Less (Ballack) is more (success) for Germany

In light of the comprehensive thrashing of Argentina this morning by Germany there’s a rush to plaudits for various German players and coaches. All well deserved. Schweinsteiger, Ozil, Podolski, Muller, Klose and several others were fantastic and stamped their authority all over the game and their bewildered opponents. Joachim Low is clearly one of the bravest and best managers in the game. He insisted and persisted on bringing through many players from the highly successful Germany youth teams and it has worked.

Maradona’s reign over the Argentinian national team was like seeing a team run by an idealistic, stubborn teenager. Everything about Maradona was from the realm of inexperience. From running through over 100 players in his qualifying squads to being unable to resolves squabbles with quality players like Riquelme and sticking with the increasingly average (and volatile) Mascherano while Champions League winners like Cambiasso and Zanetti go unselected for the final squad. Blindly putting striker after striker on the team and on the field while having very little to defend with. Only Maradona would dare pick teams that were designed to win games 5-4. At a World Cup.

Germany called them on it today. Relentlessly.

But before looking at the breakdowns, but after the applause for the German team, it’s worth trying to assess Michael Ballack’s role in all this. Trying to look supportive in the crowd today but coming across as more bemused and slightly embarrassed that this team were doing so well without him, it occurred to me that his absence is one of the factors contributing to their success. Not because he’s a bad player though it can’t be argued that he’s past his prime but because of what I’ll call the Cantona Effect.

Cantona had an awkward relationship with the French national team. He was a dominating, intimidating personality in addition to being a top player but the team underperformed when he was playing. They failed to win a game in the 1992 Euros and also failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.  Then a young Zinedine Zidane came along and Cantona found himself frozen out.

Ballack isn’t as mercurial as Cantona but has an ego that still expects play, while he’s on the field, to conform to how he wants it to look. Often that’s good for Germany but it would be patently impossible for Germany to play the way they are now with Ballack in the lineup. Too much German possession would go through him as players deferred to his experience and insistence on being given the ball. So the more Ballack has the ball, the less Ozil gets it and even Schweinsteiger. The net effect would be a less dynamic attack both in terms of the quick ball movement and interplay we’ve seen from Germany but more pointedly there would be far fewer lightning fast counters with midfield support. That’s not Ballack’s game.

The game was not necessarily won by Muller’s goal in the first few minutes but it clearly rattled Argentina and filled their arteries with that evil elixir known as doubt early in the game.

How, at this level, the Germans’ top goal scorer, Muller, can be allowed to make a near post run on a free kick covered, using the term as loosely as possible, a full step behind by Otamendi and you might as well have just served that goal with a complementary side of schnitzel because that is giving away a goal on a platter.

You must (a) identify who is most likely to score on set pieces and put your best defenders on them; (b) get goal side and put yourself in a position that if the ball is played to the near post you can at least disrupt the striker if not win the ball; (c) if your mark is making the run closest to the ball being played in (ie. a near post run) you have to make that striker earn every inch of space and be forcing them as far outside the goal post as possible so their chances of scoring from a header decrease with each step. Don’t let them have an unimpeded path to the area they’re trying to get to.

What Argentina did was the opposite. Not that Argentina have fantastic defenders but Otamendi was not the man for the job of marking Muller. He starts wrong side and is in no position to affect Muller’s run to the ball or his header was the ball arrives. Not that Otamendi is the only one to blame. Had the ball being played in heavy and gone over Muller’s head, there were two more Germans in behind who had similarly slipped their marker and would likely have scored.

Breaking down the other three goals would be getting pedantic but suffice to say that Argentina did not have the defenders that allowed them the luxury of pushing men forward in search of an equalizer. The third goal in particular will send shivers down any coach’s spine as Schweinsteiger waltzes past two defenders who don’t lay a boot on him at the top of the box and then somehow is confronted with Higuain, in the form of the last defender, as Argentina had not bothered to push up properly and re-organize from the corner once it went wide and outside their box. Higuain embodies the reason why you never put yourself in the position of having a striker the one who needs to make a goal-saving tackle. Schweinsteiger went around him like he was shackled to a rack. I don’t think Higuain got with a metre of the ball.

Time to go. Spain v Paraguay coming up in five minutes.

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