Two pressing approaches in the final
Germany were not involved in the World Cup final four years ago but they competed in the tournament's most telling, tactically intriguing game: a 1-0 defeat by eventual winners Spain in the semifinals.
It was a more absorbing, technical and high-quality contest than the final, which was a scrappy affair featuring a highly cynical Dutch side simply attempting to kick Spain, an approach that came worryingly close to succeeding. In truth, it was best forgotten.
That semifinal, however, was fascinating. It pitted a possession-based Spain side against a counterattacking Germany, and the game took an obvious pattern: Spain held on to the ball for long periods, continually putting pressure on the German back line and trying to find an angle for a clever through ball. Germany sat back much deeper, invited the pressure, then attempted to counterattack. At 0-0, both approaches were equally viable.
At 1-0, things changed. Carles Puyol's header put Spain in front; his teammates then played keep-ball for the remainder of the second half. The limitations to Germany's approach became clear -- they'd spent the game sitting deep and waiting for Spanish moves to break down. Now they had to push higher up the pitch and win possession themselves. They were unaccustomed to pressing, and their efforts late in the game were surprisingly feeble for such a young, energetic side.
"We spent a lot of time chasing the ball," said Bastian Schweinsteiger after the game. Added striker Miroslav Klose, "And once we had it, we were too tired to do anything with it." It's not that the German approach had failed -- they exceeded everyone's expectations by reaching the semifinal -- but merely that it only works in certain situations.
After that footballing lesson, Germany's strategy clearly changed. While this is often described as a shift to a more possession-based approach, that's only partly true. The Germans are still at their best when breaking forward at speed, as the 7-1 thrashing of Brazil demonstrated. They didn't dominate possession inside the opposition half and gradually play their way through the lines; they hit Brazil rapidly. That's counterattacking, right? Well, partly. The major difference, though, is in their pressing.
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Spain didn't simply give Germany a lesson in passing back in 2010. They educated them in pressing too. The most interesting statistic from that 1-0 semifinal victory concerned Xavi Hernandez's performance. He completed the most passes, as we came to expect, but he also ran the farthest distance.
What happened to that old saying that the ball does the work, and you have to run farther if you don't have possession? It was nonsense. Spain were able to dominate possession because they were mobile too, pressing high up and forcing quick turnovers. Xavi was always leading the pressure, always pointing to teammates behind him to push higher up. Germany have learned from him and his Spanish teammates.
Four years ago, Germany tended to sit deep and win the ball inside their own half. Now, they're capable of pressing much higher up the pitch. That was the most obvious factor in their destruction of Brazil on Tuesday: the way Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos pushed up the pitch and pressed Fernandinho and Luiz Gustavo into submission.
The fourth goal was the most obvious example: Kroos robbed the ball from Fernandinho, played a one-two with Khedira and converted into an empty net. That wouldn't have happened four years ago; if Germany won possession and played a one-two between two midfielders, they'd still be inside their own half. Now they're doing it at the edge of the opposition box.
This change is actually most obvious at the back. Manuel Neuer's sweeper-keeping against Algeria, in particular, has been one of the tournament's most interesting tactical features, but it's a necessity because Germany press high up. If Kroos and Khedira are closing down, then Schweinsteiger has to follow them just behind to prevent Germany from becoming broken and the opposition finding space between the lines. That means the defenders have to push up, in turn, and Neuer does the same to cover the space. Pressing is about moving as a unit, not simply closing down in ones and twos -- Germany have mastered the art.
On the other hand, Argentina are the opposite. They've always been cautious under Alejandro Sabella but have made a defensive shift in this tournament and are basically a very static, structured 4-4-1-1 system. They're completely unaccustomed to pressing and entirely uncomfortable with a high line -- remember Sergio Romero's dallying when Argentina were cut open by a direct Switzerland attack, with Josip Drmic tamely chipping into his arms when through on goal? Romero is the polar opposite to Neuer; he's the anti-sweeper-keeper. He stays on his line because the defenders protect the penalty box, while the midfielders occupy the space just in front.
It's much less interesting, but it can be equally effective -- like Spain four years ago and Italy in 2006, Argentina have reached the final having not conceded a single goal in the knockout stage. That in itself is highly surprising considering how Argentina's back four was considered their weak link at the start of the competition. In a way, it still is -- they've simply hidden them well, protecting them keenly with four disciplined midfielders, including the best holding midfielder in the tournament, Javier Mascherano.
This, therefore, is the most interesting tactical feature of this final. It's not so much about what to do with possession -- both teams can counterattack, both can retain the ball in midfield, both can attack through the middle and down the flanks. The difference is how the two sides win possession in the first place and arguably the key question in modern football strategy is simple: Do you concede space behind your defensive block like Germany, or in front of your defensive block like Argentina?
Sunday's result might well influence coaches across the world.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.