The massacre in Belo Horizonte has led to (in between the passing swipes at Brazil’s defence) a tsunami of praise for this wondrous German team, and more specifically, their team-first mentality. Germany’s wholehearted thrashing of Brazil was a group-initiated performance; the unselfishness shown for some of the goals was present to such a degree, you could almost call it overkill. Muller’s lay off for Klose to snatch the all-time scoring record, Khedira’s one-two with Kroos for the fourth goal, then Ozil’s similar final pass for Khedira to score, these were all passes made at a point in the play when a decision to shoot would have been equally viable. The extra pass simply made the goal a certainty. And it’s no surprise this German team is so in tune with one another; the nucleus of the team, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Klose, Ozil, Khedira have all been together on German (and club) teams of various age levels for years. Joachim Low has been intimately, patiently helping to mould this team for the last 3 World Cups, from a counter-attacking side that had trouble dominating the games where opponents invited pressure, to the largely Bayern-influenced unit still capable of punishing backtracking defences on the break, but also more adept at controlling matches with possession and patient passing. When Marco Reus was ruled out of the tournament, Germany lost their most incisive attacking gem. Mario Gotze, perhaps their next best in the same mould, has found his time in Brazil more ‘meh’ than mesmerising. Klose, still as predatory around the 6 yard box as ever (notice where he’s scored all of his World Cup goals from, all within 8 yards of goal) is there to finish moves, rather than create them himself.
Yet in spite of this, against Brazil, Germany put on the most devastating attacking display ever seen in a World Cup (against the hosts, no less) and it wasn’t purely down to any of the individuals mentioned above, or any other individuals; it was the performance of a fine (and finely honed) team. The tsunami of praise for the Germans is deserved. So, after rollicking into the final, Germany were able to kick back (probably all together in a single hotel room, holding hands and conversing telepathically) and watch Argentina and the Netherlands fight it out for the privilege of joining them. It is doubtful two such antithetical semi finals have ever been played back to back before. They, along with the rest of us, witnessed a match defined by crippling apprehension, mainly being shown by the players in orange. They will have seen the suffocating man-marking that Lionel Messi was subjected to, at times with three players permanently adhered to him, and they might have turned to one another, smirking and, using perfectly efficient psychic utterance, exchanged the words “Ein-mann-team“.
Most people do when Messi’s Argentina plays, to their error. Yes, of course Messi is the most important player in Sabella’s squad, and yes, he does possess the capability to win a game with a purely independent intervention. But what the semi final victory over the Dutch showed was that Argentina, stripped of two of their best attackers (Di Maria, likely not to play in the final, and Aguero, who was not fit enough to start) and with Messi partially hamstrung by de Jong et al, were still able to grind out a victory, one they certainly could have snatched in regulation time if not for some weak finishing. Look at what happened when Brazil had to play without two of their best players. Furthermore, the performance of Javier Mascherano, a clinic in the art of the defensive shield, should alarm the Germans. The Barcelona man was responsible for denying Arjen Robben’s one opportunity to score, with a perfectly timed, last-ditch sliding block. He made sure he was consistently available to take the ball out of defence, and his assuredness when in possession and accurate distribution were key to Argentina keeping hold of the game, even if they didn’t score. Even with his Oranje hangers-on, Messi managed to create chances and threaten. He was the stand out player in the first half, always looking menacing in the way that he does when he has the ball, perched on tippy toes waiting for the man in front of him to snap and throw a leg out to tackle, before dancing around him. He brims with potential energy, a slalom waiting to happen as long as he can turn and have half a second to look up.
This affects the game more than just in the tangible, goal-scoring sense as well, as many have noted; he demands extra defensive attention and this additional man power has to come from somewhere. Arjen Robben was ineffective in the semi final because the midfield was set up to keep Messi quiet and was therefore situated much deeper. De Jong, Snjeider and Clasie all had to be specifically mindful of Messi, and it left Robben isolated up front. With Robin van Persie lethargic and fading with every second, it’s no wonder the Dutch had so few chances. Basically, it isn’t a matter of putting a man or two on Messi and saying “job done, he’s dealt with, onto playing our game”; playing a team with Messi at it’s heart means major adjustment that can disrupt even the most disciplined of teams. Germany will not be exempt from this.
It might also be worth mentioning that, even though anything Germany-related must be horribly caustic in Brazil right now, the prospect of Argentina winning the World Cup in Brazil is one that few locals would even conceive of being able to stomach. They are bitterly hated rivals, and come match day at the Maracana, Argentina will be walking into a snake pit. Whether or not this translates into the impetus for a better performance by Argentina is difficult to gauge, though you can be sure that La Albiceleste will be relishing the opportunity to rub salt further into Brazilian wounds. Germany also seem to have developed a recent tradition of getting within a whiff of the Cup, then falling agonisingly short. They have been either third place finishers or runners-up the last three tournaments. Will this be their year, or will old habits die hard? The confidence gained from the 7-1 will still be surging through their veins so Low will hope that it will be enough to drown out the bad memories. Argentina will not be as obliging defensively as Brazil were, there is no David Luiz that saunters recklessly forward in Sabella’s team. The Argentine is a coach that favours defensive solidity over nearly all else.
One thing he may want to investigate however is how much he can test the German left back Bededikt Howedes. Howedes plays centre back for Schalke, but was played at left back against Brazil. He was untested in that game, obviously, but Lavezzi or Aguero may provide more of a challenge for the German. Certainly both should have Howedes well beaten for pace, and Messi ought to be looking to slide one of his sumptuous through balls in behind on that flank because it will hold more promise than the right hand side, vigilantly patrolled by Phillip Lahm.
Germany will still be favourites, and rightly so. Argentina will need, maybe above all else, to stick closely to Thomas Muller, as everyone should. One assumes Khedira will not surge forward as often or as effectively as he did against Brazil because he has Messi to deal with, but Kroos can still offer the same attacking momentum and guile. Kroos also has, as we saw against Brazil (and Arsenal in the Champions League) a real howitzer of a shot on him. Higuain will need his finishing to be at it’s sharpest if he’s to beat the regal Manuel Neuer, who has been protecting his goal as ravenously as a mother bear protects her cubs. Mascherano will look to stop Ozil from wafting around silkily, a task he will no doubt recall from when the Arsenal playmaker was at Real Madrid.
It is possible that Argentina will adopt a primarily defensive approach, hoping only to snatch a goal on a Messi-orchestrated counter-attack so, if this happens, we will see a proper test of the German’s ability to take the initiative. Though, as stated, they are improved in this regard, we saw in the Ghana game that they still don’t do it quite as effectively as they counter-attack. A team that is looking to stifle and then counter needs only a single moment of magic to snatch victory out of nowhere. With Messi, Argentina have the man most able to provide exactly that required footballing finesse, an instant of soccer sorcery. This is not a story of 1 versus 11, as strong as the urge is to characterise it that way. Nor is this World Cup Final a forgone conclusion, far from it. So, rejoice football-goers, the epic finale approaches and we’re all invited.