Out of the chaos of the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup has come some degree of consensus. If today’s newspapers have one theme running through them, that theme is that Germany are currently the best football team in the world and that, to a point, it would be a travesty if they didn’t win the competition. All of this is somewhat odd, since it is effectively an admission that they got their predictions wrong before the start of the tournament (there weren’t many in the mainstream press that didn’t predict Brazil or Spain), but this groundswell of opinion has been building for the last few days.
This follows the ongoing story of this World Cup, which is that very few of the teams involved are fulfilling people’s expectations of them. Spain, the media darlings for the last couple of years, have been the dull, pragmatic team, edging 1-0 wins against inferior opposition. The Netherlands have been practical and pragmatic, yet they have shown moments of brilliant fluidity – coach Bert Van Marwijk’s comments that total football is dead don’t appear to have been fully taken in by Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie, for example – whilst Germany have set the tournament alight with stunning performances against England and Argentina and have suddenly and quite unexpectedly become the media darlings of the tournament.
One of the teams that did, in a manner of speaking, end up fulfilling expectations was Argentina. It was said more than once before the tournament even started that they had the ability to win the tournament or lose all three of their group matches, but that, no matter what else happened, their elimination from it would create some sort of fireworks. And so it was that, having seen off their group opposition – Nigeria, Greece and South Korea – and Mexico, with a little assistance from the referee and his assistant, they finally came up against some genuinely world class opposition in the form of Germany yesterday afternoon, only to find their luck running out.
From the very start of the match, Germany were in absolute control of everything that was going on in this match. Their opening goal came about from some appalling set-piece defending (the positioning of the Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero was particularly extraordinary), and after this Argentina had no route back into the match. The German midfield had little difficulty in completely shutting down the supply route to Lionel Messi, who was effectively crowded out and ended his five World Cup matches without a single goal to his name. As Messi and Carlos Tevez became more and more frustrated at the lack of action that they were getting, they returned to deeper positions. Argentina’s tactical system was starting to come together at the seams as it was pulled about and stretched from side to side by the German team’s tactical perfection, crisp, tidy passing and absolute discipline. It ended as embarrassingly one-sided as Germany’s previous win against England had been.
One of the most curious turn-arounds of the tournament had been the perception of Diego Maradona in the media. Maradona began the tournament, as ever, as the bête noire of the British press. He became, however, the star of every Argentina match. As they cruised through the group stages, he was the focus of attention and some quarters even went so far as to start to paint the decision to keep him in the job as some sort of genius on the part of the AFA. Perhaps, however, the truth of the matter is that the quality of players that Argentina have was enough in itself to get them past more moderate opposition. Against stronger opposition, however, something extra is needed on the coaching front – a greater degree of tactical nous, something that Maradona has seldom displayed as a coach. It’s not enough to merely send the players out onto the pitch and hope that they will be able to find enough on the footballing equivalent of autopilot. Maradona is one of those that is “considering his future” today.
It is ironic that in a time during which the concept of celebrity within football is reaching its zenith, almost all of the “star” names at this tournament have flopped. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Fernando Torres and Kaka have all failed to varying degrees at this World Cup (although Torres still has the chance of redemption, should he be fit to play in the semi-final), but the teams that have played together have flourished. Why this should surprise people remains a cause for bafflement. It has felt at this tournament as if some teams have felt that it will be enough to put out a team of highly-paid, talented players and that in itself will be enough to get the team through to the latter stages of the tournament. They give the impression of having felt that this in itself will suffice, and those that are better organised, playing for each other have found that their are profits to be made from exploiting their tactical deficiencies.
The Germany love-in currently being undertaken in the British press could come to a juddering halt should they lose their semi-final match against Spain in the week. However, there are obviously lessons to learn from the way that German football works. They are lessons that the Premier League aren’t going to like very much, but it certainly feels as if the will is there amongst football supporters in England to change the way that things are done. The question now is whether anybody in a position to do so will ever have the nerve to stand up to the Premier League. The holding of breath while we wait for this to happen is not recommended by this site. Argentina, meanwhile, head home with opinions split on Maradona’s coaching ability – should they keep him on as the mascot or has this attempt at dropping a national talisman been an abject failure?