Germany’s Narrative Hangs by a Final

The narrative is crafted: finally, Germany has been rewarded for its fußballing makeover.  More specifically, the narrative unspools this way: over the last decade, Germany have transformed themselves from a stolidly “German” side of efficiency (and whatever other cliches apply) to one of exciting open football, thanks to revamping its entire development system. Like any narrative of this magnitude, there’s necessarily simplification and truth shading. However, dots of truth do indeed clot the cloth.

Yet what’s even more remarkable is that the entire narrative of German’s makeover hangs on the vicissitudes of single football matches. Really, in the minds of us fußball lovers, the whole thing was contingent on what happened at the Maracanã on Sunday night. So much depends … Indeed.

After Germany’s quarter-final, history-altering 7-1 destruction of Brazil – and possibly the host country’s own footballing mythology – Jogi Löw’s crew seemed destined to win the final against Argentina, at long last completing the narrative of German transformation we’ve all been itching to fulfill. However, consider just how different our conversations and perceptions could have been these past couple days after the World Cup final:

  • Sami Khedira is injured during warm-ups for the final, breaking what’s become the invincible midfield triangle of the former, Schweinsteiger, and Kroos.
  • Gonzalo Higuaín seemingly forgot that he’s a world class striker, whiffing on a heart-freezing opportunity in the 4th minute, which he followed up with a careless offside run, negating a goal he scored in an acre of space.
  • Leo Messi simply didn’t have his “magic touch,” which we’ve become accustomed to seeing from him when he scores goals from sly angles and invisible paths through defenders’ legs. His shots didn’t want to be on target in the final.
  • Benny Höwedes’ reckless sliding tackle (studs up!) at 33′ that other officials would’ve pulled out a red card for.
  • Manuel Neuer‘s knee colliding with Higuaín’s upper body in an aerial takeout that would have made NFL safeties proud. Amazingly, Higuaín was called for a foul.
  • Mario Götze chests then volleys a ball from Andre Schürrle into the net in a play that the pair probably couldn’t execute but 1 of 10 ten times in training, while Higuaín’s earlier whiff is a shot the Argentine probably makes 9 of 10 times in training (H/T to the boys on Howler magazine’s Dummy podcast for this quip).
  • Ezequiel Lavezzi, who’d successfully been penetrating Germany’s left with his pacy and dribbling, is inexplicably substituted out in favor “big name” Sergio “Kun” Agüero. After Sabella’s swap, Argentina’s menace noticeably decreased as the partially-healthy Agüero failed to create much of anything, which, in turn, left Messi bereft of meaningful service.

Vicissitudes, man. A whole narrative was riding on the outcome of moments like these. Of course it’s absurd that we do this to ourselves and our footballing objects of love. But we do.

Consider a thought experiment: Germany loses to Argentina in the final, say 0-1, in a scrappy and grueling final contested to the last seconds. (Let’s say that one of the bullet points listed above is reversed, for example.) What is your evaluation of Germany’s decade-long makeover now? I mean, your evaluation shouldn’t change, because Germany has changed and done remarkable things with its fußballing infrastructure and technical development. The country is awash in talent and coaching acumen. Our perception of this achievement should not change just because Germany – hypothetically – loses a World Cup final 0-1.  Matches are won and lost over the finest of margins, especially in tense championship matches. Random stuff frequently crowns the winner. Vicissitudes, man.

I’m not detracting anything from Germany’s achievement. In fact, this World Cup had already become immensely successful to me after Germany’s powerful, yet simple, 1-0 win over France in the quarter-finals. To me, Germany advancing this far in the fashion it did already vindicated the “transformation narrative” from the past narrative. Knock out tournaments are chaotic and laced with good luck. Besides – I reasoned – I’ll cut Germany some slack, given the injuries to Marco Reus (arguably Germany’s best player), the Bender twins, Marcel Schmelzer, Mario Gomez, as well as the recently-recovered Schweinsteiger and especially Khedira. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of Höwedes, Klose, Kramer, Mustafi, and Poldolski playing prominent roles in this tournament didn’t excite me three weeks ago. Couldn’t one argue that Germany won this World Cup in spite of its makeover narrative?

