Before his substitution in the 63rd minute, Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets had a share of 10.7% in Spain’s total possession against Costa Rica. That figure was reduced by more than half – to 4.3% – in his next FIFA World Cup match, when the Spaniards took on Hansi Flick’s Germany.
At first glance, Busquets’ involvement in Spain’s play may be of little relevance here. However, keeping Luis Enrique’s midfield linchpin at bay was part of a tactical plan carried out by Flick’s men, who went on to demonstrate what they are truly capable of in a thrilling 1-1 draw.
While the former Bayern Munich boss has come under fire as of late, I believe Germany’s performance was encouraging in many areas of the game. Here’s a look at how Thomas Müller and co. attempted to break down the Spanish defense in their second group stage clash:
Flick’s off-the-ball masterplan against Spain
The Germans came into the match with a clear idea of what they were tasked to do. Instead of tussling for possession with the opponent, Flick set his team up to do what they do best - press high up the pitch and force Spain into giving up possession in advantageous positions.
Germany lined up in a well-defined 4-2-3-1 as Müller led the trio of İlkay Gündoğan, Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka to stifle Spain’s backline in their half. Attacking-midfielder Gündoğan was responsible for monitoring the movements of Busquets, and he almost always prevented the 34-year-old from presenting himself as a passing outlet during Spain’s buildup.
Detractors may have deemed his performance “ineffective”, but Müller was critical in leading Flick’s press from the front. As the striker, Der Raumdeuter aimed at cutting off passing channels between center-backs Aymeric Laporte and Rodrigo, and directed Spain to shift their play towards either wing. Unsurprisingly, he finished the game with the highest number of defensive pressures (63) of all the outfield players, despite playing 20 minutes less than the likes of Jamal Musiala, Kimmich and Goretzka.
Aside from being the tempo-dictators, the double pivot of Kimmich-Goretzka was also assigned marking duties. The Bayern duo cleverly shadowed Pedri and Gavi, and both players were prepared to pounce from behind to Barcelona youngsters. Meanwhile, Serge Gnabry and Musiala hindered Spain’s progression by cutting off vertical passing channels.
All in all, the individual roles of the above-mentioned players were designed to force Spain into:
- moving the ball to wider areas, where Germany could activate their pressing trigger, or
- resorting to long balls, where the team could use Goretzka, Niklas Süle or Antonio Rüdiger’s physicality to regain possession
By the end of the match, Germany had won 101 turnovers, as opposed to Spain’s 79. Unfortunately, they lacked control to quickly reorganize themselves after forcing errors from La Roja and generate shot-taking situations. In this regard, Leroy Sané’s poise on the ball and creative presence was sorely missed during the 70 minutes he was on the bench.
Nevertheless, Flick was successful in instilling a clear philosophy and Deutschland’s reaction to the Japan loss was nothing short of admirable.
Appreciating Germany’s progress under Flick
Supporters of the 2014 World Cup winners have expressed frustration at Flick’s relatively pragmatic management at the tournament. International football, however, is a different ball game and Flick’s decision-making becomes easier to comprehend when we take this factor into account.
Germany’s version of high pressing may not be as appealing as the 2020 UEFA Champions League winning machine of Bayern Munich. But it has been implemented to a great effect at the tournament. Of all the 32 teams participating at the World Cup, Die Nationalmannschaft led the way in high turnovers won (24) and in pressed sequences executed (41) after the second round of World Cup, per Opta.
Moreover, one also needs to assess the players at Flick’s disposal. At Bayern, the 56-year old had the luxury of fielding David Alaba, Jérôme Boateng, and Alphonso Davies, an impeccable group of defenders who shared the playmaking burden with Kimmich. For Germany, it’s David Raum who has been tasked with providing width and creativity on the left side, while Gündoğan is valued for being “secure on the ball”. Both have been entrusted with big responsibilities in their respective positions, but they are simply not at the level to fill in the shoes of Davies and Thiago Alcântara.
Regardless of the clear difference in quality between the two squads, Flick did a commendable job in motivating this German side. Against Spain, the Nationalelf fought for every duel. Raum finished the game with the highest number of interceptions (per Whoscored). Kehrer had the most tackles. Although ineffective when compared to how Müller usually plays in the attacking-midfield, Gündoğan still did a decent job in following his coach’s orders. Rudiger and Süle were formidable for the vast majority of the match, while 'mentality-monster' Kimmich once again topped the distance covered charts. Unlike under their previous manager, Germany’s players have exhibited a remarkable willingness to go beyond their limits for Flick.
To conclude, Germany showed character in a convincing performance against Spain and deserved to take three points. After two games, Flick has had a good look at the prominent attacking options available to him and there’s no doubt he will field a strong lineup in tomorrow’s do-or-die clash against Costa Rica. As always, in Flick we trust!