a team always knows it will soon get the ball back. This leads to various players, from Ray Wilkins to Jamie Redknapp to Deco; getting nicknames like "the Crab" from ignorant fans because they only ever move sideways. But the aim is continual motion, the aim is misdirection. Every pass sideways or even backwards is a step towards a pass forwards. This Argentina team knew that very well. This move is full of simple, "easy" balls. But they add up, every one of them adding to the subtle shifts in the Serbian lines. Including Cambiasso's low, crisp ball over the ground to Mascherano.
When he receives it, Mascherano, as usual, does things calmly, simply. He moves the ball along to Maxi, who has already been involved in this move three times, inbetween those touches roaming with intelligence and great awareness. Here he takes the ball and plays a high, bouncing ball out towards Sorin, on the left wing. It is the first pass of this move to leave the ground, and as such it seems almost decadent in its flight, too risky. Sorin is a most Brazilian of Argentine fullbacks, spending the entire game driving forward into the opposition half, joining the attack, then relentlessly tracking back down that line when the opposition gains possession. His drive and competitive spirit saw him made Captain for this tournament, and he seemed to thrive on the responsibility. He chests the ball up to trap it, takes a touch in the face of an onrushing defender, then moves the ball back to Maxi, who again has run around the ball's passage after he played it.
The Serbs are assiduous in their closing-down. They were, before this match at least, famed for a defensive meanness unparalleled elsewhere in the competition - in qualifying, they had conceded the fewest goals of any European side. But here they are missing the injured Nemanja Vidic, colossal centre half, and their defence is shakier than usual. Still they press whoever was on the ball. Maxi takes it and has to turn away from a Serb, then play a longish square ball to Cambiasso who has crossed the field from the right to help out.
It is around this point that the rhythm of the move changes. Cambiasso lays the ball off into the path of Riquelme, who, his back to goal and two defenders approaching, plays it first time sharply back to Mascherano, another easy ball. But the pace has been injected with Riquelme's instant touch, and it will only gather momentum over the next five passes. Riquelme's greatest gift is perhaps an ability to dictate the pace of a game, and here he has just done it. A great team moves as one to some extent, changing gears together, instantly, and in the next fifteen seconds or so this team moves up a gear and will have scored before their opponents have even noticed.
Mascherano picks up on the new pace instantly and hits a quick ball out to Sorin, still lingering on the wing. With three Serbs in close attendance, his options seemed limited. Javier Saviola gives him another. Saviola is the most baffling and frustrating of players. Anyone who saw anything of him as a youngster with River Plate in Argentina will remember the purity of his talent. He had pace, trickery, guile and imagination. He scored wonderful goals (44 in 86 games) and yet his game had more than just goalscoring to set him apart, in his ability to drop into the hole and create opportunities for others. He was Messi, Tevez and Aguero five years before they emerged, the seeming future of Argentinean football. But somewhere along the way it all went a bit wrong. He moved to Barcelona for £15 Million in 2001 and had a decent first season there under Louis Van Gaal, but his second Season was less thrilling and when Van Gaal was replaced by Radomir Antic and then Frank Rijkaard, he slipped down the pecking order and went out on loan to Monaco in 2004. That was followed by another loan, this time to Sevilla, in 2005. Finally, his reputation having taken something of a battering, he joined Real Madrid in 2007, where he remains, perhaps fifth in line for a start in a striking role and constantly linked with moves away. He has scored goals - albeit never as many as at River Plate - everywhere he has played, but has inarguably failed to live up to his massive potential. So it was something of a surprise to see that he was central to Pekarman's plans for this World Cup. Reportedly it was his understanding with Riquelme that convinced the coach, and this move would demonstrate that understanding at its best.
Saviola drifts out towards the wing, takes Sorin's pacy pass on one foot, spins around and moves infield, picking up speed. With Serb playmaker Djordevic advancing to tackle him, he prods the ball sideways to Riquelme, who has another Serb charging at him and Djordevic turning to cut off another avenue.
So again Riquelme ups the pace, flicking the ball first time off his outstep, perfectly over the raised leg of the onrushing defender and into Saviola's path. And there it is: two Serbian players eliminated from the game, their defence suddenly teetering with one single flick of the boot.
Here Saviola's technical ability comes into play, as he cushions the ball with his left on the move, then plays a volleyed pass towards Cambiasso, who is making a late run into the box from midfield. He plays the bouncing ball first time towards Hernan Crespo, darting around the penalty area in classic centre forward style.
Crespo is all about goals. He scores lots of tap ins and little dinks over despairing goalkeepers because his movement and anticipation are so good. So when he receives the ball on the edge of the six yard box, most educated observers would probably expect him to swivel and shoot. He's technically skilled enough that a goal will be the likely outcome. But it is as if the symmetry and team-play of the move up to that point have gotten to him, and Crespo instead pulls up and moves the ball back into Cambiasso's path with a curt little back-heel.
Cambiasso has no option but to hit it first time. There is a Serbian defender a fraction of a second away from smashing the ball into the stands and so he launches himself at it and, sliding almost as soon as he hits it, crashes it into the roof of the net.
Delirium from the Argentinian supporters, superlatives from the pundits. The team go a bit mental too, and will go on to score six goals in all, Riquelme running everything, the mercurial Saviola scoring one before substitutes Tevez and Messi will come on to snatch a goal each. Late on Kezman is sent off for Serbia and Montenegro for a wild lunge at Mascherano.
Argentina would go out to Germany in the knockout phase of the competition and yet, apart from Zidane's insane head butt on Marco Materazzi in the final, in this match they had created the most memorable moment of the tournament. And a sort of mission statement for how the game ought to be played. Two years later Spain would win the European Championship playing a similarly aesthetically pleasing brand of possession football, with Xavi Hernandez in the Riquelme role and David Villa as a sort of even better Saviola. The unlikely possibility of a final to the 2010 World Cup featuring Spain vs Argentina literally makes my mouth water.
So, the goal itself, with Martin Tyler commentary:
And a Mobile Phone film from the stand behind, which is interesting for the view it affords of the cluster of Serbs drawn towards the Riquelme-Sorin-Saviola triangle out on the left, leaving a hole in the centre, and also for the people all getting very happy after the ball goes in: