Germany’s scoring output during this World Cup is remarkable in two respects. First, no one I know expected Germany to be setting the pace offensively this year. Second, the German output is astonishing for any team in any modern World Cup.
In three of four matches they’ve played with 11 men, the Germans have scored 4 goals (against a pretty good Australian defense and previously stingy England and Argentina). In the other match (against Ghana), Germany scored only once, but both teams played cautiously to ensure their advancement into the final 16.
Let’s compare Germany’s output in these four matches to that of some the great attacking teams of modern soccer. Brazil’s legendary 1970 team, which blended five superstar attackers into the starting 11, scored 4 against Czechoslovakia, Peru and Italy (in the final); 3 against Uruguay and Romania; and 1 against England. The great 1974 Dutch Clockwork Orange team scored 4 against Bulgaria and Argentina, 2 against Uruguay and East Germany, 1 against West Germany (in the final), and none against Sweden.
Argentina’s magical 1986 team that won the World Cup behind Diego Maradona averaged 2 goals per match and never scored 4. Brazil’s explosive 2002 winner scored 5 once and 4 once in the group stages, but then slowed down. It averaged slightly better than 2.5 goals for the entire tournament.
To date, then, the German offensive production most closely resembles the best of team of all – Brazil 1970.
Will Germany keep it up? Not likely. Tomorrow they face an experienced, parsimonious Spanish side that features a quality back-four and two solid, but not outstanding, defensive midfielders (Argentina had only one and England, with Gareth Barry a shadow of his usual self, had maybe half of one). Unlike Argentina and England, moreover, Spain’s attacking players will probably track back, especially if coach Del Bosque replaces Fernando Torres with a midfielder and moves David Villa into the middle. Finally, Thomas Muller, who has played such a big role in the German attack, will miss the match due to suspension. Thus, unless Germany manages an early goal that causes Spain to open up, I don’t expect more than a goal or perhaps two from Germany tomorrow.
Will that be enough? The question brings us to Germany’s defense. It looked a bit shaky coming into the tournament. Phillip Lahm is a great right back, but Germany lacked an internationally tested left back, and the central defensive partnership also raised concerns. Arne Friedrich is a fullback (at least at the international level) pressed into service in the middle due to an injury to the usual starter, Heiko Westermann. Per Mertesacker is outstanding in the air, but can be beaten on the ground and, in fact, struggled against Spain in the finals of Euro-2008.
However, the German defense has been just fine so far. It struggled during a stretch of the England match, but then shut down Argentina, the most potent attacking team in the tournament other than Germany.
But Spain is a passing team, whereas Argentina’s stars too often tried to beat Germany solo. Thus, Spain presents a distinctive challenge to Germany’s defense.
Spain’s offensive output has been meager, though, and I don’t think they can beat Germany playing as they have. They must either freshen up the offense with an effective attacking option in place of Torres (but the status of Cesc Fabregas, the most likely option, is in doubt do to injury) or else Torres, who is probably playing hurt, must suddenly somehow recapture his form.
This match could easily come down to penalty kicks, and that would be unfortunate. Shoot-outs are inevitable and they are entertaining, but so far we’ve been lucky because the two that have occurred (Paraguay-Japan and Ghana-Uruguay) involved teams with little hope of winning the tournament. Tomorrow’s match is almost like a final — the winner will be favored over Holland — and I’d hate to see it decided on penalty kicks.
Avoiding penalty kicks and bad, match-altering referee decisions are my two hopes for tomorrow.
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