Spain – Germany: History Does Not Repeat Itself But It Rhymes
Trials and tribulations continue to torment the Germans at tournaments. The spanner in the works of an opening matchday defeat at a third major competition in a row has placed the country at risk of an abrupt exit at the group stage phase. This preview explores how history has repeated itself and why so many punters fear the fate that befell the team back in 2018.
This tactical preview was written by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
One can trace back the scorn, ridicule, and outrage that has hung over the DFB since 2018 to many humiliating results. Perhaps the worst of them is a 6-0 rout at the hands of the Spanish. La Roja have quietly forged their way back to the top under Luis Enrique: his men’s emphatic victory in November 2020 cast them into the spotlight. Such explosiveness in the final third has been the exception rather than the norm. Yet, that should not render them any less of a disturbing prospect for the Germans. And any such source of solace would have received a cruel blow after the fixtures on Wednesday.
La Roja continue to run like clockwork
Enrique’s approach has been not free from criticism before the start of the Spanish campaign. Above all, his selections have drawn the ire of the media: how can one be so closely wedded to favorites over the star names in a camp that wishes to duke it out with the elite on the grand stage? The stubborn-minded manager remains set in his ways, and though it is too early to jump to wild conclusions, he could hardly have wished for a better response to those concerns than the 7-0 win over Costa Rica.
The rank outsiders of the group were no match for the Spanish. Their 4-4-2 medium block was just not tight enough to keep a hold on the mercurial men that ran the middle of the park. Their defense in the penalty area blessed a fluid frontline with little resistance. Their higher pressing could not smother the influence of the new addition Rodri in central defense. To that end, it would be easy to write off such a blowout victory as a rare occurrence from which we can tell little ahead of a far trickier fixture.
45 + 3rd minute: A progressive inside-to-outside passing sequence from Spain following Costa Rica’s switch to a 5-4-1 block. Celso Borges pushes out to close down Aymeric Laporte, whose orientation towards Pedri lures out Carlos Martínez. However, Anthony Contreras is not blocking the passing lane to Sergio Busquets. Óscar Duarte is too far to respond in time and a lateral run from Marco Asensio into the vacant room drags across Francisco Calvo. Now, Busquets can rotate the ball to Rodri, who can then send away Gavi in the left halfspace to dribble forwards into the final third.
But just how rare is such a showing from the Spaniards? Since the end of the EUROs, they have not totaled less than 60% of the possession in a single game they have played: they averaged more than 70% across their last 15 fixtures before the World Cup. Similarly, they seldom have shut out an opponent from the first minute until the last, but their intention in transition to enforce dominance is nothing new. The names might not be to the casual’s liking, nor should we swiftly assume the frailties in both boxes are now a thing of the past. But the game model of Spain still runs like clockwork.
Overreaction hype: the ignominious nobility of another early elimination
It is a game model whose long-term outlook would have served several big nations in this competition well. Many matches have followed the classic pattern of a clash between underdogs and favorites. The former has tended to defer the initiative. The latter has often lacked the tools to create chances from their possession: 0-0 draws have frequented the scorelines of this World Cup. That state of affairs did not apply to the Germans, whose failings against the Japanese differed to those from 2018 or 2021.
Back in 2018, the Germans missed the incision to take apart even fairly mediocre blocks. On the other hand, the Japanese 4-4-1-1 block, a stiff test in its own right, slowly gave way to the invention of their opponents. Ilkay Gündogan and Jamal Musiala dared to venture into small rooms between the lines, while David Raum became a prominent outlet to break through from switches from the midway point of the first half. Germany turned the screw: Gündogan’s penalty followed the game flow. Hansi Flick has committed to turning the screw in ways Joachim Löw rarely managed at the end of his tenure.
24th minute: offensive combination from Germany. Gündogan drops deep into the left halfspace, then drives forward provocatively to engage the midfield. Musiala slips into Wataru Endo’s blindside, Kai Havertz pins the central defenders and Thomas Müller races forward to combine with his teammate. Such fast vertical accelerations and follow-up actions to support the recipient of line breaking passes have been the basis of Germany’s offensive playbook since the beginning of Flick’s managerial reign.