In terms of the broad strokes, I still have difficulty comprehending that this particular group of Germans won the country’s 4th World Cup. Which is why I’ve gotta leave the forest to see some trees for a few minutes. Where else to look but the final itself – that match on which all contingency gambled itself, or at least so we told ourselves.

The Basics

Mario Götze’s 113′ extra time goal won the match. Immortality, etc. etc. etc. for the youngster. We all know this.

The other metrics are somewhat dull:

  • Possession: Germany (64%) vs. Argentina (36%)
  • Shots (on target): Germany (10 [5]) vs. Argentina (10 [0])
  • Pass completion: Germany (86%) vs. Argentina (76%)
  • Corners: Germany (5) vs. Argentina (3)
  • Throw ins: Germany (31) vs. Argentina (40)
  • Aerial success: Germany (61%) vs. Argentina (39%)

A low-shot match, in which Argentina miraculously couldn’t find the target. Given Argentina’s metamorphosis into a defensive 4-2-3-1 side during the tournament, it wasn’t surprising that the Germans enjoyed more possession.

Heating up the Pitch

In this tournament, we learned that Germany’s possession is augmented by the incredible skill set of one Manuel Neuer, whose ability to challenge attackers on the ball allows Germany’s centerbacks, Hummels and Boateng, to push higher up the pitch, thereby creating deeper midfield anchor points for distributing the ball into Germany’s midfield triangle of Schweinsteiger, Khedira, and Kroos:

Neuer's active work enable a higher backline for Germany
Neuer’s activity allows the German centerbacks to push forward. (Heatmap courtesy of Opta.com)

As the NY Times illustrated, Neuer covered the most space of any keeper in the World Cup, which has the affect of creating more space elsewhere for Germany, and coversely compressing the opponent’s space. Neuer’s “wanderlust” became a not-so secret weapon for Germany by the end of the tournament.

However, Germany had its struggles with possession, as any team dealing with a similar slate of injuries would. First, Germany became somewhat predictable in attack by working the ball up channels along their right side and into Müller. During the first half, Germany struggled to crack into Argentina’s box with this strategy, which also left them open to attack on their opposite wing, which Argentina used to generate dangerous counters. You can see this dynamic in the following heatmap from the first half:

Regional contrasts: Germany defended on its left and attacked on its right. (Heatmap courtesy of Opta.com)
Regional contrasts: Germany defended on its left and attacked on its right. (Heatmap courtesy of Opta.com)

In general, this activity pattern held into the second half – e.g. Germany’s main nodes of activity (i.e. red) are the same – however, Argentina wasn’t able to penetrate as consistently into Germany’s left side:

Germany was able to keep Argentina out in the second half. (Heatmap courtesy of Opta.com)
Germany was able to keep Argentina out in the second half. (Heatmap courtesy of Opta.com)

For the sake of space I’m skipping it, but Argentina’s heatmaps show a drop off in activity in the same area. Possession data (plus our eyeballs) show Germany controlling more and more possession as the second half wore on. Sometimes, however, this possession frequently felt fallow as Germany spaced out only five mostly impotent shots during this time.

Chalking the Force Field

In general, Germany seemed unable to move the ball from the general attacking third into Argentina’s box. Germany’s amount of passing activity around the Argentina box was staggering; however, a force field seemed to prevent Germany from cracking into the most dangerous areas. You can really see this effect, thanks to the formatting of Squawka.com’s passing chalkboards:

The Germany storm is held at bay by a mysterious force field. (Chalkboard courtesy of Squawka.com)
The German storm is held at bay by a mysterious force field. (Chalkboard courtesy of Squawka.com)

Is it any wonder this match felt so fragile and edgy for Germany supporters?

