Watching the World Cup matches in the past few days has been a delightful experience. Costa Rica surprising former world champions Uruguay and Italy; Chile showing champions Spain the door and France going on a goal-scoring spree against Switzerland — all these have helped to make it a memorable first round so far.
From the tactical point of view, I was simply fascinated by Costa Rica and their coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, especially after their victory over Italy.
The success of Costa Rica is the story of the World Cup so far — even bigger than Robin van Persie’s diving header and Lionel Messi’s enchanting strike.
There is one thing I am sure about — the gap is fast closing in world football and the standard is improving rapidly in the so-called developing football nations.
While coaching and talent identification have become more scientific, greater sense of professionalism and winning mentality have also played a major role. What Costa Rica managed to achieve without star players has only strengthened my belief.
Pinto, I was told, had 19 jobs in his 30 years of coaching career. He certainly knows the tricks of the trade. The way he made his boys choke the Italians by utilising a high press in the midfield was fascinating.
The Costa Ricans never allowed Andrea Pirlo, Daniele de Rossi and Thiago Motta any extra space, thus cutting off the danger men at source.
Such a tactics did leave room for Mario Balotelli but, Costa Rica were lucky that the star striker missed two good opportunities. Keeping the majestic Pirlo quiet, however, was the turning point.
Pinto’s biggest accomplishment came in the second session. Italy looked blunt and ineffective though they did their best to break the shackles.
The Costa Rica coach planned his defence superbly and kept a wonderfully disciplined line. They also managed to catch the Italians offside on several occasions.
I have always maintained it was the players, who ultimately won matches. But in modern day football, the strategies adopted by coaches also make a vital difference.
Look at Chile, who made the second round after their famous and emphatic win over Spain. Their coach Jorge Sampaoli, 54, is relatively new at the international level but managed to outwit veteran Vicente del Bosque.
Off the ball, the South Americans beat Spain in their own game. Known for their relentless pressing to win the ball back, Spain were left surprised by Chile, who worked extremely hard to gain possession and even sometimes played a series of passes in the midfield to frustrate their opponents.
For Chile, Alexis Sanchez did exactly what Arjen Robben did for the Netherlands. He chose to place himself beyond the defence at every opportunity in the 3-5-2 system, where he was ably supported by the second line of attack.
At the start of this World Cup, I said France manager, Didier Deschamps, would be the man to watch among coaches.
Having scored eight goals in two matches, France have proved they could be serious contenders for the title. Full marks to Deschamps as he overcame the loss of Franck Ribery and found his attacking solutions.
That he experimented with different line-ups and formations in friendly matches before the World Cup made his task easier.
Despite Antoine Griezmann’s fine showing against Honduras, Deschamps named Oliver Giroud in the starting XI against Switzerland. The striker looked very effective.
The exploits of the relatively smaller teams has put lots of reputed coaches in a spot of bother. Italy’s Cesare Prandelli is the biggest sufferer.
He now has to come out of his shell and go all out against Uruguay. I am sure Luiz Felipe Scolari would also have to follow similar lines.