Germany's positive tactical approach rewarded with World Cup triumph
The 2014 World Cup final offered a perfect contrast of modern football tactics: the attack-minded possession machine of Germany against a defensively organized, deadly-on-the-counter Argentina. Germany won, 1-0 in extra time, but not before being frustrated by Argentina, which missed chances of its own to win.
Wingers Enzo Pérez and Ezequiel Lavezzi switched sides from where they played in the semifinal against the Netherlands, allowing the more conservative Pérez to play closer to Javier Mascherano to counteract Germany’s right side of Thomas Müller and Philipp Lahm.
Argentina’s midfielders dropped close to the defenders, restricting space between lines for Germany. Benedikt Höwedes and the rest of the back line slid to cover the gap created by Lahm’s forward presence, allowing Argentina to break down the right through Lavezzi and Lionel Messi.
That created a couple important chances in the first half, with Gonzalo Higuaín missing one in front of goal and finishing another from an offside position. Jérôme Boateng also saved off the line from Messi in the opening 45 minutes.
With Alejandro Sabella’s team in a compact shape, Germany played primarily down the flanks. The ball traversed Zone 14 (the central space on top of the penalty area) only glancingly and in transit from side to side. Of Germany’s touches, 58 were in the attacking half, aided by the team's usual high defensive line that includes center backs willing to feature in the build-up and Golden Glove winner Manuel Neuer prowling behind.
He still drifted wide as a result of Argentina’s shape and Mascherano’s presence in his new starting position, but Özil created two scoring chances, the most on his team. Both were cutback balls to Toni Kroos making late runs from deeper in midfield.
Kroos’ delayed runs found space on top of Argentina’s retreating midfield line. His most frequent pass was a diagonal ball from left of center to the right flank, trying to spring Müller and Lahm down the wing. Meanwhile, Bastian Schweinsteiger played as a distributing holding midfielder.
All three German central midfielders completed nearly 90 percent of their passes, with Özil finding more success after switching positions (88 percent) than before (76 percent). However, their ball circulation slowed from the first half to the second, resulting in a tempo that suited Argentina’s more defensive approach to the match.
With Sergio Agüero’s introduction, Pérez moved to a central position next to Mascherano, further clogging space for the German attack. Argentina moved to 4-3-3 with Messi as a false nine, and it had the most control over the match between minutes 45 and 75, as the match slowed down and stopped frequently due to fouls and injuries.
Germany created a false-nine attacking situation of its own when Mario Götze came in for Miroslav Klose in the waning moments before extra time. Germany tried to re-ignite the pace, but Argentina succeeded in slowing the match down again — until Götze finally struck late in the second period of extra time, in a similar period as Andrés Iniesta did for Spain four years earlier.
It was Götze’s dynamic movement as the untraditional center forward that created the goal, along with a brave run from fellow substitute André Schürrle. Schürrle entered the match when Özil moved to the middle, providing Germany with the same type of wide threat on the left as it already had on the right with Müller.
That allowed Germany to stretch the field and, as a result, the Argentine back four.
On the goal, Götze began centrally, pulling to the left flank as Schürrle retreated into midfield to find the ball. When Schürrle dribbled toward the wing, Götze cut inside into the open space in Argentina’s defense. Three defenders converged on Schürrle, leaving space for Götze behind Martín Demichelis.
The gap between center backs Demichelis and Ezequiel Garay grew larger as Demichelis was caught ball-watching, and Schürrle found Götze with a chipped ball over the defenders. The ball was right on his chest, but he still needed a world-class first touch and finish past goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who seemed unable to decide whether he should pressure or stay on his line.
Nonetheless, rather than waiting for the opponent to concede possession and attack against the run of play, Joachim Löw set his team up to dictate terms and push the game. The early Champions League exit from a possession-oriented, fluid-attacking Bayern Munich in the spring showed teams in that mold don’t always win, as the margin for error is smaller in a high-risk approach.
Germany did what Bayern couldn’t do, receiving just reward for the nation’s positive approach that began with a developmental system overhaul after finishing bottom of its group at Euro 2000. After rebuilding from the bottom 14 years ago, when most of the current squad’s players were still in the academies, Germany made history as the first European team to win a World Cup hosted in the Americas.
Is Germany positioned for a lengthy reign? What does the USA's future hold? And what more can FIFA do about head injuries? SI's Grant Wahl gives 3 thoughts on the 2014 World Cup.