Never, it is said about this time every couple of years, write off the Germans.
Of course, nobody ever does. The unflinching muscularity of the three-times world champions has been burned into the English subconscious with such intensity that any insistence that we can overcome our old bogey team now comes with all the strength of conviction of an Owen Hargreaves promotional video. Indeed, were anybody to dare to Write Off The Germans again, they could be pointed in the direction of the 2010 World Cup, when a squad light on recognised stars were shrugged off as unlikely challengers for the top honours. So when a new generation of young, driven, creative players emerged in the group stages, exhibiting the purposeful, direct style of play for which English supporters yearn, it laid to rest any risk that anyone would Write Off The Germans again.
This year, nobody’s taking the chance. Germany are second favourites, with bookies offering odds as low as 4/1 for them to come out on top, longer only than Spain’s 15/4. There has been an accepted wisdom within European football in recent times that everybody is already playing for second place. Tiki-taka will overcome all challengers, such wisdom insists. Spain’s triumph will not – can not – be contested. In South Africa, that may have been true. No team was truly equipped to match the reigning European champions in midfield, as was excrutiatingly evident in Holland’s cack-handed attempts to stifle the Spaniards with brute force in the final.
The elegant perfectionism of Barcelona-style one-touch football has been exposed this season, though. Barca were found wanting a plan B against the blue wall of Chelsea defenders in Europe, and they were undone by, well, by Jose Mourinho in La Liga. If Spain falter too, this may well be the year that the gentle creep of tiki-taka across the face of football is stopped in its tracks.
When Madrid finally delivered the killer blow, in a horrible week for the Catalonians in April, they did so with Sami Khedira playing just in front of their defence. The 25-year-old is one of a number of younger players who stepped into the limelight in South Africa – securing himself a big money move to Madrid in the process – and who is now older and wiser for two years playing at a higher level. A classy, sitting midfielder of the type all teams should crave, the ex-Stuttgart man is at once ruthless, clean and simple as a defensive player, while simultaneously excellent at starting attacks with his energy, forward momentum and canny passing. Don’t expect him to get on the end of many crosses into the six-yard box, but notice that he’s always there in the corner of your screen, always available, always dropping off into space at the perfect moment to either start the next attack, or stifle the opponent’s.
In their final qualifier, a 3-1 victory over Belgium, Khedira was deployed as the midfield anchor in a 4-1-4-1 formation, allowing an attacking quartet of Thomas Müller, Tony Kroos, Mesut Özil and the lesser known Andre Schürrle to buzz around Mario Gomez. It is a telling display of Germany’s riches going into this tournament that such a formidable line-up – keep an eye on Schürrle to emerge at this tournament, just as Özil did at the last – didn’t include Bastian Schweinsteiger or Mario Götze. Neither did it contain either Miroslav Klose – the second-top World Cup goalscorer of all time, lest we forget – or Arsenal’s new-boy Lukas Podolski. The highlights of that match are worth watching – unless you want to cling on to the hope that England can possibly win Euro 2012.
Just look at Germany’s brutal second goal, scored on the counter-attack at breakneck speed. At 1 minute 39 you’ll notice Eden Hazard taking a corner. Yet at 1.54, just 15 seconds later, Schürrle is wheeling away as his exquisitely executed chip rolls into the net at the other end of the pitch. This video has not been altered in any way, everything you see here is real, no animals were harmed in the making of this film, etc. It’s a phenomenal piece of counter-attacking football. You may need to watch it twice, though, lest you are still reeling after watching Özil’s thunderbolt for the opening strike. Gomez also shows his attacking form to complete the scoring, and demonstrate why he was among the top scorers in Europe this season. Try not to think too hard about England’s own labouring performance against the same team last week.
There is quite a difference between beating Belgium and ousting Spain from the top spot in World football, of course, and even getting the opportunity to try comes at the end of a long road. In Portugal, the Netherlands, and Denmark, Germany could not have asked for many tougher group stage opponents. But if we work on the broad assumption, for now, that both top their groups, Germany and Spain couldn’t then meet until the final. Now let’s imagine that they do just that, coming head-to-head in that climactic game, the two favourites matching expectations and steamrollering through the tournament to set up a rerun of the last final. Not for this year the humbling of 2008, when Spain’s 1-0 win was flattering only for their defeated opponents, as the promise of a generation finally flourished after decades of underachievement. This time, Germany are ready.
The big issue in stopping Spain lies in quelling the flow of the midfield. Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, Fabregas and Silva need little introduction. Yet they are qualities that, on the whole, Khedira has encountered before. He was on the side that effectively sealed the Spanish league title at the Nou Camp in April, getting on the scoresheet and helping keep a lid on Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi from his usual position in front of the back four. Looking back at the goals Germany have conceded this year, a disproportionate number came from crosses into the box which the defence struggled to clear, rather than by breaking down the defence. Khedira is reinventing the Makalele role with attacking bite. Spain may just need a plan B.
Of course, Spain still have their own fragility to worry about. While Fernando Llorente is attracting admiring glances from a number of clubs after a fine season, the absence through injury of David Villa deprives Spain of their top scorer from qualifying. Fernando Torres’ continuing struggles at Chelsea have led to discontent, a lack of confidence, and even a spell of absence from the national team, and there’s no guarantee that he would even be the man to step into Villa’s shoes. At the other end, the team’s mainstay defender Carlos Puyol is also missing from the squad, leading to speculation that Sergio Ramos could step into an unfamiliar centre half position to fill the gap in defence. Waiting for him in the centre would, most likely, be the erratic Barcelona defender Gerard Pique. With so much emphasis on the full backs to attack, how would Spain cope with the attacking fluidity of Germany’s front five?
It is more incumbent than ever on Spain’s midfield to provide the quality that justifies their top billing, to keep possession to protect the defence, while working their own openings for want of an established international striker. But after the undoing of Barcelona this season, the spell has been broken; the virus has been planted in the mothership – Send out the message: We know how to beat them. So, take it as read that nobody will be Writing Off The Germans this summer. Instead, it’s probably best to get on board with their fluid attacking style now – forget where you are for a moment, and you’ll probably enjoy it. It would be a brave man who bets against them taking home the trophy.
Posted by Thom Kennedy