Germany’s 4-1 victory over England in the World Cup second round was a victory for modern football over football from the Dark Ages, rapier-like counter-attacks allied to dynamic movement and intricate passing getting the better of static play from two banks of four with no invention in between. Joachim Low is leading a thoroughly modern side to at least the World Cup quarter-finals, but who knows how far after that?
It was a game Germany won not through old-style characteristics of obstinacy and bluster, but rather incision and speed. England have power, courage and determination in spades and a dash of speed too. Germany have all that as well, but do not rely on it in the same way as their vanquished age-old rivals, instead utilising the technique and creativity valued higher in Germany and much of the rest of the footballing world than in the original home of the game, mixed with the pace and stamina possessed by most top level athletes. England’s one-paced one-idea style was ruthlessly exposed by Germany as what it is – a relic of the 1980s still clinging on to life. Germany have evolved as England have stood still, leaving the two countries a tactical and technical generation apart.
There was a feeling in Germany that, as big a miss as Michael Ballack was in a leadership sense, his absence allowed Low’s charges to become a better team. Ballack, for all his good points, is lumbering, unable to move fluidly from defence to midfield to attack like his remaining Germany teammates. With the midfield dominated by the more mobile pair of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, Germany can spring from one phase of play to another with consummate ease, ease afforded to them by the injury-enforced loss of the ex-Chelsea midfielder. Ahead of that pair is a vibrant front unit the likes of which is alien to English football – not quite strikers, not quite wingers, Lukas Podolski and Thomas Muller manage to fill both briefs and have not only the athleticism to track opposing full-backs into their own half and then surge forward at the right time, but the intelligence to make dangerous, angled darts as opposed to easy-to-defend straight-line runs, filling the gap between full-back and centre-back – a gap drawn by Mesut Ozil’s habit of flitting between midfield and attack. With both Schweinsteiger and Khedira to occupy the opposing central midfielders – Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard in England’s case – one of the centre-backs takes responsibility for the 21-year-old. Miroslav Klose occupies the other centre-back and suddenly there is space for Podolski and Muller and Ozil has the vision to match their movement.
England’s speed comes from Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips, but it is not the kind of speed that is suited for football, rather the kind of speed an Olympic sprinter would desire. Being able to run 100m in 10 seconds can be very useful on a football field, but if the level of technique is not up to scratch it is too easily annulled – a deep defence with full-backs that do not over commit leaves that kind of blistering pace almost useless. In a straight foot race, Lennon and Wright-Phillips would leave Muller and Podolski standing, but over 10 yards in the middle of a World Cup tie, the understanding of Muller and Podolski is more worthwhile. With Ozil to prompt their movement with the deft balls necessary, a feat no England player seems capable of, Germany have numerous potent weapons at their disposal, which so often manifest themselves in a devastating counter-attack.
Now having dispatched England in the same manner they did Australia, the question becomes how Low’s team will fare against a side capable of matching them pass for pass. Argentina dispatched Mexico last night without quite the same competence Germany showed against England, but Diego Maradona’s is another team of all the talents. This is a clash that would be fitting for the final itself and the duel between Ozil and Lionel Messi, to see which mercurial playmaker can be most decisive, the crown prince or the king, promises to be one of the most enchanting of the whole tournament. The South Americans’ defence can be rickety but ahead of them they have possibly the best ball-winning midfielder in the world, Javier Mascherano. If el Jefecito – the little chief – squeezes Ozil out of the game, it is hard to see from where the ammunition for Podolski, Muller and Klose will come. Germany vs. Argentina should be one of the games of the tournament – and a much more competitive one than Germany vs. England at that.