The struggles of Spain and Argentina thus far show Southgate’s faith in youth was more than a stab in the dark.
Spain got through, winning the group by the skin of their teeth after a last gasp equalizer from former Liverpool great Iago Aspas. The 2010 World Champions have looked very short though, and way off the standards they so highly set in 2010.
Argentina, another team dubbed favorites a fortnight ago are staring elimination square in the eye. Their game against Nigeria is effectively a straight knockout for the runners up in the group with Croatia likely to thump Iceland.
The two football mad Hispanic nations have really struggled to turn it on thus far in Russia. They have looked labored and easy to stifle as defensive sides like Iran and Iceland succeeded in nullifying their possession game and stopping the superior sides clicking into gear. With so much pressure on both sides to do well at the World Cup, perhaps they are feeling the pressure. Moreover, perhaps they are actually suffering with a nucleus of aging players hamstringing their progress and verve.
Argentina has taken the third oldest squad to Russia this summer – with an average age 29.3 years old. Spain fair slightly better, but with key players like Silva, Ramos, Pique and Iniesta now well into their thirties, there is an argument to say they have seen better days. Having played full campaigns at club level, are these veterans really at the top of their game, when they are expected to take the game to the opposition?
Both sides have already received huge criticism at home, but really, this labored and stuttering start shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Even some of their younger players will be suffering from burnout after almost a decade of football without a significant time to recover. Having a core of aging players is never a good position to be in and is something that should have been addressed by both sides over the past few years.
What’s more disappointing for the neutrals has been the turgid and predictable football played by both sides. Passes and attacks have often looked easy to snuff out and Argentina in particular have played without much natural width or pace. Their pressing game has failed as tired legs have taken their toll. Worse still, neither side have looked as though they are truly enjoying themselves as they meander through games hoping for that splinter of individual quality at a telling moment.
Is youth the way forward?
Much was made in the English press about Gareth Southgate’s decisions to leave Jack Wilshire, Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart and Gary Cahill out of his early England squads. None of them ultimately made the cut for the final World Cup Squads and so far the manager looks fully vindicated with his decision.
This author really wanted to see England play without fear or expectation in the tournament and really go for entertaining, expansive football; so far so good! Yes there have been moments of rushed, nervy play as some of the younger players in Southgate’s team looked a little overawed by it all. However, despite some snide opponent play, England have done well so far. They ground out and dug in against Tunisia before mercilessly ruining Panama in the first half at Nizhny Novgorod.
Younger players like Lingard, Kane, Stones and Loftus-cheek are all starting to come into their own as England have cruised through the group. Yes Panama were arguably one of the poorest sides in Russia, but England didn’t toil in the efforts against the Central Americans and actually looked to be enjoying their football as the match wore on.
It may backfire at some point in the tournament, as England’s youthful line-up comes across a more difficult challenge in the knock-outs. But the least you can ask for from Southgate’s men is that they have a go and give us all something to be excited about.
Expectation proving to be the handbrake
Age versus youth is a ultimately quite a simplistic argument and there are more complex reasons for both Spain’s and Argentina’s struggles. Perhaps both sides are weighed down by the expectation lumped on them. Both nations’ media outlets have been in frenzy so far, with Dario Ole spouting some panicky almost Shakespearean sound bites:
“They’re the knights of the anguish that pains the soul of so many Argentineans that travelled across the world with the dream of at least fighting for the cup.”
England’s so called golden generation never quite looked comfortable in their own skin despite the wealth of talent they possessed. The media bizarrely demanded tournament wins every time they left the country to compete and it clearly hurt the players mentally.
Yes Spain has a hardcore group of accomplished winners at their core, but they are only human after all, and susceptible to pressure. Perhaps they should look to the colorful, entertaining Mexican team for inspiration going forward.
The Mexicans have taken the second oldest squad to Russia but have played with bravery and flare in their two games so far. They have booked their tickets into the second round and have really embraced the carnival of football atmosphere in Russia. Yes there is never going to be the pressure on Mexico to compete, but surely having a go and scoring some goals before going out is better than turgid, dull performances by a generation of players past their best?