Spain still reigns over Germany

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.

9 comments about "Spain still reigns over Germany".
  1. David V, June 10, 2013 at 3:29 a.m.

    "annihilated Barcelona the recent Champions League semifinals" - remember, Barca was without their top two and a host of central defenders, and also that the first 3 BM goals against Barca were all illegal. A tough road to comeback from 3-0, and when Barca had to press to try to get back into, they left themselves exposed for a 4-0. Only novices are unaware of these two major factors.

    Regarding foreigners on clubs... Javi Martinez, in the context above (short defenders) was then the deciding factor in Bayern beating Barca, he shut down his Spanish compatriots, Xavi and Iniesta

    "... fairly widespread feeling that the Spanish are on the wane"... this is true, if you follow Spanish football, you will know that Spain peaked around 2008-2009 (yes, even in the midst of the USA lucky game against Spain)... in that time, Spain equaled the best international record of all-time (equaling Brazil). However, Spain have dominated their opponents since right after the 2006WC, an unequaled dominance in world football - nearly 7 years now. Even though Spain, deservedly so, won the WC2010, compared to the quality of the squad the 2 years prior to that, they were less of a team, but still so high that they managed to win the WC and then do the same in 2012Euro without their very best goal-scorer in history (David Villa)

    "Germany ...last World Cup, delighted fans with its skillful, attacking, goalscoring soccer" Of course Spain would have done this and more had the other teams not hunkered down and played anti-football, for fear of being demolished by the Spaniards, and no doubt, if these teams also did the same to Germany (which are not feared as the Spaniards are), then Germany would have a terribly difficult and low scoring output themselves... the differnce is that they have the luxury of not being feared, and consequently can play an open-ended game against opponents. And of course, you rightly point out that the Germans resort to the fearful-of-the-Spaniards anti-football when they play against Spain.

    "... 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...." These young Germans are want to do what Schweinsteiger did after Xavi wiped him out of the game in the Euro2008 final... Schweiny decided to copy Xavi and his style, and of course, it paid dividends for him in the past few years, and against Barca in that Champions League semi final tie back several weeks ago.

    BTW, if you did a larger piece on all the U ("under" teams of Spain, you've got a whole lot more pile of evidence for suggesting they will continue to dominate world football

  2. David V, June 10, 2013 at 3:29 a.m.

    Part 2/

    "Yes, world champion Spain, brush up your Shakespeare: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."... isn't it remarkable when you're being gunned for, for 7 years, that you're still on top... this has been the best team in history, even Pele has admitted that the 1970 Brazil squad has been surpassed by this golden age of Spanish and world football, believe what the wall street journal has said about La Roja... this is the best sports team in history, not just football, yes football, but bar none, the best in any sport... and yes, I did see that 1970 Brazil team play (tostao, Rivelino, Gerson, Pele, Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Clodoaldo), and I see the Kaiser and Johann, and I saw Ardiles's and Diego's Argentina... this is it, this is the team ... and yes, they are waning, and all odds are against them for the 2014 Cup, they are already in uncharted territory... though waning now, give homage to the greatest of all time

    Readers, if you're not educated on Spain and its players, and you blindly listen to American (who follow British) Commentators, you need to find out how to watch La Liga each week

    Good article Paul

    soccer fans, you may never see the likes of it again, take note.

    PS... Paul, I've been reading you since the early NASL days, thanks for "The Master and His Method" and as I recall, I believe you helped "fix" the offside rule, and I've appreciated your many contributions over the years.

  3. James Froehlich, June 10, 2013 at 9:25 a.m.

    Excellent column PG and an equally excellent comment David V. Admittedly it helps that I too am a fanatic regarding Spanish football. The drop-off in Spanish, Barca, Real Madrid performance is largely due to their failure to finish but the adjustment of other teams defensively is also a strong element. In spite of that, I cold still watch the Spanish midfield magicians for hours even if they never attempted to score.

  4. feliks fuksman, June 10, 2013 at 9:51 a.m.

    Enjoyed reading PG's article and the comments above; agree totally.

  5. Kent James, June 10, 2013 at 10:02 a.m.

    David V, thanks for the reminder of PG's role in "The Master and his Method"; I'd forgotten about that (not the movie, just PG's role). I watched that (as a film!) in the mid 1970s when it was shown by my Jr HS soccer coach (I had never played soccer before, and didn't even know what a soccer ball was), and it certainly inspired me to work on my ball control. My coach emphasized the short passing game ("triangles"), and we rarely lost (since most teams back then were just "booting" the ball). So contrary to PG's vendetta against coaches, sometimes they can do great things (of course, in his defense, all those other teams booting the ball also had coaches...). I agree that the reports of the demise of the Spanish are premature. That being said, finishing is what separates the good teams from the great ones. My concern about Spain (and Barcelona) is that sometimes they seem to possess for possession's sake, and forget that the goal should always be to score. And while they are incredibly good at making so many short passes that they walk the ball into the goal, only doing that can make you predictable, and thus easier to stop (note, I did not say easy, just easier...). I would like to see both the Spanish and Barcelona mix their impressive short game with the occasional powerful shot from distance, or even, late in the game with the defense is packed in with the score 0-0, have some guys in the box who are not 5'7" and who actually excel in the air, so that those balls pumped in actually have a chance to score. I hate watching defenses that simply pack the box actually succeed. Having some variety would make both teams even more effective (and more importantly for the spectators, open up the game). A game with Barcelona or Spain should never be boring, yet the last WC demonstrated that when teams pack the box, even Spain can be boring to watch. I don't blame Spain, but I think they are in the best position to remedy the situation (since their opponents are too afraid to take any risks, knowing that if they do, they stand a good chance of getting torn apart).

  6. Millwall America, June 10, 2013 at 10:21 a.m.

    Agreed that rumors of Spain's demise are very much exaggerated. This crop of youngsters will help refresh the team and the timing is good. My own take on the failures this year of Barcelona (who with a few bolt-ons from RM pretty much *are* the Spanish national team) is that their players have naturally aged and therefore lost a very small fraction of their ability. While they're still very good, they're not quite at the level they used to be, and unfortunately the Barca/Spanish style requires incredibly high levels of ability to pull off successfully. Just a slight decline in talent (for example, due to age) and you end up being...well, Arsenal. Pretty good, and can beat most teams, but struggle to compete with the very best. Barca & Spain will need a youth injection in the next couple of years and they seem primed to get one.

  7. Millwall America, June 10, 2013 at 10:23 a.m.

    But for the record, I find most games with Barcelona or Spain boring to watch. Tiki-taka puts me to sleep.

  8. Gus Keri, June 10, 2013 at 12:40 p.m.

    Making any prediction about the future of soccer based on the UCL is called "sensational journalism." Pundits and journalists are making a big fuss of it all the time. Few years back, they talked about the English domination because 3 English clubs made the semifinals. The following year, they had one.

  9. John Soares, June 10, 2013 at 2:24 p.m.

    Excellent article... Good comments (for the most part). I still think it is, to a great degree irrelevant, the proverbial "Apples and Oranges" to compare great "club" teams IE: Real Madrid, Manchester (both) etc. To the top countries. While one has the world of players at their disposal AND the money to get them. The other has only nationals to play with. Perhaps no better example than England. Arguably the top league, average (relatively speaking) national team. On the opposite side, see Argentina and Brazil.

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