World Cup preview – The Final [UPDATE: Germany wins]

Germany and Argentina will play tomorrow in the World Cup final. Germany is the betting favorite. Nate Silver’s team estimates that the Germans have a 63 percent chance of winning.

That sounds about right to me.

Ever since it settled on its current lineup, Germany has been the best team on display in Brazil. The reshuffling was substantial. Lahm moved from midfield to right back; Schweinsteigger and Khedira were paired in defensive midfield (and both gained full match fitness); Boateng replaced Mertesacker at center back; and Klose was inserted to give Germany a true center forward.

If anything, though, Argentina has reshuffled even more, having drastically changed formation, not just personnel. The Argentines started with three center backs and two wing backs; moved to something like a 4-2-3-1; and finally settled on what looks like a 4-4-1-1. Thus aligned, they have become the best defensive team in the tournament.

The move to a 4-4-1-1 may have been due in part to the loss, via injury, of Di Maria. But I expect Argentina to retain that formation against Germany even if Di Maria is in the starting lineup (last I heard, it was thought unlikely that he will be).

The four Argentine midfielders will likely play close to the four defenders. In effect, this would mean two rows of four in defense.

Germany will likely line up in something like a 4-2-3-1. Using this formation, the Germans will probably try to control the match by packing the area between the half-way line and the penalty area in the attacking end, and maintaining possession, Spanish style, through its short passing game.

Lahm will probably push up from right back into right midfield as an extra passing outlet. In this scenario, Germany will have flooded the attacking midfield with Schweinsteigger, Khedira, Lahm, Kroos, Ozil, and Muller. The latter four players will frequently interchange position.

Argentina’s first row of four will consist of its two defensive midfielders — Biglia and the excellent Mascherano — and its two wide midfielders — probably Lavezzi and Perez, both of whom have been outstanding in this role. But to avoid being completely outnumbered in midfield, Messi and/or Higuain will have to track back well into their defensive end, as well.

You get the picture — play concentrated in a very congested area, with Germany severely challenged to break Argentina down and Argentina severely challenged to counterattack, given the defensive responsibilities of its attacking players and the ability of the Germans quickly to get to the ball when they lose possession.

How might this mold be broken? In the first half against Holland, Argentina attacked the left side of the Dutch defense because it identified Martins Indi, Holland’s left center back, as a weak link. (When Martins Indi was replaced at half time, Argentina did less of this).

Germany’s left back, Howedes, is playing out of position. He has done pretty well, but doesn’t always receive support from Ozil, the wide attacker on his side.

Thus, as it did against Holland, Argentina may try to attack Germany down that side, using Zabeleta (the right back) Lavezzi, and Messi (or Higuain), If Hummels and Khedira or Schweinsteigger are forced to provide cover, space could open up in the middle for Higuain (or for Messi, if Higuain supports Lavezzi out wide).

Germany had problems earlier in the tournament, especially in the Round of 16 against Algeria, with long balls played out of the back to the opposition’s forwards. Disaster was avoided mainly through the heroics of goalkeeper Neuer racing off his line to thwart the attacks.

When Mertesacker was replaced by the quicker Boateng, this problem diminished. But even in the Brazil match, the hapless David Luiz hit some long diagonal balls that threatened the German defense. And Germany has not faced the likes of Messi in this tournament.

But Argentina’s center backs — Garay and De Michelis — don’t seem to play long balls very effectively. For this Argentina will probably have to rely on Mascherano. Look for Germany to try to close him down quickly when the ball turns over.

How might the Germans try to break the mold described above? They might play a less possession oriented game, thereby, in effect, inviting Argentina to attack. This could create more space for Germany’s attacks.

But I don’t expect Germany to take that approach. Germany’s semifinal loss to Spain at the 2010 World Cup made a big impression on Joachim Löw, the German coach, as did Spain’s reign from 2008-2012. Spain’s success was based on the possession game coupled with the ability to thwart counterattacks through rapid recovery of the ball.

I’m pretty sure that Löw sees this approach as the path to German success in this World Cup. And, if anything, he probably views maintaining possession as all the more important when playing a team with Messi and company.

I say “and company” because it’s easy to forget how outstanding Messi’s partners in the attack can be. Aguero, Higuain, and Di Maria are all huge stars in top European Leagues (in England, Italy, and Spain, respectively). The first two have been very subdued at this World Cup for various reasons and Di Maria may not be able to play tomorrow.

But each is capable of producing a goal through a moment of magic. And Messi, of course, is more than capable of it.

Meanwhile, Argentina saw Germany produce seven goals against Brazil.

Thus, both teams have reason to be cautious. Germany’s caution will likely manifest itself in possession oriented soccer; Argentina’s in the construction of a defensive fortress.

Though such caution may not make for the most exciting final, it should create a tense encounter. But then, I thought the Germany-Brazil match would probably play out that way.

Personally, I’m neutral as between Germany and Argentina. But I wouldn’t mind an early German goal because it then might induce Argentina to play a more open game. I’d rather not see another version of the 1990 final.

UPDATE: Germany 1, Argentina 0, after extra time. The first half went pretty much as predicted above. Germany had plenty of good possession, but Argentina was occasionally threatening on the counterattack with Lavezzi and Messi troubling the left side of the German defense.

Howedes and Hummels proved vulnerable, but Boateng (for me, the man of the match) did a great job of covering.

Lavezzi was replaced for some reason at half time and Argentina didn’t threaten much in the second half. But neither could Germany get a good attacking rhythm.

Gotze replaced Klose just before the extra 30 minutes. Without a true center forward, Germany became less predictable and less easy to defend. Meanwhile, Argentina was, of course, tiring.

Still, the Argentines defended bravely and it looked like the match was headed to a shoot-out, But in the 113th minute, Gotze made a great run into the center forward’s space, for once wasn’t picked up, and produced a brilliant finish to win the World Cup.

The match never quite reached the heights one hopes for from a final. But it was a significant improvement over the 2010 final (also won 1-0 with penalty kicks looming) and certainly over Germany’s win over Argentina by the same score in the 1990 final.

Few would dispute that the better team won today and that the best team won the tournament. But Germany made a few bad mistakes in this match that would have resulted in goals with better finishing from Argentina. So Germany can consider itself a bit lucky.

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