By Paul Gardner
We have recently been asked to contemplate the idea that the future of soccer will belong to the Germans, rather than the Spanish who rule the roost at the moment.
The idea is logical enough, being born of the comprehensive way in which the top German clubs, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, annihilated Barcelona and Real Madrid in the recent Champions League semifinals.
Based on those games, the German teams were unarguably stronger. Their soccer looked quicker, more lively, altogether more effective. In particular, Barcelona -- until then a team enthroned at the apex of soccer, hailed by many as the greatest club team ever -- was seriously outplayed by Bayern. Nor was this a one-game wonder -- the teams met twice, and the German superiority was consistently upheld.
Of course, it’s not that straightforward. All four clubs employ foreign players. Plenty of them. At Real Madrid and Bayern, approximately half the playing rosters are foreign players. Dortmund has nine foreigners (out of 28), Barcelona has eight foreigners (out of 23).
Of the 22 players who took the field at Wembley at the start of this year’s Champions League final, 10 were non-Germans (six with Bayern, four with Dortmund).
A mixture that makes it difficult to assess to what extent Real and Barcelona can be said to represent Spanish soccer, or Bayern and Dortmund can represent German soccer.
Nevertheless, the German case seems like a strong one because of a fairly widespread feeling that the Spanish are on the wane.
We’re talking now of national teams, which are a much more exact measure of a country’s soccer prowess. Under this analysis, Spain is seen as yesterday’s aging team, while the future belongs to Germany.
The reasoning being that opponents have worked out how to negate the Spanish style, so that Spain is finding it increasingly difficult to impose it self on other teams, and that the best it can hope for these days is a labored 1-0 win.
Whereas Germany sent a remarkably young team to the last World Cup, delighted fans with its skillful, attacking, goalscoring soccer, and finished in third place. (Well, things were not quite that smooth. In one game the Germans did resort to a dogged defensive style. It lost that game 1-0 ... to Spain).
Over the weekend we got a chance for a closer look at this analysis of soccer’s future, when Spain met Germany in the UEFA under-21 championship. (A word about the tournament: it takes two years to play. Qualifying rounds started in 2011. The regulations allow that any player meeting the under-21 definition in 2011 is allowed to continue playing throughout the whole tournament. Which means that players involved in this final round are usually around 22 years old; some may be 23).
The news is good for Spain. It looks like the Germans themselves, despite all the nice things being said about them, are still scared of Spain. They played that way in that 2010 World Cup game, and they played that way again in this game. And the result was the same -- a 1-0 win for Spain.
The German tactics were totally defensive, complete with the inevitable tactical fouls and the willingness to simply boot the ball long -- to nowhere in particular - when under pressure. The Germans needed at least a tie to stay alive in the tournament. They kept the Spaniards at bay for 85 minutes, until some tricky dribbling from substitute Alvaro Morata pulled the German defense out of shape, and he slammed a narrow-angle shot past goalkeeper Bernd Leno.
A thoroughly merited win for Spain, which stuck to its game, the close on-the-ground passing, the quick off-the-ball movement that has always been its style. Captain Thiago Cantara of Barcelona hit the post early in the game, and the Spanish saw the Germans somehow scramble the ball away from the goalmouth on two occasions.
There was really very little to admire from the Germans, who had only 31% of the ball-possession, and managed only two shots on goal. Threadbare stats, for sure, but when you’re playing abject defense, you can live with them, as you battle to keep that 0-0 scoreline and hope for the bonus of a break away goal.
The immediately noticeable difference between the teams was, simply size. Now, this can be deceptive. I don’t have the relevant stats -- I can only say that the Germans looked larger. Maybe the stats will not bear that out, but the key thing is that the Germans played as though they were larger, heavier players. Their movement looked heavy-footed when confronted with the light-footed Spanish players.
It was that quickness-of-foot that really distinguished the Spanish players. Consistently throughout the team, throughout the game, the vital first-touch of the Spaniards was remarkable for its smoothness, its softness, its ability to bring the ball under instant control.
In particular, I noted the wonderful way in which the Spanish midfielders -- notably Thiago, and Koke -- were able to receive the ball -- on the ground of course -- while facing their own goal. Repeatedly, the Spanish player was able to control the ball, to move it sweetly and softly to where the player could take it forward, while spinning away from a close-marking German defender (there was always one of those) and breaking into space. All that in one slick movement it seemed.
There was nothing to match that from the Germans, whose movement of the ball looked conventional and predictable. Sheer speed was not a factor in the game, with neither team possessing anyone fast enough to outpace opponents. The Germans looked as though they might threaten in the air on free kicks and corner kicks, but such a threat never developed.
Above all, there was no sign on the German team of a scheming midfielder, a player with the all-around vision, dribbling and accurate passing ability of Spain’s Thiago and Koke. Without such a player, one who could bring coherent play to the often frantic running of Germany’s athletic players, there was little chance of maintaining possession of the ball.
You can see, though, that my theorizing is largely irrelevant because the Germans had chosen to play a defensive, counterattacking game. They had no need, in that approach, for the player I’m talking about.
Anyway, the tactics are not what mattered here. The superiority -- and it was a crystal clear superiority -- of the Spanish stemmed from their immaculate ball control. In fact, in that area, just one thing let them down. A fault not unknown to the current senior team. The inability to get the ball into the net. On half a dozen occasions, the Spanish tore through the packed German defense with dazzling passing movements, great chances were created ... and wasted.
But that sounds like something that can be worked on. I’d be less certain that the Germans will find it easy to make any progress with their style in this game, which looked more like a retreat to the Germans of the 1980s.
For the moment, the future looks good for Spain. It advances to the tournament semifinal, while the Germans go home to, possibly, ponder how to develop quicker-footed and lighter-footed players. My guess, based on how quick the Germans have always been to change things when they don’t work, is that such players will be found rather quickly. Yes, world champion Spain, brush up your Shakespeare: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.