If Colombia has yet to lock in a fixed starting midfield heading into the country’s first World Cup in 16 years, it’s only because head coach and reputed strategy wizard Jose Nestor Pekerman has had too too much fun toying with things up until this point.
Pekerman has at his disposal a group that is as athletic as it is versatile, and the Argentine has taken advantage of the flexibility that affords him to change his look game to game, depending on the opponent.
With Falcao out of the picture, Colombia’s most aggressive lineup is actually one with five in the midfield, spaced out according to some variation on a 1-2-2, 3-2, or 1-2-1-1 formation.
However else things line up, expect Carlos Sanchez to be anchored in the back, eating everything that comes through the middle. Sanchez’s ball-winning is critical to everything else Colombia does, especially given the support he provides a centerback pairing that has never really solidified for Los Cafeteros.
Where the Quibdo-native has struggled is in his distribution. Sanchez has a way of leaving the defense on its own to clip up long balls and occasionally gets caught in possession or gives up lazy turnovers. For Colombia to play at its highest level, Sanchez needs to spread the ball quickly and leave play-making to the rest of the midfield, preferably to James Rodriguez.
James — pronounced kind of like “hummus” but with a bit more throat snot — is the other focal point of the Colombian middle, and with Falcao gone, probably the best overall player on the team. For Colombia, he is everything.
The 22-year-old phenom sets the pace of attack, whether that means driving the ball himself, playing someone else through, or retaining possession through the wings with a patience and intelligence that seem almost out of place next to the bright shade of pink his cheeks turn after about the third minute.
His long ball behaves like a paint brush and his dead ball like a pissed-off hornet. He carves up territory with ease and operates in cramped pockets with footwork as graceful as that of any salsa champion in Cali. He can shoot from distance or run at defenders, and his assists come served up on delicate silver platters.
For better or worse, though almost definitely for the better, Colombia’s longevity in this world cup depends almost entirely on how much it can squeeze from the devious left foot of James Rodriguez.
Around those two poles, Pekerman likes to stack the field with the sort of end-to-end speed and two-way prowess that turn the Colombian side into a counter attack waiting to happen.
It is the midfield reduced to its most basic function. Not there to strum harpsichord lullabies like the Iniesta-Xavi Spanish, or belch out long balls like Steven Gerrard and the Brits, the Colombian middle exists to win back possession and transition as quickly as possible from defense to offense. It’s not the group you’d want if it came time to control a game, but at it’s best, it’s beautiful.
Inter’s Fredy Guarin and Florentina’s Juan Guillermo Cuadrado form the base of an all-Italy trio also likely to feature Victor Ibarbo, fresh off a breakthrough year with Cagliari and looking to drive up the asking price on an expected post-cup transfer.
Guarin adds a bit of toughness to the midfield, along with the ability send screamers flying in from 15-feet outside the penalty area. Cuadrado is as pure a speed demon as exists in world soccer, and generally seems hell-bent on running opposing wingers into the dirt. And Ibarbo, meanwhile, does things with a soccer ball at his feet no one with a gait that long should be allowed to.
Colombia has among the most aggressive wing backs in the tournament, so Guarin and Cuadrado tend to stay narrow, tucked in around Sanchez in the middle, with Cuadrado combining on the right flank whenever possible, and Guarin leaving the left to Pablo Armero out of the back and James, who has free reign to drift off to that side whenever he sees fit.
If Pekerman goes with five in the midfield, and he really should, look for Ibarbo to operate in front of the opposing back line, just behind what is likely to be — Ave Maria — Teofilo Gutierrez up top.
Before Radamel Falcao’s ACL snapped — along with, common wisdom would have it, Colombia’s only shot at a tournament run — Los Cafeteros liked to pair him and Gutierrez up top, and use James as a sort of floating translator between the forwards and a tighter, defensive, three-man set in front of the defense.
But even the Falcao-Gutierrez combo never inspired much confidence, and Colombia has been at its most dangerous when the runs come out of the midfield. Ibarbo can fill the role of a second striker if need be but also covers enough ground to support back.
Most of Colombia’s speed is concentrated in the middle, and in the heat of Brazilian winter, that could prove to be one of the best weapons Los Cafeteros have.
Ready to come off the bench for Colombia are Alexander Mejia, the pitbull of the Colombian league, Abel Aguilar, a steady if sluggish option to sure up the defense, and Juan Fernando Quintero, who gives James a pretty decent run for his money in the art of treacherous lefty witchcraft.
Colombia is going up against three very different styles of play in Group C, so chances are we’ll see some of that depth and flexibility put to good use. Watching Pekerman play with this midfield should be almost fun as watching the players themselves.