Germany and the World Cup pragmatism myth

July 7, 11:46 AM

In South Africa four years ago, Germany were a young, dynamic, counterattacking team full of midfield talent that scored an incredible eight goals in the knockout stages, but were also weak in defense. This year, Germany have a much stronger back four and a more physical midfield, but are less dynamic in attack. They won’t make the same naive mistakes as they did four years ago on their way to the final.

This line, echoed by former national team captain Lothar Matthaus on the weekend, sounds very convincing.

It’s also completely wrong.

Here, for the record, is what Matthaus said:

"If you want to become world champion you have to win matches, and that means ugly victories too. In previous World Cups we have always had those kind of games.

"We have become spoiled over the last eight years with such a technically stylish team and you did not expect this from Germany.

“Now it is no longer as attractive and beautiful as it was in 2010 but it is more oriented towards having a stronger defence - there is a saying in Germany that the defence wins titles and the attackers get all the glory.

For one, this supposedly more defensive Germany have so far conceded one more goal this World Cup cycle than they did in the tournament four years ago, even with Mats Hummels replacing Arne Friedrich and with Jogi Loew relying on Benedikt Howedes on the edge of defense. The back line is otherwise very similar to 2010, with Per Mertesacker, Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm all swapping spots here and there.

This supposedly pragmatic Germany also looked defensively frail for periods against Algeria, who might have taken the lead with some better finishing earlier in the match.

Yes: Germany, with the exception of their 4-0 win over Portugal, haven’t match the attacking dynamism of four years ago where they defeated England 4-1 and Argentina 4-0 in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals. Yet it’s not clear how much of this is intentional. Miroslav Klose for example, though afforded a lot of space against France, was practically anonymous going forward. Meanwhile Algeria pressed well to try and score on the break and Germany couldn’t seem to get the ball behind the opposition defense.

But the real question is whether Germany’s stylistic attack is what cost them a chance to make the final in South Africa four years ago, and if a more defensive approach would have seen them through. For that we have to look at the game in question—a 0-1 loss to Spain in the semifinal in Durban.

Watching the match, a few things are almost immediately apparent. First, Spain’s high tempo passing game prevented Germany from getting a foothold in the game right from the opening whistle.

Second, Germany were sloppy and at times rushed on the counter because of a relentless and disciplined Spanish press. They were also caught offside once or twice by the Spanish high line, and found it difficult to find passing options when with the ball out wide.

Key though was the absence of Thomas Mueller on a suspension. He was replaced in the line-up by Piotr Trochowski, which you can imagine wasn’t exactly like-for-like. Finding a way past Spain would require incredibly skillful, visionary passing: Trochowski wasn’t quite up to the challenge. Moreover, for all their attacking strength Germany failed to take advantage of their crucial set piece opportunities.

Finally, the scoreline was 0-1. The goal came from a free kick in the 73rd minute, scored by the head of Carles Puyol rushing in from the back. It was an unfortunate goal for Germany to concede, but Germany didn’t exactly look defensively shaky before the breakthrough. Boateng, Khedira, Schweinsteiger were all very physical out of possession, and Spain were, for the most part, kept at bay.

It’s impossible to watch this game and think Germany lost because they were too aesthetic-minded in attack, particularly as the current midfield is so largely similar to the one which went out four years ago. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger have similar defensive roles in the midfield, Thomas Mueller is still a major focal point in attack, Klose is still a compelling option up front.

Germany lost in 2010 because Spain were just that much better. Germany’s exciting, counterattacking football on display against England and Argentina had nothing to do with it.

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters/Jerry Lampen