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Saudi Arabia beats Argentina, France beats Australia


Image: Getty Images

Saudi Arabia manager Herve Renard might be the most handsome manager at this tournament, and he certainly didn’t have a problem taking a page from another handsome manager, Jose Mourinho. If you recall the cold war that Barcelona and Real Madrid had when Mourinho was at the helm at the Bernabeu, the way they played Leo Messi’s Barca was the exact same way Saudi Arabia went about containing his Argentina team. They played in a midblock, with the defense pushed seemingly suicidally high with the forwards only about 10-15 yards ahead of them in the middle of the field. If the fear is that Messi will get too much space between your midfield and defense to dribble or weave passes, then shrinking the size of that down to a crawl space is one way to keep that from happening.

It carries huge risk, which Argentina was only about one-eighth of an inch from exploiting and ending this as a contest barely into the first half. But hey, I’m a Liverpool supporter, so I’m not allowed to complain or criticize a team for using an offside trap near the halfway line as a tactical plan rather than luck.

We mentioned that Saudi Arabia’s one advantage in this tournament was that most of the team plays for the same club in Saudi Arabia (Al Hilal), and they stopped their league season weeks ago to allow for more training time for the national team. Three of the back four for Saudi Arabia play together there, which means they’re more likely to have the chemistry and understanding to spring that trap than teams that got together on Monday.

Now, it’s easy to say that Saudi Arabia had it perfectly humming thanks to getting three goals wiped off the board due to Argentina being offside in the first half alone. And Argentina didn’t need to be so impatient to get in behind. But is this just the absolute hilt of defensive cohesion or is this just blind luck?

If you mean to tell me that Saudi Arabia’s defense is so well-tuned that they can plan to catch Lautaro Martinez off by the length of his sleeve cuff…that sounds a bit like a crypto sales pitch. But they did, so good on them, and they don’t ask how.

The other thing to note is that the xG count was 2.26-0.15 in Argentina’s favor. Here’s another xG score from this tournament — 2.11-1.75. That’s England-Iran. England’s finishing was just that good. So the story will be how excellent Saudi Arabia’s plan was, but play that exact game again (perhaps without semi-automatic offside reviews) and Argentina might (or probably will) win 3-1 or so. So sure, the tight defensive shape that Saudi Arabia featured in the first half kept Argentina at bay other than a Messi penalty, but by design or divine intervention?

But that said, it was this game that they played, not a theoretical one, and Saudi Arabia had two shots, buried both of them, And then with something to defend, they only had to funnel Argentina to the outside and clear a host of crosses, Which just about any team can do at this level. And they did valiantly, so fair play to them. Argentina showing a lack of invention in the second half helped their cause, that’s for sure.

It’s certainly a hallmark result, and given how balloon-handed both Mexico and Poland looked, they’ll fancy getting another point or two to go through. Especially as they’re playing at home, essentially.

Denmark 0-0 Tunisia

This wasn’t the kind of 0-0 draw that makes you question what you’ve done with your life, mostly thanks to the presence of Tunisia midfielder Aïssa Laidouni. Sometimes there’s a player you watch and you ask yourself, “Did the trainers put cayenne pepper on that dude’s jock?” Laidouni seemingly covered more ground than the other 19 outfield players combined. He was a defensive midfielder, box-to-box, No. 10, No. 6, No. whatever, No. everything. The stats say he only had two tackles and eight ball recoveries, but watching the match you’d have sworn he had 112 of each.

Laidouni set the pace for Tunisia, who perhaps unexpectedly pressed Denmark all over the field. The worry about the Danes is that they just don’t have that major weapon up front, and especially don’t have one with pace. Christian Eriksen is a lot of things but quick isn’t one of them either, and he was hassled before he ever had a chance to get his head up to pick a killer pass. Tunisia didn’t really fear anyone getting behind them, and they didn’t have to.

