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Spain v Germany – A draw in all but the result

July 9, 2010

Not one for the lovers of the beautiful game, Spain v Germany really failed to live up to much of the hype. Germany, in their position as the top goal scorers of the tournament, and Spain, with their reputation for free-flowing fast paced football, cancelled each other out to a large extent in a game that failed to spark to life until the last 10 minutes when Germany pushed desperately for the equaliser and Spain were given the opportunity to break often with their attackers outnumbering the remaining German defenders.

The biggest talking points before the match were the changes on either side. With Germany forced to replace the suspended Thomas Müller and Spain opting to drop the misfiring Fernando Torres the replacements Trochowski for Germany and Pedro for Spain were giving the opportunity to stake their claim as national heroes in their first starts at the World Cup. Nominally lining up in similar positions with Trochowski playing the wide-right role Müller had made his own and Pedro moving wide-left to allow Villa to lead the line on his own, the reality highlighted the difference in German and Spanish tactical styles with Joachim Löw playing his brand of high-tempo, well disciplined, rigid 4-2-3-1 and Spain playing their more fluid 4 – 1 – 2 – 2 – 1.

The respective heat maps make for Pedro and Trochowski highlight the difference between the two teams much better than my shambolic prose could:

Pedro's heatmap shows the freedom he was given, picking up the ball all over the pitch, wide elft, wide right, as a centre forward and even dropping deep to begin the attack

Piotr Trochowski's heatmap shows he was asked to stick to his touchline and picked up the ball in his own half, supporting Phillipp Lahm his captain

These two players are but a snapshot of the tactical battle that took place over the 90 minutes. At the start of the match the teams lined up like so:

Spain's starting line-up versus Germany - Iniesta, Xavi and Alonso play free roles within the box - Ramos moved forward to play the mirror position of Pedro when Spain had possession

Germany starting line up versus Spain - Trochowski drops inside allowing Lahm to overlap while Scweinsteiger is given licence to roam, picking up the ball up deep and moving it on knowing Khedira will support the back-four

The most notable tactical features of the game were those that anyone who knew anything about the two teams had already predicted. Spain maintained a very narrow shape and dominated possession for the first half, while the Germans were content to absorb pressure and try to hit Spain on the counter attack. Spain’s lack of width was undoubtedly a key reason as to why they struggled to break the Germans down, with a player like Mata or Navas starting instead of Pedro, they would have been more likely to run at Boateng/Jansen and Lahm, but as it was Spain was forced into passing around the edge of the penalty area while Germany was adapt at narrowing its back 4 to compress the space. The result was many shots from Xabi Alonso and Pedro from outside of the box which posed little threat to Neuer’s goal:

Position that Spain took their shots

It seems foolhardy to criticise a team that has just secured their place in the World Cup final but the lack of natural width is an issue that they will have to address against the Dutch.

Take David Villa’s heatmap against Chile in the final round of the group stages when he was stationed out on the left and allowed to cut in to support Torres:

And compare it to his heat map from last night against Germany:

A noticeable feature of last night’s game was Villa’s struggle to get into the game as he had done previously in the tournament and while Villa was happy to comment post-match that: “It’s the best game we’ve [Spain] played” it was probably the worst game Villa has played at a major tournament, looking stranded at times and off the pace forced to lead the line on his own, managing fewer shots playing CF than he did when allowed to cut off the wing in previous matches.

To equate Spain’s fluidity to a lack of discipline though would be churlish as early examples in the match showed.

In this example we can see Iniesta has adopted a position wide left (yellow) while Pedro has started wide right and drifted in (forward arrow shows his run) and drawn the left back Boateng (blue) with him. The space created by Pedro’s run has allowed Ramos (red) to make what is fast becoming a trademark run for his country and add himself to the attacking move. However, Pedro’s run is only allowed because Villa has drawn a central defender with his run towards the ball player (in this case Pique). Spain showed in glimpses during the game that they could play in this style, and Villa showed that he can do a job playing as a lone striker, though in a less orthodox fashion than many, he relied on the forward runs from Pedro and width being readily available. The problem for Spain was that the width rarely came as a cursory glance at their average positions will show:

Average positions of Spanish players: 9+21 are Torres and Silva late substitutions. Villa and Pedro (18) are virtually on top of each other with Busquets, Alonso, Xavi and Iniesta all bunched narrow. The lack of width is entirely evident here.

In the first half especially the emphasis was on Sergio Ramos to act as the counter-balance to either Iniesta or Pedro, who ever fancied playing wide left at that moment in time. On some occasions the Spanish attack would assume the more common front 3, with Villa in the middle and Pedro/Iniesta on the left and Ramos on the right but often the Germans were comfortable with what they knew the Spaniards would try to throw at them, narrow but slick passing around the edge of the box. The well disciplined German defence knew how to cope with this and did so with aplomb for 90 minutes.

With Spain offering very little attacking threat out wide apart from Ramos (circled), Germany are able to defend very narrowly. Lahm has moved into a central position while the well-drilled midfield has rescinded into a more traditional flat four, allowing more bodies to press the Spaniards in attack. While Podolski again has not tracked Ramos' run he has still got back to add numbers.

In a match that gave us a winning result it seems odd that my post-match notes declared the game to be almost perfectly even. The Germans defended against the Spanish well, both Friedrich and Mertesacker showing themselves to be top quality centre-backs, and always looked dangerous when they pressed forward. The Spanish attacked with style but were often forced to shoot from distance, suffering from what some would call Arsenal Syndrome, always looking for the extra pass when perhaps a pop-shot would be a better option. The fact Spain’s winning goal came from a set-piece was surprising but the effort shown by Puyol to get his head on the ball was deserving of a goal. Löw will inevitably be disappointed that the marking at the corner was Liverpool-esque and that aside from that moment, despite Spain dominating possession up to that point, and perhaps creating the better chances, Germany were always in the game.

A lot has been made of Germany’s young team and they look a force to be reckoned with, outperforming themselves at this World Cup and setting themselves up as true potential champions at the next Euro’s – if the team stays together. One worry would be a lack of depth off the bench though Kroos impressed with his work rate, tracking back when Spain continually messed up their chances to seal the game and also being entrusted to take the set pieces.

To many, the result will be an accurate reflection of the way the game played out, but tactically there was no clear winner. Spain could only score from a corner as Germany found a way to nullify the free-flowing Iniesta/Xavi/Alonso trifecta, and the Spanish system restricted the number of chances the German’s got to break quickly. This will not go down as a classic semi-final and for the Spanish it raises only more questions ahead of their final? Many will ask whether they would benefit with Torres starting, allowing Villa to move wide left again, but for much of the game Pedro was one of the brightest sparks on the pitch. Indeed, during the tournament, Llorente has shown more presence in the time he has spent on the pitch and adds a different dimension to the Spanish attack. He also gives the team an aerial presence, though this would mean that the Spaniards would have to get wider to put crosses into him.

Predictions? Well I think the Dutch have a great opportunity to play around the Spanish, and if anyone team has the capacity to hold possession as well as the Spanish it is the Netherlands. If the Dutch unleash the lively Elia down the wing and occupy Ramos the Spanish get out ball will go missing, forcing them to adapt their game plan, something they have not been asked to do too much during this tournament (we can excuse them a slow start during the opening game against Switzerland). Notice how I totally avoided answering my own question there? Well here goes: Holland 3; Spain 1.

A post by Nick Robbins

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2010 10:54 am

    Great work. Spain’s lack of quick attack movment and directness may cost them…

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