After a shocking humiliation, the hosts will be missing from the showpiece final, but Argentina vs Germany will prove to be an epic denouement, says Sopan Joshi
After the drama and theatrics of the first semi-final, the Netherlands and Argentina offered more predictable fare in the second course. The second semi-final was everything it was billed to be: a dour, close, tactical affair between two strong sides. Two boxers testing each other, reading each other’s moves carefully, taking evasive action, not taking big risks. Football brought down to the lowest common denominator.
Yet, we were grateful for it. For Brazil’s 1-7 shellacking by Germany in the first semi was a rash of tragicomic spectacle that will be discussed many years from now. Order had to be restored; what better means of that than a goalless 120 minutes, even if a penalty shootout has to be negotiated at the end. It is possible to prepare for a shootout. One gathers one’s emotions and prepares for the roll of dice. How does one negotiate watching the players wearing the most storied jersey in international football, turning into animated cartoons?
It was exactly one year ago that Brazil defeated Spain 3-0 in the Confederations Cup final. It called time on the reign of one the greatest national squads ever assembled — an era in which the historically underachieving Spain won an unprecedented three major tournaments back to back, and looked like they would never lose. Brazil didn’t just beat Spain; they made Spain look beatable. They opened the door through which the Dutch and the Chileans romped through in the group stage of this World Cup.
That is why so much was expected of this Brazilian team. The team on the Belo Horizonte pitch for the semi-final on 8 July was mostly the same squad that had dismantled Spain one year ago (with Neymar out injured and Thiago Silva sitting out a ban). Which is why there was no surprise in manager Luiz Felipe Scolari retaining the same team for the World Cup — the same system, the same formation, the same line-up. And what did that team do? Only suffered its greatest humiliation in a long, long time.
The 1-7 humiliation announced the beginning of a new era in football: Germany’s. For, regardless of who wins the final on 13 July, Germany have made it clear that they will be the team to beat in the years to come.
Some signs of things to come were there right from the group games. Brazil’s midfielders looked out of sorts, and their performance was nothing comparable to one year ago. The ball was not moving fast enough from the defence to attack; the distribution and composure to control the run of play was missing in all the options Brazil has in central midfield. Paulinho, in particular, looked out of his depth, with Ramires and Fernandinho not providing enough of an alternative to Scolari. Luiz Gustavo remained stuck deep in front of the defence, which looked frail all along.
Silva has looked panicked in central defence this tournament, standing with three brilliant, attacking talents who seemed surprised by the onerous tasks of defending. When Silva was forced to sit out a game, Brazil’s defence lost all leadership. In the quarter-final against Colombia, it was Fernandinho who had set in motion the brutality that eventually led to Neymar’s injury – he repeatedly clattered into Colombia’s creative midfielder James Rodriguez, this tournament’s runaway darling.
Colombia’s total fouls for the game stood at 23, six less than Brazil’s. The game produced the largest number of fouls at this World Cup: 54. The game with the second largest number of fouls this World Cup — 51 — was Brazil’s last-16 encounter with Chile. Brazil’s players seemed totally out of control, from the loud recitation of the national anthem to the maudlin tears that needed intervention from a sports psychologist. This spilled over to the pitch, and Brazilians had no composure on the ball.
Yet even the Germans didn’t expect to make a meal of Brazil and score five goals in 18 minutes of the first half, and then score two more. No matter how poor Brazil looked on the pitch, nothing can explain a 1-7 drubbing. Nothing. This German team is very good and has attacking talent teeming from the bench. The only team that seemed to really stretch Germany was Ghana in the 2-2 draw in the third game of Group G.
The German midfield has been a picture of composure and control, and FIFA’s statistics bear it out. Philipp Lahm, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller are right at the top of the table of distance run, passes played and completed, goals scored and assisted. After Lahm was moved to his customary position of left-back and Bastian Schweinsteiger brought into to anchor the midfield, they have looked more solid than the early games.
This German team had wowed everyone at the last World Cup in South Africa after demolishing England 4-1 and Argentina 4-0. There was already talk that the young team will be a strong contender at this edition. With the reforms in German football and each club in the top two tiers of the Bundesliga running youth programmes and academies, Germany has an assembly line of talent coming through.
In the demolition of Brazil, the man-of-the-match performance came from Kroos — and it is not about the two goals he scored. In the run-up to the game, the German coach had demanded that the referee do not allow brutal Brazilian tackles. The most brutal of the lot, Fernandinho, was going to operate in Kroos’ part of the pitch. Fernandinho hardly saw much of the ball, and Kroos had the better of him. Kroos consistently delivered balls in dangerous areas, and his left-foot strike to score Germany’s third goal was impressive, given that he is right-footed.
Kroos always had the technique and ability. Over the past two seasons, he has matured; he now operates more centrally rather than the advanced attacking position he favoured early on.
Central midfield is where the Dutch lacked. Playing perhaps the highest defensive line of any team in this tournament, it central midfielders mostly occupied themselves with getting in the face of the opposing midfielders to scuttle their movement and deny them space. The creativity has all come up front (Robben-Sneijder-van Persie) or from the wings (Blind-Jarmaat-Kuyt) for the Dutch team. Its performances have been consistent through the tournament.
Given his limited resources, Louis van Gaal is probably the manager this World Cup. With four experienced players combined with a crop of untested — and largely unknown — young players, he has taken the Dutch team to the second last day of the competition. He has chopped and changed, continuously shuffling his limited resources. Bringing on substitute ’keeper Tim Krul just before the penalty shootout against Costa Rica was a masterstroke, because it worked. Krul later told the press that van Gaal had asked him to prepare for the shootout beforehand, and the regular ’keeper Jasper Cillessen had no inkling of the plan.
It is worth asking: how will this Dutch squad perform under a new manager, after van Gaal has moved on to his Manchester United assignment? And who will take up this uneviable job?
Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella, meanwhile, seems more a father figure than a hands-on tactical handler. It is obvious that Lionel Messi’s presence is larger than life for the squad. Like Germany, Argentina has raised its game at the right time, and managed to get its players grooved into their positions. In the group stage, it seemed Argentina had nothing apart from Messi. In the semi-final against the Netherlands, it became clear that there is another field captain-like figure: Javier Mascherano.
Messi’s teammate at Barcelona, Mascherano has seized the Argentine midfield and shouldered a bulk of the defensive duties — especially when he has fallen back to allow the full-backs to either move up the wings and offer overlapping runs to attacking players. Argentina’s attack was clearly missing the inventiveness and industry of the injured Angel di Maria. But that did not matter too much in the nervy semi-final, which was more about control than creativity — a game in which even Messi could not carve open space, or subjugate time with one of his breathtaking runs.
The final is unlikely to be a comparably boring affair. Germany will not sit back and wait for the opponent to make a mistake. With its array of speedy and crafty attackers, it will try to carve its path. Argentina has shown that it has the defensive steel to withstand pressure — it may have scored only eight goals compared to Germany’s 17, but it has conceded only three, one less than Germany. And Germany’s deficit would have looked bigger but for some fantastic saves by ’keeper Manuel Neuer, perhaps the best in the business today. Argentina, meanwhile, have the greatest weapon in football: Messi.
These two teams have different strengths and weaknesses, yet they match up well. They belong in the final of a goalfest of a competition. And international football cannot produce too many people more deserving of lifting the World Cup than Messi and Lahm — two short players with large impact. Two influential leaders.