Spain – Germany: European Heavyweights Set The Benchmark On The Global Stage (1-1)

If adversity is the measure of character, the Germans had to live up to their reputation in this contest. They did. In a high-caliber clash, the suffering at the hands of the Spanish broke but did not kill their spirit. And with some help from the bench, they secured a desirable outcome.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

The last meeting of these two nations produced one of the worst evenings in the history of the German national team. The omens had now conspired before this reunion to set the stage for another downfall.

Spain have laid down the gauntlet to the rest of the competition. Romping to a 7-0 win over Costa Rica in the opening match of their campaign, La Roja, in keeping with their nature, ignited. Their typical dominance of the ball and field went hand in hand with a ruthless streak in the final third to put on marvelous display. Luis Enrique’s work, however, has only begun. If his men had answered their critics, they now ought to be cautious of the scorn that could inspire their fellow heavyweights.

Germany will gleefully accept the lifeline of a Japanese loss to Costa Rica, but they cannot take their eye off the ball. A surprising 2-1 loss has placed them on the back foot in a group where they are the only nation that have not picked up a single point. But should they end up victorious in this fixture, all four countries would enter the final matchday of the group phase level on three points. It is all to play for, but can Hansi Flick’s men find a way to mask the frailties that have undermined their promise?

Flick removed Niklas Süle from the right back slot, and Nico Schlotterbeck lost his spot. Thilo Kehrer filled in on the right of the back four, and Süle featured with Antonio Rüdiger centrally. Kai Havertz also dropped to the bench. Thomas Müller began as the central forward, Ilkay Gündogan took his place as the attacking midfielder, and Leon Goretzka joined Joshua Kimmich in the double pivot.

From the other dugout, Enrique stuck to his blueprint. Rodri retained his manager’s faith, sitting next to Aymeric Laporte at the heart of the back four. The sole switch in the starting eleven was in the right back berth, where César Azpilicueta made way for Dani Carvajal. Sergio Busquets, Pedri, and Gavi sat in the middle of the park; Dani Olmo, Marco Asensio, and Ferran Torres made up the offense.

Spain dominate but cannot knock down the door

The loss to Japan had forced Flick’s hand to prepare to gain a positive result. His men took to the field in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation with a strong midfield and Müller’s advanced positioning to put on pressure from the front. Their task: could they stop Spain from hoarding more than 60% of the ball?

35th minute: offensive sequence from Spain. Asensio rotates the ball to Laporte, then loiters in the midfield. Pedri, Alba and Olmo immediately exchange positions. The stretched space between Gnabry and Gündogan forces Kimmich to cover Olmo, and Süle to step out to Asensio. Spain’s left winger recognizes this dynamic, motioning into the space behind the backline, where Laporte finds him.

Flick’s men ran their opponents close, but they had given up 69% of the ball before the break. Pedri ably supported Busquets from the middle of the park, where Asensio’s movement between the double pivot placed the central defenders in a dilemma. If these options were not enough, the switch of play was a frequent means through which they could get free from pressure. Spain were just too good.

On the other hand, at the same time, Spain seldom created chances. Their best route to the German goal was through Olmo. He cracked a thunderous shot in the 7th minute that forced Manuel Neuer to tip the ball onto the bar. Otherwise, his goal-oriented movement brought depth to the Spanish possession sequences. But it was all too rare in the final third. A state of stalemate took hold.

The Raumfinder offers respite

Spain’s dominance was, as ever, not just the product of their work with the ball. In the event of any turnovers, tight counterpressure pinched the ball away from the Germans. Furthermore, their man-oriented high block, taking form in a 4-3-3 system, shut down many passing sequences from the back. However, within these moments, Flick’s men also found brief moments of relief before the break.

In this pressing scheme, they turned to an asymmetrical use of their wingers. Ferran Torres pushed inward from his broad role on the right flank, closing down Rüdiger. So, Raum had room in the left back position to receive the ball. Carvajal pushed on extremely far to trap the free man. How Spain coped with ensuing actions from their opponents determined the balance of this aspect of the duel.

10th minute: press breaking sequence from Germany. Torres’ restrained pressure on Rüdiger, aiming to prevent Carvajal pushing out too far, lets the central defender break the lines. Musiala turns away from Rodri, and Goretzka charges in front of Gavi to provide a third man layoff option to Gündogan.

Musiala forced Rodri to follow him deep into German territory. Even if his ball carrying did not crack the press, he stranded the Spanish backline in a 2-on-2. The midfield came alive here. Twice Goretzka escaped Gavi to engineer the two best German chances of the half: a breakaway effort from Gnabry and a headed offside goal from Rüdiger. But both defenses reigned supreme at the midway point.

Morata makes the difference… again

In the opening stages of the second half, the Germans kept on pushing. The man-oriented marking in the middle of the park and Musiala’s arcuate pressing from the left forced several turnovers. In turn, Enrique was the first manager to roll the dice. In the 54th minute, he brought on Álvaro Morata.

Torres came off for the striker, and Asensio moved onto the right of the front three. Morata’s crafty movements off the ball has often provided a more direct threat to supplement Spanish dominance, giving more depth to complement the width of their structure. Indeed, he would soon deliver again.

Busquets had broken free from Gündogan, pivoting to switch the ball to the left. Olmo fed a pass into the path of Alba, whose cross to the near post met a red shirt. A sleepy Süle, now in the center of the field, was at fault. He needlessly dropped off to track the striker, whose movement off of his blindside urged Alba to deliver. Morata then stroked a strike with the outside of his boot into the roof of the net. The ball was back in Flick’s court; his substitutes now had to shift the dynamic in favor of Germany.

Flick forges a solution

Nearing the 70th minute mark, he threw on three players. Lukas Klostermann replaced Kehrer, and Niclas Füllkrug was the point man. The most significant entry, however, was that of Leroy Sané. His role enforced a new division of functions among the three attackers behind Füllkrug. Gnabry gave an extra option to Raum from the left, freeing Musiala to wander into the middle in a nominally central role. But now danger also emanated from the right, where Sané’s dribbling pried open the Spanish.

73rd minute: offensive sequence from Germany. Sané’s dribbling breaks coverage from Pedri and Alba, drawing out Laporte. Rodri and Carvajal push the line forward, leaving room for Musiala.

About a quarter of an hour remained on the clock when all the pieces almost fused. Sané broke inside the cover from the right, Spain raised the height of the offside line, and Musiala sprinted laterally to draw a save. The goal was a carbon copy. Sané drove forward in transition, Musiala’s fabulous feet pulled the ball into his path, and Füllkrug hammered home. Sané could have sealed the turnaround in injury time, but his touch eluded him at the feet of Unai Simón. Honors even at the final whistle.


Though a little less pretty, the Spanish are still clear of the chasing pack— a point ahead of Japan and Costa Rica with a much superior goal difference. The draw stung Enrique, whose men lost control with the falling intensity and height of their pressing efforts at the end of the game. But this outcome should not hinder the Spanish from entering the fixture against the Japanese with all confidence.

Destiny is not in their hands, but Germany’s prospects of progression are far less bleak. That is a fair proposition for a nation whose intensity was integral to this high class fixture. Finding the formula to bounce back here, Flick must now play the personnel card correctly against Costa Rica. But no matter how matters play out, one thing is sure. We should not remember German efforts like those in 2018.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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