World Cup Semi-Finals Preview: We’ve been here before

We’ve been here before: Germany is in the semi-finals of an international championship. Again.

Since 2006, Germany has at least advanced to the semi-finals (or “final four” in American parlance) of every major tournament, whether the World Cup or Euros. Impressive. Actually, impressive doesn’t do this achievement justice. More like slightly miraculous.

Given this astounding track record, it’s not surprising that many of us expected Jogi Löw’s boys would be here, again, in the familiar territory of a semi-finals. We’re spoiled, spoiled, spoiled. Yet this achievement alone does not solicit mind-losing celebrations from Germany’s supporters, who’ve been accustomed to the “dry” celebration of a semi-finals appearance without winning a championship for the past eight years. Impatience grows for Löw to cash in on this proverbial “golden” generation of mostly youngish German stars. Already pub talk circulates about what will become of Löw if Germany crash out against the host country Brazil in tomorrow’s semi-final clash. A fun talk over a pint of crisp Kölsch.

However, Germany has a match tomorrow. A match that could take die Nationalmannschaft one step closer to seizing its fourth World Cup title. Oh, and the World Cup’s most successful champions are in the way – that’s all. And in case you’ve been living in a cave, these champs have been hosting whole the show.

How do Germany get past the Brazilian behemoth?

Brazil’s Two Key Absences

Luckily for Germany, the narrative tilted favorably when global star Neymar went down with a World Cup-ending injury and captain Thiago Silva became ineligible during Brazil’s tense 2-1 win over Columbia in the quarter-finals on July 4th.

Geez. Absolutely gutting stuff if you’re a Brazilian. Neymar is … well, you’ve heard of him already, as he was one of the front-runners for player of the tournament, leading the Seleção with one part tears and two parts God-beating giddy talent. So yeah, huge f-ing loss for Brazil. And unlike Brazil losing Pelé, but still winning the 1962 World Cup title, this 2014 Seleção squad doesn’t have the likes of Garrincha and Didi to step up for the injured star. So what does this mean for Brazil?

It’s hard to say.

You might think losing Neymar spells d-e-a-t-h for Brazil; however, football is funny like this. I think, in general, we underestimate just how much luck impacts the chaotic pingings of the ball around the pitch, regardless of the talent of those trying to move the ball around. In this respect, the Neymar loss isn’t catastrophic for Brazil, simply because, you know, “the ball is round and the rest is history.” That is, he’s somewhat replaceable. Besides, Richard Whittall also reminds us, that the likes of Fred and Willian are not slouches. “Form” is a fleetingly random thing in a sport as dynamic and complex as football, which means that Fred, etc., could be brilliant on Tuesday. Or not. In other words, beware that your expectations are not over-determined by the narrative already framing this match.

The bottom line is this: sure, losing Neymar will affect Brazil (psychologically? tactically? training room eating arrangements?), but Brazil is still very very good on top. A boring conclusion, I know.

However, I think the loss of Thiago Silva could hurt Brazil more than losing Neymar. Over the last, say, four seasons, Silva has emerged as one of the world’s premier centerbacks with AC Milan and now PSG. He sports an aesthetically-sculpted physique: an almost iconic athlete’s body. He’s nimble, strong, bouncy, and smart. Anyone who’s watched his body language and moving lips during a match can see that he’s a vocal and indefatigable leader. His loss is huge for Brazil.

The back four are like fragile ecosystems in football, needing just the right balance of interdependent elements and ample time accrued for growing together. Suddenly removing one of the parts damages this football ecosystem in (oftentimes) unpredictable ways. This phenomenon is something Germany fans (and BVB fans!) know all too well as Hummels cycles in and out of the back four. With Hummels on the pitch, there’s something so much more coherent about the network of influence created by Germany’s back four. Without Hummels, the whole unit is rickety. I won’t even get into the whole “four centerbacks playing the back four” for Germany business.

Any way you cut it, Brazil are in trouble with Silva’s loss. Sure, us Bundesliga folk know that Silva’s replacement, Dante, is a world class defender at Bayern, but hell, wouldn’t you be squirming if you knew that the free-roaming David Luiz was suddenly gaining a new central partner? Oh boy.

But Who Will Score for Germany?

Good question.

As Germany gets deeper into the tournament, goals have become fewer and further between for die Nationalmannschaft.  The days of Thomas Müller’s hattrick and the 5-1 trashing of Portugal seem like they occurred back in 2012.

I feel silly for not seeing this before the tournament began, but once Germany lost Marco Reus to injury, it seems that Löw’s squad necessarily evolved, tactically-speaking. Even with Reus, Germany was already a fairly unbalanced side on paper, lacking fullbacks (especially with Lahm being moved to defensive midfield) and forwards. Without Reus, this lack of balance seems to have forced Löw to change his plan. Gone is the fluid attacking build-up play with intricate work around the opponent’s box that we’ve become accustomed to with this Germany side since about 2008. Instead, Germany is playing a smothering game of backline challenges, midfield ball-winning, and squarish passing. As a result, Germany have become tough to score against, because opponents don’t have the ability to carry the ball through clear attacking channels. I don’t have a clue what this style of play means for future Germany matches, but it’s got die Mannschaft, stolidly, to the semi-finals.

But who will score for Germany against Brazil?

Currently, Germany is getting its shots from these sources: Müller (2.8 per match), Schürrle (2.8 per match), and Kroos (2 per match). Klose has only managed 3 total shots so far, while Özil has 6 in five matches. On the other hand, Müller, Özil , and Kroos lead Germany by averaging over 2 key passes a match. I know this sample size is absurdly small, but a cast of a familiar characters has become Germany’s bread and butter in this tournament, which means that we shouldn’t expect Löw to make any big lineup changes before the semi-final in terms of his attacking line.

Depending on Brazil’s strategy, Müller will be the target man. Perhaps Klose will start again, in order to act as a decoy for Müller – I’m thinking of that Dante/Luiz new relationship at back for Brazil. Don’t forget about set pieces for Germany, who boast an aerial gallery with the likes of Hummels, Schweinsteiger, Khedira, and even Boateng. Yes, Brazil is tall and physical at back (Dante’s addition keep up appearances in this department), but the chances of a marking mistake are that much higher with a new back four for Brazil. If you love Germany, pray for that marking mistake …

What Do the Bookies Say?

Even Steven. For example, BSports Football’s model spits out a coin tosser of a match:

Ger-Bra pred

Five Thirty-Eight’s Nate Silvers, isn’t so sure, as he explains in his piece about the impact of Neymar’s injury on the match. Don’t read his piece if you’re a Germany supporter and want to remain in blissful mass media narrative-enclosed ignorance. However, you might be happy to learn that his fabled Bayesian statistical modeling has been thoroughly out-performed this tournament by simpler models (e.g. predicting who will win based on club salaries present on each club). I’m going with the bookies on this one.

In the bookies’ models, Germany is – at best- even with Brazil, while – at worst – Germany is still a bit of a underdog. Your hopes and expectations have been fore-warned!

But knockout tournaments are such wonderfully dynamic and surprising creatures. Thanks so the small-sized samples of international play, the World Cup is a lovely crapshot of hope, fear, and whatever other emotion you need to feel. Good stuff and bad stuff happens to the strongest and weakest teams.

Hence, it’s slightly miraculous that Germany has survived the vicissitudes of randomness in knock out tournaments to reach another semi-final. It’s remarkable. Don’t forget about this delightfully surprising achievement as the world’s biggest sporting event closes shop.

Header courtesy of Soccersclub.com

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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