The Accidental Finalists

(By Paul Morrissey - Follow on Twitter here.)

They could do it, you know. Win it without winning.

To clarify – no, they’re not the first team ever to ”park the bus”, (as was pointed out here). But the comparisons don’t hold. Italy ’82 never needed, nor sought the recourse of penalties, nor did Mourinho’s Inter.

The only team comparable to this Paraguay side is Jack Charlton’s Ireland at Italia ’90, who they’d already emulated by drawing their fourth match of a major tournament, and have now surpassed. The comparison ends there, with a shared statistic, because Ireland had good reason to be proud of that little nugget : the year was 1990; Ireland’s first ever World Cup; and the passback was still a strategic time-buyer. Different times.

Paraguay have reached the final of the Copa America through an assiduous reliance on their alma mater, the draw.

Oye hombre, that’s their prerogative – they’re one game away from winning. Still, the question needs to be asked: how much of it is down to design; what if it just….happened?

Random Rotation & a Series of Fortunate Events

If you could – at a push – construe Paraguay’s penalty shootout mission as a valiant victory over the pentacampeaos, how to explain their recoiling against the virginal Venezuelans, playing in the first ever Copa semi-final?

With both sides playing a one-dimensional 4-4-2 you could set your watch to – no interchanging of positions, no overlapping full-backs, no nothing, – a stalemate was in the offing from the first whistle. All the moreso after examining the personnel.

Leaving aside the fact that Martino named four hitherto unused players in the starting line-up (why though?), the most telling indication of their ambitions was the dropping of Estigarribia. The only player in Paraguay’s ranks capable of something a little different – and he’s hardly a puto crack – was belatedly introduced, looking dazed and confused at what was going on around him. Barrios meanwhile, appears under strict orders to shirk responsibility and faff harmlessly about of his own accord.

It’s the overall collective personality of the team though – sad, morose, – that baffles most. No sweeper system, no man-marking, they just, do, nothing; very, slowly.

Venezuela, to their credit, can claim to be innovative. Namely, by playing football like their national sport, baseball. Everything revolves around the prospectivity of set-pieces. It’s worth recalling how they beat Chile in the quarter-final: they were battered, and won the game on two set-pieces.

With the players at their disposal, though, and a far superior footballing tradition (2 Copas), Paraguay can do so much more.

Their approach to the game was as cowardly as it was pathetic.

”They had a great World Cup”

Some may prefer to ignore their oddity and point out that this is in fact simple confirmation of Paraguay’s great World Cup. It’s not, and they didn’t (have a particularly wonderful Wolrd Cup). They’re the world’s greatest chancers.

They beat Japan via, surprise surprise – penalties – and frustrated La Roja until the champs-in-waiting finally put them down.

A re-evaluation is needed of appraising defensive football; it’s not nearly as difficult as tactical gurus tend to make out. You send out any of the 32 teams present at the last World Cup and shackle them back in their own half, I would aver nearly every one of them would have kept Spain at bay until the 80 minute mark (when Villa scored). It’s perfectly do-able with solid preparation and discipline.

Defensive football is of course fine and can be aesthetically pleasing when well-exploited.

Greece 2004, for example, were a joy to behold, as Rehaggel roused them from their indolence to espouse a collective ethos that provided the springboard for their system.

Paraguay though…I used the Rope-a-dope analogy last time but that’s far too generous; that would imply they know what they’re doing. And now I’m convinced they don’t.

I will give them one thing though: their incredible confidence in themselves to win penalty shootouts is commendable, if a little unhinged. I’ve never before seen a team regard the penalty shootout as a boon, approaching it with an almost twisted bent, taking a sort of sick delight in dispatching with sheer sang-froid, laughing in the face of the gravity of the situation; they seem somehow mystically drawn to it.

If they repeat the feat in the final and take the Celeste on a Death Proof ride to the penalty shootout, it won’t be a case of winning ugly. It will be winning by accident.

(Lastly on Penalties, around which Paraguay are essentially basing their entire game : they are not an immutable concept. There’s this sense that they are a sacrosant ritual, a last bastion of fair play. Yeah, they’re fun and all that, but it’s reached the point where alternatives seriously need to looked at. Any alternative that can disincentivise neurotic ”draw-ers” would be an improvement.

The NASL-style shootouts from the 1970s demand more skill, poise, wit, and stamina. This shootout-style would deter Paraguay from dictacting a game towards penalties, and would also resolve the – admittedly rare – ”botched spot” scenario which proved Brazil’s undoing.

Here’s another. On 90 minutes, each team has to remove one/two players each. After the first half of extra-time, one/two more players from each team leave the field. By that point, the chances of a goal increase exponentially.)