Two games. One: a blistering assault that produced one of the most shocking results in the entire history of the game. The other: a relatively lifeless 0-0 decided on penalties, in which some of the best attacking players in the game today were almost completely shut out. The question now is whether the final will look more like the former or the latter. My guess, unfortunately, is that it will be cagey and tight. An interesting tactical battle waiting to be open up by a few moments of brilliance, rather than a blitzkrieg of movement through open space.
Germany 7 – 1 Brazil
Wow. Just wow. It’s really hard to know what to say about this game. I’m not positive is the single most shocking result in World Cup history, but it’s certainly on the shortlist. This wasn’t a vintage Brazil team but they were still very good, favorites going into the tournament, playing at home. Even without Neymar and Silva, this was being treated on the betting markets as basically a 50/50 match. And they were simply torn apart.
I’m hesitant to read too much into one result, no matter how catastrophic. The temptation will be toward Calvinism after a result like this: to think it was predestined, that this team was always going to be ripped apart, that they were awful. And I don’t want to completely ignore that possibility. But…let’s pause for a moment here. Let’s look back, and do our best to think about the underlying qualities of the team. Let’s ask ourselves whether it was truly wrong to have thought this game was a 50/50, and whether if things had gone differently in the opening 10 minutes, the whole outcome might have shifted. What if Lahm’s tackle on Marcelo had been slightly mistimed and Brazil had won a penalty? Would they have played as fecklessly at 1-1 as they did at 0-2? Quite possibly, but we can’t really know for sure. What if Silva had been in the team? Might his presence have calmed them during their madness, imposed some discipline, reigned in Marcelo’s ludicrously exposed flank? Is it possible that playing in Brazil actually harmed them? Were they too tense, too amped up, too scared of failing to impress?
All we can say for sure is that Brazil spent 30 minutes yesterday completely lost at sea. They were outplayed in the other 60 minutes, yes, but not by a huge margin. It’s the 30 minutes in the first half where they completely lost their minds and just couldn’t grasp what was happening that define this game. Just like those 40 minutes of Spain-Netherlands, when the reigning champions of everything were bewildered and pathetic.
There is no denying that it happened. But there are plenty of questions to be asked about what it meant. My pop psychological theory is that they all were freaked out about losing Neymar and felt like they had to pour all their energy into finding a way to create something to lift the team. So you had 10 guys all hoping to be the savior, which meant they simply weren’t attentive to the more mundane duties of positioning and covering each other. So Marcelo would range far afield and no one would fill in behind him. And then you’ve got 50 yards of completely unoccupied space for the Germans to invade. And as soon as the second goal went in, it created a positive feedback cycle. They seemed to almost give up, thinking ‘there’s no way back from this,’ but also committed even more strongly to the idea of ‘throw everything in the air and hope some magic happens’ which left them even more exposed.
It’s an instance where the home field advantage flipped. They were under so much pressure that they completely lost themselves and started running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
So: I do not believe that Brazil truly are nearly as bad as the scoreline yesterday. I have repeatedly said that they were being somewhat overrated, and were flattered by their results so far. But there’s also no denying that they were the better team in each of their previous five games. Not by as much as they might have liked. But they were worthy semifinalists. Going forward, this game will define them and those five previous games won’t matter. And they certainly will need to seriously reconsider their approach to player development, to tactics, to expectations of always being the best, etc. But this was, and remains, a very talented group of players. If things had broken differently, they absolutely could have won this tournament. We shouldn’t forget that.
All that said, I’m still happy to poke a bit of fun at those 538 rankings, which touted Brazil as the overwhelming favorites going into the tournament. And express my frustration that Nate Silver – who I admire a great deal – seems so completely unwilling to acknowledge just how wrong they got this. It’s not just that Brazil failed to win. Obviously, a 45% favorite (as they called Brazil) will lose more than half the time. The point is that to think one team out of 32 genuinely has a 45% chance of winning things, you have to believe that they are miles better than all the opposition. That 45% basically means they thought Brazil would be 80% favorites in each of their knockout games. And 80% favorites simply don’t play like Brazil did in this tournament. They dominate games. They run roughshod over their opposition and only lose due to randomness and small sample size—hitting the post several times, fluke goals by the opposition, referee mistakes, superb tactical responses. And they absolutely, ABSOLUTELY do not get thumped 7-1.
As for Germany, let’s not forget just how good they were. Brazil fell apart but it took an incredibly talented, ruthless, aggressive team to put them away. Their passing was exquisite. Their movement off the ball was insane. Their vision in the midfield, to discover open spaces and exploit them, was magnificent. And their finishing was clinical. They’re obviously not THIS good, but they are absolutely the team in the world most likely to pounce on weakness and absolutely eviscerate the opposition. I doubt Argentina will give them nearly as many opportunities, but if they do…they better watch out.
