German counterattack negated by Spain's dominant possession
Spain defeated Germany by controlling midfield and ball possession
German offense was exposed as too reliant on counterattack
Spain's success was due to its reversion to a 4-2-3-1 formation
So in the end, Germany came up against a team that could defend, and the great counterattackers were exposed in a 1-0 loss to Spain in the World Cup semifinals on Wednesday. Without an early goal to protect, without opponents that poured forward and left spaces behind them, the Germans were left bereft, and as they chased a goal in the final stages, it became clear just how limited they are as a creative force.
Sending giant center back Per Mertesacker forward in the final minutes to operate as an auxiliary striker was a sign of desperation. Jogi Löw's plan became to whack it forward and hope for a knockdown, an idea so Neanderthal that even England has moved away from it. Being generous, Germany perhaps lacked the unpredictability of the suspended Thomas Mueller, but given how little of the ball it had until chasing the game late, and given how much time he would have had to spend charging around after Joan Capdevila, it's hard to know how much difference he could have made.
With a relatively young team, Germany did wonderfully well to reach the last four. Its ability on the counter was stunning, testament to the work Löw had done on the training ground with four attacking players: Mesut Ozil, who is young and surely destined for great things; Mueller, who is young and unproven; Miroslav Klose, who struggled for pitch time at Bayern Munich this season; and Lukas Podolski, who was offloaded by Bayern last summer. That this quartet could look so devastating shows what effort, teamwork and self-sacrifice can achieve.
They are, though, counterattackers, not attackers, and Germany's soccer, devastating as it has been, has largely been reactive in this tournament, delighting those who see goals as the be-all-and-end-all of football. Spain, meanwhile, is about control, and it controlled the semifinal as utterly as it did the final of Euro 2008 against Germany. Back then, in Vienna, the goal came relatively early, 33 minutes in, which allowed those who can't see beyond the score line to delight in the way it kept the ball from Germany in the final hour. In Durban, South Africa, on Wednesday, Spain kept the ball from Germany just as surely; it was just that the goal didn't arrive until the 73rd minute.
This was a triumph for patience, for faith in method, probing away until the breakthrough came. Quite apart from anything else, chasing the ball, as Germany was forced to do, is exhausting. Its players ran a total of about 1.2 miles more than Spain in the game, but the issue isn't merely physical; it's also mental, constantly having to close space down, always having to concentrate. Chances inevitably occur.
The goal, when it did come, was most un-Spanish in nature: a left-wing corner taken by Xavi and met by a thumping header from an unmarked Carles Puyol. Bastian Schweinsteiger howled at the sky and little wonder; after all the diligent closing of space he and his teammates had done, to be undone by poor marking at a set-play must have seemed almost unbearably trivial, like a soldier surviving a war only to be run over as he tried to cross a road on his return home.
Spain, perhaps, is still not quite at its best, but it came a lot closer against Germany than in any previous game in South Africa, helped, surely, by the switch to a 4-2-3-1. Fernando Torres' poor form at last caught up with him and he was left out for Pedro. Spain immediately looked more comfortable than it had in the lopsided 4-4-2, its starting formation in the first five games of the tournament. Most noticeably, both fullbacks were able to get forward far more than previously.
With Xabi Alonso picking out his runs with immaculate diagonal balls, Sergio Ramos was a persistent threat down the right, although his delivery was a little lacking, while Joan Capdevila on the opposite flank took advantage of the fact that Piotr Trochowski, in for Mueller, tended to drift toward the middle. That created a dilemma for the German wide men: stay where they are and hope to use the space on the counter, or track back and further reduce Germany's limited attacking options. In the end, the decision was made for them by Spain's control of possession; there is no point hanging around upfield waiting for the ball if your side never has it. So both spent most of the game going backward, and Podolski was highly fortunate not to concede a penalty for a clumsy challenge on Ramos long after Alonso's cross had eluded him.
Part of Spain's problem is that it is so good in possession teams don't even try to take it on. Opponents simply sit back, pack men behind the ball and hope to nick something on the counterattack. Germany has played on the break all tournament, but not this much. Schweinsteiger, whose forward runs so troubled both England and Argentina, was an almost entirely defensive presence. Only twice before falling behind did Germany produce anything proactive -- a neat exchange of passes between Sami Khedira and Ozil in the first half that won a corner, and a looping cross from Podolski, for once getting behind Ramos, for substitute Toni Kroos in the second. Kroos mishit his chance straight at Iker Casilla, and the one German chance that didn't result from a dead ball was gone.
Spain's passing was perhaps a touch slow before halftime, but it improved after, as it seemed to adopt a deliberate policy of pushing Germany as deep as possible then laying for the back for Alonso to strike. Twice he went close in the opening five minutes of the second half. Then a Capdevila break led to Alonso cutting it back for Pedro to strike, and when his effort was saved, Alonso worked the ball through for Andres Iniesta, whose cross was just too far in front of David Villa.
As chance after chance was squandered, the thought occurred that Spain may begin to doubt itself, to ignore its control and, as England had, to lose patience and try to force things. It didn't, and was rewarded with the goal. Had Pedro and Torres, on as a late replacement for Villa, not spurned highly presentable chances on the counterattack, the margin would have been bigger. As it was, 1-0, for the third game in a row, was enough for Spain -- and for proactive soccer.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.