Argentina has edge over Germany
Germany has had trouble in this tournament against teams that defend deep
Tension between the two teams after 2006 quarterfinal brawl
The key for Germany will be to contain Argentina's Lionel Messi
To hear some of the praise lavished on Germany following its second-round victory over England, you'd think it was a reincarnation of Franz Beckenbauer's total footballing side of the early seventies.
It's not. Or at least it's not yet, for the strength of its youth sides suggests the next decade may be a very bright one for German football. All that can be said with any certainty about this side, though, is that it is very good at picking off teams who play too high against them, as Australia did in losing 4-0, and as England did in losing 4-1 last Sunday. Serbia and Ghana defended deeper, and the result was two far tighter games.
Argentina defend deep as a matter of course, and are rather more potent than either Ghana or Serbia going forward. Manager Diego Maradona will surely maintain that solid, deep back four and retain Nicolas Otamendi as a more defensive right back rather than having Jonas Gutierez operate as what the coach has called a "half-and-half" position, covering the right flank. Germany's forwards are very good at exploiting space, but Argentina won't give them space. Its back four focuses almost exclusively on defending; Maradona's side is not reliant, as England and Australia are, on attacking fullbacks.
Germany's Miroslav Klose may threaten in the air, particularly if he can isolate Martin DeMichelis, whose vulnerability to the high ball was exposed by his compatriot Diego Milito in the Champions League final. However, there is a lack of guile about Lukas Podolski and Thomas Muller: Podolski, as Jogi Low has himself said, is best at running in straight lines, while Muller for all the impact he's had in this tournament, is yet to beat a fullback one-on-one. In short, you'd expect a back four of Otamendi, DiMichelis, Nicolas Burdisso and Gabriel Heinze to handle Muller, Klose and Podolski relatively comfortably.
What, then, of Mesut Ozil, who occupies the central creative position in Germany's 4-2-3-1? He is, without question, a player of sublime gifts, a superb technician who also has the vision to select the right pass at the right time. He troubled England and Australia by operating between his opponent's defensive and midfield lines, finding angles for passes that neither England nor Australia were able to counter.
Give him space and he will pick a team apart. The problem against Argentina, though, is that sitting in just the space he likes to operate will be Javier Mascherano, arguably the best defensive anchor in the modern game. Ozil may get the better of him on occasions, as he ultimately got the better of Anthony Annan to score the winner against Ghana, but he will not have the sort of freedom he relished against England.
That leaves Argentina's two carrileros, the up-and-down midfielders who flank Mascherano, up against Germany's two holders, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and again Argentina seems to have a slight advantage in that position. In Maxi Rodriguez and Angel Di Maria, Maradona has two hard-working players who can also pull wide and create; even if they aren't able to match the German pairing for energy, they should be able to make up for it with their movement. And if Di Maria does start to drift left, threatening to unleash the crossing ability that proved so devastating at Benfica last season, then Germany really is in trouble.
Perhaps Phillip Lahm, pushing on from right-back can begin to pick him up, but that negates Lahm as an attacking force, which in turn makes Muller more predictable. If one of the two holders is forced out of a central area to cover, then what Ottmar Hitzfeld, Switzerland's German coach, calls the red zone is suddenly flashing with warning lights, because Lionel Messi is free. Or if not free then at least facing only two or three opponents, which amounts to pretty much the same thing.
It's not quite true to say that Argentina's basic tactic in this World Cup is to keep it tight and get the ball to Messi, just as it's not quite true to say its tactic in 1986 was to keep it tight and get the ball to Maradona, but it's not far off. Nobody since Maradona has been so adept at beating not just one defender but two or three, and what Germany cannot do is allow him to run at its two big, somewhat clumsy center backs, Per Mertesacker and Arne Friedrich. The danger, though, is if too much is invested in trying to counter Messi, then Carlos Tevez will benefit, as he did against Mexico. Against Mexico, Tevez played more centrally than in earlier games, but it seems probable he'll pull back right again and try to expose Jerome Boateng, assuming he carries on at left back.
Beyond the matchup of players, though, there is also an intriguing meeting of personality. Something that, for some reason, is never written about -- perhaps because it doesn't fit the conception of scheming Latins and industrious northern Europeans -- is that this German side, like many in the past, and like Louis van Gaal's Bayern Munich, has an unpleasant streak. Muller and Schweinsteiger, in particular, are feigners, and on at least two occasions against England, Germany stopped promising breaks by staying down after challenges only for its players to spring up as soon as the ball went out of play. Such things probably weren't a great influence on its victory over England, but if Germany attempts anything underhand against Argentina, it will find itself up against a side at least as accomplished in the dark arts, as Schweinsteiger has already admitted.
"The Argentinians provoke and are always whingeing to the referee to try and change his opinion. We shouldn't let ourselves be affected by their provocations," he said. "It starts before the match. You see their body language, how they gesticulate, how they try to influence the referee. That is not part of the game. That is a lack of respect.
They are like that. We should not be provoked by them. I hope the referee will pick this up."
For Schweinsteiger, who got Jeremy Toulalan sent off with gross over-reaction when playing for Bayern against Lyon in last season's Champions League to make such a claim is the height of hypocrisy, and there could be a real undertone of nastiness, particularly given the brawl that followed Germany's quarterfinal victory over Argentina four years ago.
Argentina has revenge very much on its mind and, if it comes down to an open contest, it should achieve it. If Germany can somehow neutralize both Messi and Tevez, though, and if Ozil can make the most of any opportunity Mascherano allows him, then Germany could just steal it.