Argentina 0 – 0 Netherlands (Argentina advance on penalties)
This wasn’t a terrible game, despite what some folks insist on saying. Yes, it suffered from a serious dearth of goal-scoring opportunities. And it certainly wasn’t overly exciting. But it was enjoyable in the same way that a good pitcher’s duel can be enjoyable. These two teams were both primarily concerned with the dangerous attacking players and set themselves up to neutralize first and only attack second. As a result, the vast majority of this game was played in the midfield. Van Persie was almost completely invisible as his service was totally dried up. Robben popped up a couple times but hardly exerted more presence. Messi was mostly shut out, by the relatively simple tactic of putting several men on him at basically all times. De Jong and Clasie de facto man-marked him for most of the game. And beyond that, Sneijder and Wijnaldum stayed very deep, rarely venturing forward, while Vlaar (playing the game of his life) came out regularly from the center of the defense to close off his angles. Those three players effective formed a triangle around Messi, meaning that he was often being marked by four players – two of whom were primarily concerned with closing off his ability to receive the ball in forward positions.
It’s not the most complicated strategy, and it massively reduces your ability to put numbers forward, but it just goes to show that even the greatest player in the world can be neutralized if you’re willing to devote the numbers.
That said, I want to push back against the idea that Messi played no part in this game. Precisely because he forced a radically defensive commitment by the Dutch, he massively reduced the burden on the rest of his team to defend. In effect, his presence on the field basically meant the Dutch were playing for a 0-0.
In that respect, it’s much like several other games in this tournament, where the opposition effectively shackled Messi for long periods. The only difference is that this time he couldn’t produce a match-winner. But he has done so in three games already (that beautiful run against Bosnia, that incredible goal against Iran, and the run that drew in the defense and freed Di Maria to score against Switzerland). So it’s not like this is a strategy without huge risks. That’s the thing about trying to limit Messi’s influence. You can mostly succeed, but doing so requires hamstringing your own attack, and still might be absolutely destroyed by a moment of genius.
A couple other things. Mascherano was easily Argentina’s best player. He absolutely dominated the midfield. The Dutch tactics left them somewhat toothless, but it was Mascherano who really shut them down completely. However, he really shouldn’t have been playing. It seems pretty likely that he suffered a concussion after a jarring head knock about 30 minutes in. Obviously he wanted to come back on, but the more we learn about this, the more horrifying this stuff is. It shouldn’t be up to the player or the team. We’re talking about FIFA, so asking them to do the right thing is probably fruitless, but there really ought to be independent medical professionals who get the final say.
I picked Argentina to win this tournament going in, and while they have not yet produced an especially GREAT performance, they have got themselves here without ever really being challenged. The only team in any of their six games who actually out-played them for any meaningful length of time was (bizarrely) Iran. That said, Germany has eviscerated two excellent teams (Portugal and Brazil) and ground out some incredibly comfortable 1-0s of their own against solid opposition (France, USA). So you’d have to think they’ll give Argentina a much sterner test than they’ve had so far.
The general consensus at this point seems to be that Germany are clear, but not overwhelming, favorites. Maybe 60-65%. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me at all. They were SO impressive against Brazil, in a way that Argentina hasn’t even come close to matching.
That said, I picked Argentina to win this tournament going in, and while they have not yet produced an especially GREAT performance, they have got themselves here without ever really being challenged. The only team in any of their six games who actually out-played them for any meaningful length of time was (bizarrely) Iran.
I predict the game will look a lot like the quarterfinal matches that these teams played. Both were relatively composed 1-0 victories against excellent opponents (France an Belgium). I could see a similar caginess happening here. Argentina will likely play fairly deep, counting on Mascherano once again to keep them safe. And hoping that Messi can produce a goal out of nothing. Because ‘nothing’ is likely to be a pretty accurate description of the support he’ll get. If Di Maria can come back from his injury, that would be a huge help. He hasn’t been great this tournament, but even when he’s a little off he simply supplies a huge presence in the attack, makes focusing on Messi far more risky, and open up the attack.
Theoretically, Argentina have this awesome four-pronged attack (Messi, Di Maria, Higuain, Aguero). But Di Maria is really the key there. The other two simply haven’t been able to exert much influence. Higuain has been okay, but doesn’t provide all that much of a separate outlet for the attack. If you can shut out Messi, you’ll likely starve most of the danger from Higuain, too. And Aguero seems to be quite obviously hurt. At the top of his game, his is an explosive, almost unplayable attacker. Right now, he’s a ghost. Poor touch, slow, uninventive. Basically: they need Di Maria.
So: there are plenty of reasons to defer to the consensus and make Germany favorites. But I have faith in Messi, and see just enough in this Argentina team to justify sticking with that original prediction. So: Argentina to win their third World Cup.