2014 World Cup: The Myth About Germany's New-Found Resilience

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2014 World Cup: The Myth About Germany's New-Found Resilience
Michael Steele/Getty Images

Before Germany's 7-1 triumph over hapless Brazil in 2014 FIFA World Cup first semi-final on Tuesday at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, a certain myth about the German team was making the rounds in the media.

It was a reconstructed but faux narrative, to wit: Germany have found success in the 2014 FIFA World Cup by abandoning their characteristic beautiful but unsuccessful style of playing that has become their hallmark in the last three tournaments.

Instead (the narrative went), they have reverted to a more conservative but pragmatic and more rugged defensive approach, hence their success so far. This is not only false but is emblematic of the kind of mindlessness that characterizes today's sports writing.

Listen to this by Graham Parker of The Guardian:

Löw's players have found success over the last month in part by abandoning a free-flowing style that was introduced to the German national team before the 2006 World Cup, as part of an ideological overhaul implemented by Löw and Jürgen Klinsmann.

Klinsmann, of course, is now in charge of the USA. He will look on from a distance on Tuesday, his team having shown signs of progress mixed with similar pragmatism before being knocked out by Belgium in the round of 16.

Find the same sentiment here and here.

First of all, what success had Germany scored (to that point: The semi-final stage) in  this tournament that is unmatched in the previous three? 

As this narrative was making the rounds, Germany were as yet at the semi-final stage of the World Cup, a feat equaled in the previous three tournaments: The 2006 and 2010 World Cups and the 2012 European Championship. So how precisely have they become more successful?

Witters Sport-USA TODAY Sports

But even having now proceeded to the final (to be played on Sunday), it is not accurate to say they have done so because of a changed approach.

For even their purported lack of success in the previous three tournaments (supposedly caused by their beautiful style) had yielded the same level of success as of the time of the concocted narrative: A semi-final berth in each. That Germany lost those contests owes more to concrete factors than a detrimental style of play.

Consider the 2006 World Cup, where, building on the previous tournament, they completed a revolution in style from their traditional rugged, physical and dull manner of playing to a new exciting and incisive style that captured the imagination and earned admiration of many.

Was it this new aesthetically pleasing style that caused them to crash out of the competition against the eventual champions, Italy, in the semi-final, where they succumbed to defeat only in the extra time?

No. They conceded from a set-piece situation in the dying minutes of extra time, then again from a counter-attacking move, having pushed forward for an equalizer.

In this match, Germany were not the most adventurous side, nor were they the most attractive. Instead, they met a good Italian side that matched them pound for pound, a team that got the eventual breakthrough through a mighty effort.

As far as this match is concerned, it is false to say that Germany lost because they played too attractive a style or because they were a shard too adventurous. The whole compass of the match falsifies this notion.

What about the 2010 World Cup? Did Germany lose to Spain because they were too adventurous? Not at all. They lost, in fact, by adopting the opposite approach.

Witters Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Whereas both Switzerland and Paraguay found joy against Spain by pressuring the ball and attacking them, Germany opted to sit deep in this match, thereby allowing Spain leisure in possession. This led Germany to concede too many corners, one of which Spain tucked away. 

Refer to this 2010 article I had written on this and also this.

In other words, Germany did not lose the 2010 semi-final because they had been too beautiful or too adventurous. They did so by being too timid and too defensive.

So when Lothar Matthaus says that "If you want to become world champion you have to win matches, and that means ugly victories too." He forgets that it wasn't beauty that lost them the semi-final four years ago, but the ugliness that he advocates.

This, again, falsifies the current narrative about their ruggedness as opposed to their hollow beauty.

What about the 2012 European Championship semi-final against Italy? Was it their empty beauty that caused them to lose?

First of all, Gigi Buffon was on great form that day, defying Germany's every attempt to score. Like Tim Howard against Belgium and Guillermo Ochoa against Brazil, on an auspicious day, a goalkeeper can be the rock that denies a team victory.

Here, Buffon stood solidly against Germany. Without this display, there's no reason to think Germany would have lost this semi-final.

Witters Sport-USA TODAY Sports

In the second place, none of the two goals Germany conceded in this match was a result of the classic counter-attacking play to which attacking sides are susceptible.

The first resulted from a cross from Germany's right flank which Mario Balotelli headed in. The lapse in defense that led to the cross cannot be attributed to a collective faulty defensive approach. It resulted from individual error (in fact, two individuals).

The second goal came from Germany's own corner kick. This again cannot be attributed to too adventurous attacking play, leading to a counter-attacking sucker punch. One can blame lapses in discrete defensive situations and not a lack of proper approach to a match in which a team becomes too exposed.

But if we ask whether Germany were the better side in this match, we have to say no. So they did not lose because they were the superior attacking side.

They lost because Italy were a good side, a side that succeeded in neutralizing them, winning because of two well-executed long balls, one from the flank and the other from deep inside Italy's own half.

When Germany dismantled Portugal in their first group match in the current tournament and then Brazil in Tuesday's semi-final, they did not do so playing ugly, defensive football. Their success came from their now wonted incisive and efficient attacking play.

Against Ghana, they did not get the well-fought draw by sitting back and playing some dull football. The contrary was the case, as it was against the USA.

Witters Sport-USA TODAY Sports

The only time they struggled was against Algeria in the round of 16, where they abandoned their dynamic attacking style, reverting instead to a counter-intuitive dull defensive display, which nearly cost them the match.

Granted they were more pragmatic against France, but then again, were they not in the 2006 semi-final against Italy, which they lost? Where they not similarly pragmatic against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup?

In other words, in the three previous competitions, Germany have not abandoned pragmatism for some flaky beauty. Whatever we've witnessed in the current competition has been present in the last three. 

Moreover, it wasn't a rugged defensive style that earned them the mighty victory against the much-vaunted Brazilians on Tuesday, but their new dynamic approach of efficient and incisive attacking style of play.

To concoct a narrative to the contrary is to be false to the true factors that either led to their previous ostensible failures or to the current provisional success. By the way, refer to a similar conclusion as mine in this article by Richard Whittall, which I was unaware of when I began writing mine.

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