The first cut is the deepest

July 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Without any doubt, the team of the World Cup so far has been Germany. On paper – and by ranking – they’ve had the toughest two knockout ties of any of the semi-finalists; in those games, they’ve scored eight goals, conceded one (okay, two, but I’ll come to that), and have emerged garlanded with plaudits not just for their results but for their style of football.

What’s interesting – to me, at least – is the nature of those eight goals. The opener in each game has been the result of poor marking: Argentina at a set piece; England in the face of a long clearance. The other six have been classic counter-attacks, taking advantage of disorganisation in the opposition defence with direct passing, clever movement, and clinical finishing. The unifying factor here is the quality of the defending. Germany have been the beneficiaries of individual errors, and also of collective panic.

What Germany haven’t had to do – yet – is break down a well-organised and competent defence. Perversely, facing two relatively strong teams may have played into their hands. England and Argentina both went into the game considering themselves, rightly or wrongly, to be potential winners of the tournament, and so were unlikely to approach a knock-out tie with a defensive approach. (You could also make a case that neither team would have had the defensive qualities in the squad to carry out such an approach.) Counter-attacking football, by its very nature, relies on the opposition to be willing to commit players forward, so creating space behind the defence. Germany were in this sense fortunate not to be playing, say, Paraguay, whose approach was unapologetically defensive.

But even if England or Argentina had set out to defend, the early concession in both games meant this wasn’t an option. By conceding that early goal, England and Argentina essentially allowed Germany to play to their strengths: able to defend in numbers without any need to create an opening; able to wait for the space to come. (Interestingly, this has been a lousy World Cup for comebacks in general: of the sixty games so far, only three – Cameroon 1-2 Denmark; Nigeria 1-2 Greece; Brazil 1-2 Netherlands – have seen a team go behind before coming back to win; by contrast, the first sixty games in 2006 had eight such games.)

What this emphasises is the importance of the first goal in matches between two teams of relatively comparable strength. Taking the lead completely alters the nature of a football match: the team who scores is able to play risk-free football, focused on possession and prevention; the team behind, by contrast, needs to force an opening against a team less inclined to attack than before. Consider the example of the Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona. It’s recalled as the night Barcelona embarrassed United, and there is a certain amount of truth in that. However, Jonathan Wilson (in the introduction to his excellent new book The Anatomy of England) points out that United dominated the first nine minutes, before being somewhat unfortunate to concede. Once ahead, Barcelona were then in a position to play keep-ball, the very definition of their comfort zone.

Germany are not as good in possession as Barcelona, nor do they seek to be. But the common thread is that they have been permitted by an early goal to play the game in the manner to which they are accustomed and for which they were designed. That, I think, is the real shame of Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal; we were denied the chance to see how Germany would respond to being asked to take the initiative. Though it should probably be said that the England’s defence looked to be in the mood to concede again, regardless of the game situation, so any difference it might have made would probably have been more in the manner than the fact of Germany’s victory.

We have already seen the value of effective counter-attacking against Spain, Germany’s next opponents, not only in their opening defeat against the Swiss but also in their somewhat-streaky wins over Paraguay and Chile. There is space to be found behind both full-backs, particularly Sergio Ramos, while Pique and Puyol aren’t the quickest of centre-back pairings. Indeed, Spain are in some ways the ideal opponents for Germany: committed to attack; not too organised in defence. While the quality of the Spanish midfield and attack may overwhelm Germany, they certainly won’t mind playing football without the ball for long periods, as opponents of the Spanish surely must. This is a team confident that it can play football on the counter, and Spain are unlikely to ask them to do anything else. The semi-final is unlikely to provide an answer to the questions above.

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