In truth, the Germans mustered enough ammunition to kill off the contest. Their offense racked up 3.45 xG over the ninety minutes, yet the forwards only notched one goal. From nearly that exact tally, the Spanish, notorious for their flaws in the final third, had bagged seven against Costa Rica. Perhaps the outcome should be less of a shock when one notices the discourse around Bayern Munich, whose players are at the core of this squad. But that is hardly a source of consolation. Anything less than all three points renders progress from the group improbable. And so, soul searching is already underway.
Five forward gears, no reverse gear
Indeed, the Germans were not without fault at the other end of the pitch. Hajime Moriyasu caught his opposite number off guard, adopting a 3-4-3 shape at half time. The 5-on-4 superiority that afforded Raum so much space in the first half no longer worked in their favor. The Japanese kept infiltrating the channels within Germany’s back four, paving the way toward Takuma Asano’s winning strike.
The goal was forthcoming, but Flick seemingly accepted the oncoming onslaught. The parallels to Bayern Munich are again not out of place here: come what may, his outfit always stuck to a 4-2-3-1 system. Moreover, it was not hard to predict his two changes before the equalizer from Ritsu Doan.
Gündogan made way for Leon Goretzka, and Jonas Hofmann replaced Müller. A third midfielder was not present to grab control of the game in the middle of the park. The high press lost its groove, and the gaps at the rear without a fifth defender remained. Hofmann, an old deputy for Flick at right back, could have dropped off to support Süle, but such instruction seemed not to cross the manager’s mind.
68th minute: offensive sequence from Japan. Moriyasu’s men escape a wave of high pressure, letting Maya Yoshida to carry the ball forwards. No pressure on the central defender allows him to scan and prepare to hit a long ball. Junya Ito loiters between the lines, baiting out Nico Schlotterbeck from the chain. He is then slower to drop off than the rest of the defense, creating a gap between himself and Antonio Rüdiger. Hiroki Sakai’s header targets the gap to access Asano, but Rüdiger blocks his shot.
This right back dilemma caught a snapshot of the nation’s problems. To be on the front foot at a high-octane tempo is second nature. But as soon as that aggression loses its sting, they are more vulnerable. The coordination between the defenders is weak; the individuals have their own shortcomings. Even if the Germans went against their instinct and held fire, they offered no guarantee of security. Either in a back four, five, or hybrid, Flick must implement a reverse gear over time. But time is not on his side.
What can Flick do?
At this stage, Flick cannot ignore the clamor to intervene. Yet, he must also be wary of overcorrecting for his team’s flaws. Lessons from the humbling at the end of 2020 should hold weight in his mind. The addition of a third central midfielder did not crack the man-oriented pressing of the Spanish, whose counterpressure has also been integral to setting the tone against the big nations in the past.
Neither is the return of Joshua Kimmich, for whom Flick has set apart a central role in the midfield, to right back a clear solution in this duel. Even if the right edge of the defense is safer, wider issues will not vanish. And what Flick gains from shoring up the back four, he loses in the middle of the park. Spanish ball security and midfield control have been decisive aspects of their success under Enrique: the will to protect a shaky defense cannot come at the cost of excessively wild pressure from the front.
Game management is equally of the essence for Enrique. His men’s use of the ball not only tilts the field in Spain’s favor but also helps them to calm down a contest, masking athletic and physical frailties at the back. Here is where Flick shall wish to strike. Karim Adeyemi, Youssoufa Moukoko, and Leroy Sané offer more explosiveness with their movement in depth. The manager might see one of them as a weapon to unleash in transition. In any case, strategizing from the back foot is not a challenge that Flick will embrace. But that mission is what awaits him in more ways than one.
Germany are a national team with promise. Spain, however, are at a stage where they can execute their ideal game plan in the here and now with far greater assurance and stability. If the grant of time has been an ally for Enrique, it has only served to wind up the DFB in knots that Flick is yet to untie.
The Germans still have some hope. Kimmich and Gündogan could outplay the pressure of Gavi and Pedri while athletic advantages, in turn, work against the Spanish. But they have every right to feel pessimistic. Unless they mimic the feats of the Japanese, the echoes of history will sound again.
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