Mexico 0-0 Poland

Now this was the 0-0 draw that makes you wonder if, when you arrive at the Gates of St. Peter, he isn’t going to list out all the time you wasted watching matches like this. I’ve seen enough Poland matches in qualifying for various tournaments, and seen some of their players play for some of the biggest and best clubs in the world, to know that there should be something to them. They keep qualifying for tournaments, after all. And yet every time they show up to a World Cup or European Championship, it looks like they’ve lost all feeling in their feet and were only told the rules yesterday.

They even somehow were the recipients of a penalty thanks to FIFA’s insistence on proving that VAR is worth the time (more on this in a bit), and Robert Lewandowski, only one of the greatest strikers of all time, couldn’t bury it. This is Poland on the big stage.

Mexico at least looked like they were trying harder to score than their opponents, which is about the lowest bar to clear, but they also never looked like they might actually do so. This is about as blunt of a Mexican side as there’s been in a long time. And seeing as how their next match is against what should be a pissed-off Argentina team…well, have fun with that.

France 4-1 Australia

“You’re only going to get more wrath.”

That’s apparently how France felt after Australia opened the scoring, because instead of freezing like Argentina had earlier in the day, they proceeded to tear the Socceroos about four new assholes. Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé were unplayable on the wings, which only gave Antoine Griezmann more space in the middle, and this is what you get when that happens. And Olivier Giroud continues to do nothing more than just score big goals and knit an attack together.

There was one moment in the first half where Dembélé knocked a ball past Aussie left-back Aziz Behich, with Behich having about a 10-yard head start to get back to the ball. Dembélé won that race by about two or three yards. This was an absolute mauling all over the field. The worry about France isn’t the first 11, as put on display today. The worry is that when they have to dig past that first 11, which they will later. For now, they looked incredible.

Goal of the day

All of France’s goals were basically team-worked art, but we have to choose the one that will live in history, Saudi Arabia’s Salem Al-Dawsari’s thunderbastard that was the winner against Argentina in the biggest upset at the World Cup in at least 32 years.

OK, yeah, there’s defending from four Argentines there that looks like they’re all in detention, but what a hit. You know you’ve got all of it when the keeper can get a hand to it and all that does is soften the landing into the net.

Did VAR fuck anything up?

Sorta? The Martinez offside is the correct call, but man does it seem picky. Worse yet, the semi-automatic graphic that was supposed to speed reviews up and make things clear for everyone isn’t shown to the fans until minutes later after the decision. If fans could see it processing the call live, it would help greatly. Otherwise, it gets into the whole “show us your balls” when people question the validity of any draft lottery and we only see envelopes. Show the math.

In Mexico-Poland, by definition, a shirt-tug in the box is a penalty. But did this rise to the level of obvious error? The ref on the field didn’t think it was a penalty, though the shirt tug may have been out of his line of sight. Again, that bar is being decided by just another referee, who is going to have his/her own definition of what’s a mistake and what isn’t. Justice may have been done with Memo Ochoa’s save on the penalty anyway, which did provide us all this:

Did Qatar fuck anything up?

Day ending in -y and all that. The day started with news that Wales fans were not allowed to wear rainbow bucket hats to their match against the US yesterday, yet another example of Qatar inviting the world to their party and then complaining that everyone came to the party. Also complaining that gay people exist.

Other than that, there were more shenanigans about how the tournament is going with the announced crowd of the Argentina-Saudi Arabia match being 88,000 when the stadium holds 80,000. And we could all see some empty sections in the corners.

Oh, this too:

Yes, person near the Qatari officials, we’re also wondering why you bothered.

Did Alexi Lalas say anything dumb?

Seems like he farmed that duty out to Ian Darke and Landon Donovan, though only by accident. As the news came across that Manchester United were terminating Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract, they had this exchange:

Darke: “Ronaldo’s contract will be terminated by mutual consent.”

Donovan: “Is there ever mutual consent?”

No Landon, not with Ronaldo there isn’t.

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