There may have been more exciting games or more dramatic endings in this tournament, but there hasn’t been one with more intrigue combined with a higher quality of play than this one. Argentina was staring at the abyss, much like Germany was today, giving the game something of a snuff-film air, and yet they were ass-tastic until Lionel Messi pulled them out of the fire. Germany mostly rose to the occasion of saving themselves, at least for a few days, though still needed to wait until the very end to hear the governor’s call.
Germany tweaked their lineup a bit to match up directly with Spain in this one, subtracting Kai Havertz from the frontline to insert Leon Goretzka into midfield to essentially mirror Spain’s 4-3-3 by having Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich paired up with Pedri and Gavi. It left Thomas Müller on his own up front, which left Germany a little toothless after all their good work with the ball. And the way to really get at Spain might be to try and overload the aged Sergio Busquets at the base of their midfield and the out-of-position Rodri behind him. But it would take quite the set of tires to do that with a team’s World Cup fate in the balance.
What we got was two teams trying to press and work through each other in the same way, with both teams’ fullbacks charging way high up the field to try and win possession and keep each other’s wide forwards pinned. While Spain had more of the ball, and played the whole match knowing that A. they still had Costa Rica left on the schedule and B. their +7 goal-difference is going to get them out of most any qualification jams, both teams looked fluid and dangerous. Gavi and Pedri play the game as if they can also see the TV view that you and I have and can make the plays and passes that we call out for given our bird’s eye view. Jamal Musiala continued to weave through defenders at a whim. It was the most Hagler-Hearns game we’ve had, with two top-quality teams unafraid to hurl punches at each other and worry about the counterpunch another time.
Spain opened the scoring thanks to Jordi Alba, who should be far too old to still shotgun his way up and down the sideline and set up goals in the same fashion he was 10 years ago, put it on a platter for Alvaro Morata to cheekily finish with the outside of his foot. Germany had to go for broke after that, and got their reward when Niclas Füllkrug was able to benefit from Musiala busting through the Spain defense, nicking the ball off him to finish into the roof of the net.
Füllberg is a great story, as he was playing in the second division last season and wouldn’t be on the team if Timo Werner hadn’t gotten hurt. He’s banged in 10 goals for Werder Bremen this season, and this was only his third-ever appearance for his country at 29. Germany manager Hans Flick must’ve figured that at worst if they needed a goal and could get Fullkrug in the same spots he’s been getting to for Werder he might do the same thing he’s been doing for Werder. Take notes, Haji Wright.
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The game did lack a big number of chances and shots, partly due to both Germany’s and Spain’s lack of sharp end at the top of the field and partly due to the furious pressing and marking both teams inflicted on each other. Neither could find the final pass or cross until the second half. But the quality on display was the highest we’ve seen.
Other results: Japan 0 - 1 Costa Rica
This is what happens when you let Japan just have the ball. They don’t really create much without the added wind of the space they find on counterattacks, and even if they can create a chance they don’t have anyone dependable to finish for them. Japan had 57 percent of the ball against the Ticos, and yet managed just three shots on target. Fair credit to Costa Rica, who actually looked bothered this time, unlike in their ass-stomping from Spain.
And they got a little luck, as Keysher Fuller’s finish acted a bit like a change-up, completely bamboozling Shuichi Gonda in net as he jumps just a bit too early and didn’t get full hands on it:
Both of these results set up the group to be Group Chaos come Thursday, as all four teams can go through.
Belgium 0 - 2 Morocco
Now here’s a team that doesn’t give a shit. In the latest installment in why Roberto Martinez is a blithering idiot, it appeared that today he sent out his Belgium side to at least attack in a 4-2-3-1, but with Kevin De Bruyne wide on the right of the attack. Which is great if all you want him to do is hit crosses, but he happens to be the best midfielder in the world for a host of other reasons and abilities. It also forces the attack to hinge on Eden Hazard in the middle, who is both cooked and out of shape and practice thanks to not having played regularly in three seasons. De Bruyne is effective when getting three or four runners ahead of him at City. Belgium essentially gave him one, and that’s Michy Batshuayi, which as everyone knows isn’t an answer at all. No wonder Belgium looked so utterly without spark or verve.
And if Martinez isn’t going to get his formations or tactics right, then his job should be about creating a harmony or energy within the team that carries over that and lets the talent on the team (admittedly old talent) go on display. Belgium slogged through this match with all the spice of a trip to their boss’s son’s bar mitzvah. Morocco didn’t really have to work all that hard to keep the Belgians at bay, nor to look threatening when attacking at pace. All it took was one Thibaut Courtois fuck-up and it was over.
Croatia 4 - 1 Canada
Nice stories don’t get results. Neither do analytic stats on their own. Yeah, Canada was better than Belgium in their opening game. Yes, they should have one, but their lack of finish is also their responsibility. They don’t have to worry about either of those things now, because today they did find a way to finish, as Alphonso Davies finally scored their first-ever World Cup goal just three minutes in. And then they got their ass thoroughly kicked afterwards. 4-1 tells no lies as the 1-0 against Belgium did. No injustice from the soccer gods here.
Canada tried something similar to the US did against England, which is defensively setting up in a 4-4-2 to cut off the Croatian midfield from the defense and using their wide players to try and spring attacks against fullbacks that aren’t all that fast. Here’s the problem: The US midfield contains players that are very mobile and very energetic. The Canadian midfield contains Atiba Hutchinson, who is 39 and moves like an ice float (and Canada should consider putting him on one after this match). When any of the Croatian midfield wanted to drop a little deeper to get the ball, he couldn’t follow. Or when they wanted to dribble by him, they did it while facing barely toilet paper level resistance. So even after going behind, Croatia strutted to a 2-1 halftime lead thanks to their midfield’s dominance and ease they could find killer passes. To wit:
Canada attempted to switch to a 3-5-2 at halftime, but with Hutchinson still out there Modric, Kovacic, and Brozovic still had the run of the place, and Canada was lucky they didn’t rack up more than two goals. So Canada’s World Cup is already over, their plucky underdog story vanquished before we even had time to care. But don’t worry, it didn’t keep their journalists from acting smug:
He’s not mad guys, really.
Goal of the day
Not the cleanest strike but given how late and how dramatic, has to be Fuller’s goal to give Costa Rica all three points.
Did VAR fuck anything up?
Dodged that today, and actually the rapidity with which Antonio Rüdiger’s goal for Germany in the first half was ruled out for offside was a demonstration of how the system is supposed to work.
Did Alexi Lalas say anything stupid?
Ducked that too, As they say, even God rests on Sunday.