Rambling around Europe…

As Scotland haven’t qualified for the finals of an international tournament in fourteen years, and it didn’t look likely that we would again even before the current implosion of the Scottish game started, I decided I would have to adopt a team to support every two years. There was one obvious choice, the team that had won the first World Cup I ever paid attention to, resplendent in one of the finest playing kits there has ever been, a fantastic late 80s design featuring a slaloming pattern of black, red and gold across the chest of an otherwise monochrome shirt. Of course it was West Germany.

By the time Euro ‘92 came around, the football teams of represented the flux the continent itself was in. The Czechs and the Slovaks went their separate ways, and the Soviet Union announced they were to break up due to political difference and that they were to embark on one final farewell tour of Sweden. Yugoslavia had more important things on their minds. Germany meanwhile competed at their first tournament since 1938 as a unified country. They reached the final, where they were beaten by the immovable narrative of the surprise package Denmark. And I acquired my first Germany shirt, the racing green away shirt that consisted entirely of straight lines.

However, it wasn’t until 2008 that my soft spot for Germany, its culture and its football team, developed into what it is now. In the semi-final, they conceded a late equaliser against Turkey. Phillip Lahm, the left/right-back whose mistake had led to the goal, steamed up the pitch and rifled the winner past Reçber. What a finish! And then we cut to the BBC pundits’ analysis, where they whined and moaned about how lucky Germany had been over the years. Lucky, lucky bastards. You lucky, lucky bastards. I didn’t think this was fair at all; you don’t get to the last four of six the last ten international tournaments simply being ‘lucky’. That was absurd and to be honest, seemed slightly bitter.

The problem then with actively deciding to support Germany is that their narrow failures to win international tournaments hurt a lot more than they would otherwise. At Euro 2008, they lost in the final 1-0 to Spain. At the last World Cup in Africa, they were knocked out in the semi-final, 1-0 by, again, Spain. And just two days ago, they’ve been despatched from the semi-finals of Euro 2012 after losing 2-1 to Italy. These last three tournaments have seen Germany play with a younger, more attack-minded and ethnically diverse team. At times they’ve looked awesome, battering England 4-0 and Argentina 4-1 on their way to the semis, but they seem to have a frailty that prevents them getting any further. Certainly, their attacking flair doesn’t appear to have an answer to Spain’s possession game.

Perhaps its the personnel. They don’t appear to have a long-term replacement for the frankly awesome Miroslav Klose up front. The usual pick at left-wing, Lukas Podolski, seems to have steadily contributed less and less to the national team sense over the years, notching only four of his 44 international goals in the last two seasons. Admittedly, he does play further out on the wing for Germany now, but his form throughout Euro 2012 has been uninspiring, and he was rightly substituted at half-time against Italy. Thomas Müller was also unable to replicate previous form on the opposite flank.

Germany also appear to have a few problems in midfield. Bastian Schweingsteiger has had injury problems all season, and was noticeably exhausted towards the end of the Champions League final. Mesut Özil is a magnificently talented player, but he doesn’t appear to be as effective in Germany’s current 4-2-3-1 formation as he is playing for Real Madrid. The two young players we saw the most of, André Schürrle and Marco Reus, appeared enthusiastic but callow.  Defensively, they seem generally okay. I’m not convinced by Jérôme Boateng at right-back however.

The Die Nationalelf will almost certainly have enough resources to qualify for the World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014. Will Joachim Löw still be in charge? Will Germany be able to take that final step and win an international tournament for the first time in 18 years? They’ll need to find some steel from somewhere.

And a note on Spain. If you follow football, you can’t have failed to notice the ideological altercation that has sprung up around the issue of whether Spain’s style of play is ‘boring’ or not. Certain British journalists seem to have reacted with unbridled horror to the suggestion that people are a little turned off by Spain. In fact, there’s the suggestion that if you confess to finding Spain’s style uninteresting then you probably don’t understand football and are likely one of those British troglodytes that is terrified of continental technique.

I don’t think that’s fair. You won’t find a bigger advocate for passing and technique in football than me, and I’m not entirely enamoured with the way Spain are playing at the moment. It’s too cautious and risk averse.  They seem to be stuck in second gear, content to score an early goal and then constrict their opponent by not letting them have a touch. All fair enough, and technically adroit and cerebral, but it’s not really a spectator sport. But, I hear you cry! Surely if Spain are boring, it’s the fault of the opponent for defending deeply and in numbers, trying to keep la Roja at bay? On the face of it, that’s a sound argument. Ten men behind the ball, narrowing the pitch, congesting the midfield; that all makes it difficult to penetrate.

But does that argument really wash? Statistically, Spain have taken part in three of the six most mismatched games in terms of possession, recording 66% against Ireland, 64% against Croatia and 60% against Italy (who they’ll play in the final tomorrow night).  They did manage the most attempts on target of all teams at the tournament against Ireland, but a relatively lower number against Italy and Croatia.

In comparison, Germany and Russia came up against resolute defending in the form of Greece. Germany enjoyed 66% possession, had 24 shots at goal and won 4-2. Russia had 62% of possession, had 25 attempts and lost 0-1 to go out of the tournament. Similarly, Italy had 64% of possession against England, recorded 35 shots at goal, and eventually won after a penalty shoot-out. In comparison, for their 64% possession against Croatia, Spain managed 14 shots at goal.

The Spaniards’ acolytes may also point to their semi-final match against Portugal, noting that matches involving Spain are more exciting when the opponent attempts to attack. True, possession in this match was more balanced, and goal attempts by each side were nearly equal, but Spain didn’t look comfortable. Portugal pressed high and often, at least until they ran out of energy, and it wasn’t until extra-time that Spain were able to retain possession for any length of time.

“Aha! But doesn’t this prove that Spain’s keepball is just a result of other teams’ ultra-defensive line-ups?” Not as such. Watching Spain in the group stages, it was frustrating to see how often they would turn away from goal, back to the midfield, when a shot was on. It was like watching an awkward teenager trying to ask someone out on a date. This Spanish team have a comfort zone of midfield possession, and they very rarely leave it. Is it surprising that Juan Mata and Fernando Llorente haven’t played a single minute of these finals, that Roberto Soldado was left at home, that they’ve often lined up with midfielder Cesc Fabregas as a false 9 and no traditional striker at all?

To my mind, Spain have a wealth of attacking talent, and for whatever reason, they’re not using it. Their discomfort against Portugal was as much due to their own neglect of higher tempo play as it was Portugal’s pressing.  Spain have scored 16 goals in their last 12 finals matches, and I think that’s what’s frustrating people most of all. They could step up a gear if they wanted to, but they don’t. And yes, appreciation of their technically mastery is fine, but most football fans need more than that. They want to see goals. Sorry to all you football professors out there. But that’s fine; as long as we can agree to disagree?

Ah. Of course. I should have known. Agreement is ‘boring’.