Most people don’t think of defense when they think of Colombian soccer. Most Colombians don’t think of defense when they think of Colombian soccer.
Judging purely from the way the Beautiful Game is played on the cement courts that line the mountain slopes of Medellin, most Colombians don’t really think of defense when they think of soccer in general, except as that thing you have to do where you run around and kick someone before you get to shoot again.
When you talk about Colombia, you’re talking about a country whose most famous goal keeper took free kicks for the national team, was fond of taking the ball on leisurely strolls through the midfield, and once got it in his head to do this in the middle of an actual soccer game.
Which is why it is a bit weird to point out that, for all the talk of Radamel “El Tigre” Falcao, James “El Rosy Cheek” Rodriguez, and Los Cafeteros’ uniform up-front savagery, defense is what got Colombia to where it is now: #8 in the world FIFA rankings and second place in South America, sitting atop what promises to be — on paper, at least — one of the squishier groups in the tournament.
Colombia allowed just 13 goals in 16 qualifiers leading up to the World Cup, and that with a back line that has been shuffled almost incessantly for the better part of the past two years.
Colombia has gotten along quite fine with the rotating cast of characters that has been its centerback pairing thanks in large part to the system head coach Jose Nestor Pekerman has implemented. Pekerman is know for this kind of strategic wizardry, and since taking over the team, he has managed to channel a group with more speed than sense into a consistently formidable unit.
Pace in the midfield allows Colombia to press high, which gives Carlos Sanchez time to anticipate where the extra man is needed and close down space quickly. Sanchez’s challenge throughout this Cup will be to resist the urge to maul someone long enough to remember that his primary function at this point is to cover fro the backline.
The Colombians are weakest in the middle of the defense, just behind Sanchez, but strongest and steadiest where it matters most.
Even before Falcao went and got his knee snapped by some third-rate hack in the French League, David Ospina had already distinguished himself as the rock of the Colombia side.
Ospina plays his club ball in France as well — Nice, to be specific, which has given him plenty of time to think about all the corner flag celebrations he’s going to ruin in this tournament. He’s not all that imposing for a keeper, but what he lacks in sheer physical presence and save-making he makes up for with the intelligent sort of positioning that makes a lot of his best stops look like the easiest ones.
It’s a good thing, too, because Ospina hasn’t seen the same two jersey numbers in front of him more than two games in a row since what seems like the last Copa America.
Head coach Jose Nestor Pekerman has never really stopped experimenting with his centerback pairing, and there’s no reason to expect he will now. Team captain Mario Yepes has a fixed spot in the backline, but it’s hard to say how his body will hold up under the strain of tournament play.
At 38, Yepes is one of two people on the team even old enough to remember Colombia’s 2001 Copa America title. With age comes wisdom, but Yepes has mostly gotten meaner and more sharply boned. He’s an experienced marker, strong tackler, and vicious attacker of headers at either end of the field. He’s also as slow as the glaciers he and his family trekked over when they came across the Bering Strait hunting mastodon.
It wasn’t clear how much of a problem his speed was going to be until Colombia’s second qualifier against Chile, when Alexis Sanchez rolled him like the last guy at the nursing home to get a power wheelchair.
Yepes, who has already announced he plans retire at the end of the Cup, is as solid as his body could possibly allow him to be, but don’t be surprised if you see the Ivory Coast in particular have a go at running him.
Next to him is one either Edwin Balanta, Cristian Zapata, or Carlos Valdes. Balanta is athletic, and talented enough to have earned a run or two in the midfield, and Valdez has found what passes for top form down in the Argentine league.
The only one who truly inspires confidence, though is Zapata. Zapata played alongside Yepes at AC Milan once and was coming into his own in the Italian league just before he got benched, for reasons that still aren’t very clear.
It’s a bit disconcerting that Zapata hasn’t gotten more touches this year, but he looked sharp in the two pre-Cup friendlies Colombia competed in against Senegal and Jordan, and he should be able to make up at least somewhat for Yepes’ dwindling physical attributes.
Where Colombia will most definitely not be wanting in physicality is on either wing, which Pablo Armero and Carlos Zuñiga have turned into their personal toboggan slides. Short of Brazil, there is not a team in the tournament with flank play as versatile and dynamic as Colombia’s, and Pekerman has also learned to count on the services of 22-year-old Santiago Arias, who was a revelation for the team after Zuñiga went down with an injury.
Pekerman keeps Armero and Zuñiga more honest than the Brazilian prototypes they’re fashioned after, but whenever there is space to work with, both like to get up the field and join in the attack. The Colombian midfield is not really built for breaking teams down, but when James and company get into their combination game on the wings, playing off Armero and Zuñiga, the whole defense opens up for Los Cafeteros.
That’s when the runs start coming out of the midfield, and the middle of the field opens up for James, and when overlaps on the sideline produce crosses from the six-yard box extended, as opposed to the wide swingers they’re limited to when Zuñiga and Armero are kept more in reserve.
Pekerman deserves plenty of credit for teaching this team to play collectively and with discipline when they don’t have ball, but if Los Cafeteros want to make it deep into this tournament, they would do well to remember that defense is just that thing you have to do until the next break comes along.