The passing storm amassed against Argentina is breath-taking in the chalkboard above, and is even more striking up to the end of regular time. A majority of Germany’s successful in-box passes – and especially those two crucial yellow-tailed arrows (signifiers of the winning goal) – came during extra time, which brings us to the goal moment itself, a passing sequence that began inconspicuously enough:

The passing and dribbling sequence of Germany's winning goal. (Courtesy of Opta.com)
The passing and dribbling sequence of Germany’s winning goal. (Courtesy of Opta.com)

Fittingly, the winning goal sequence involved six players (4 Bayern players, 1 Dortmunder, and 1 from Chelsea) and began with Philipp Lahm’s simple kick-in after a foul. Along the ball’s circuit, Schweinstieger, Boateng, Hummels, Kroos, and Schürrle act as relay nodes, carrying the ball to Götze after the pacy Schürrle’s dribbling run and cross. And the finish was exquisite.

Yet even here the goal didn’t have to happen. Germany sort of routinely circulated the ball around the back to Kroos, who (who else?) fed Schürrle. The Chelsea man made an improbable run with the ball down an increasingly narrowing corridor of space along Germany’s left flank. Three defenders close down on Schürrle, who somehow just manages to get off a pass to Götze.

Meanwhile, “Super Mario” has benefited from split defenders (Götze’s initial marker drifts into no-man’s land to help keep tabs on Schürrle). Still, as I mentioned earlier, Götze’s chest-touch and ensuing volley are the sort of combo that even in training probably go into the net every once and awhile. But here the finish is flawless, as football triumphs on the smallest of margins.

The Narrative Bites Its Own Tail

We needed this goal, us German fußball lovers. Our grand narrative needed the closure Götze’s goal provided, err, the closure the final provided. But isn’t it a bit absurd that we hung everything on this match, or more accurately, on this single goal sequence?

In a triumphant case like this, the narrative eats its own tail, however. Here’s what I mean: from the opening kickoff I had unshakable confidence that Germany would win the final. Even as Higuaín celebrated his offside blunder, my faith stood. Hell, I thought and told my wife, conceding this goal will wake Jogi’s boys up. It was all part of the plan.

My faith was anchored in the framing die Nationalmannschaft narrative. Although I was already immensely satisfied with Germany’s World Cup, and consequently, the prior decade of transformation, I couldn’t avoid the narrative pull that Germany inexorably traveled the path to winning the World Cup after burying Brazil 7-1. In a phenomenological sense, my viewing of the World Cup final was totally determined by this perception. Of course, my perception meant nothing and nothing was due Germany.

So Germany won and our narrative of Germany’s transformation is fulfilled. We are content. But I can’t escape the notion that the transformation was fulfilled along ago, as German players – the very products and goal of the transformation – succeeded professionally all over Europe, especially in clubs in like Bayern, Dortmund, and Schalke. The transformation was completed for Germany, which begs the question: what was the goal/telos of Germany’s makeover? Think about it.  Is the goal winning a World Cup? If so, the goal is folly. Winning a World Cup requires skill and luck. That’s right, I’d like to see your FA craft its 10 year plan for obtaining good luck. Is the goal finishing consistently well in the World Cup and Euros? Check. Germany nailed that one. All these semi-final finishes are incredible. Is the goal creating world class fußballers? No problem. Been there, done that for Germany, oh, and the world class fußballers are still coming as Germany’s pipeline is positively clogged with talent.

I say these things to illustrate just how absurd it is to set winning the World Cup as the goal of a decade-long national footballing makeover. And audacious. Perhaps even admirable. A deeply human tendency to control the uncontrollable riddles the audacity of Germany’s footballing adventures. This tendency is the stuff of high art, or tragedy itself, which ironically most clearly reveals human greatness.

So, of course, we hung everything on the result of a single final for Germany. We can’t help it. Transformation is all well and good. But triumphing over the chaos to somehow win the world’s knockout tournament? That’s greatness.

 

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. 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 Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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