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Germany will meet Argentina on Sunday to determine the 2014 World Cup champion. It will either be Germany’s fourth World Cup or Argentina’s third, and either the first World Cup won by a European team in the Western Hemisphere or the second time one of Brazil’s neighbors to the south has risen to glory at a Brazilian World Cup. It is also a meeting of the tournament’s best attacking team and its best defensive team.
Germany’s historic stomping of Brazil was not its only dominant attacking performance of the tournament. There was also the 4-0 first-match destruction of Portugal. Further, even though the Germans had to go to extra time against Algeria, they created more big chances in that match than any other team in this World Cup. The following chart shows the best attacking performances of the World Cup based on expected goals. In other words, how many more expected goals a team produced compared to the projected number the opponent would allow. So the big wins of Netherlands and Germany over Spain and Brazil, respectively, stand out because they beat up two of the best teams in the world.
Germany has three of the seven best attacking games at the World Cup. The secret is simply that it plays possession soccer. No team in the World Cup has completed more passes than Germany. Only Spain, the inventors of tiki-taka, played more passes on a per-minute basis. The German style, much like the Spanish, focuses on short passing to keep possession. It eschews crosses from wide areas, preferring to pass the ball through the center of the defense to create chances.
Technical possession-oriented soccer is far from dead at this World Cup. The most dangerous attacking team in the tournament, and the favorite in the final, has reached this point by playing the passing game. The task for Argentina’s defense is to contain Germany’s dynamic midfield and avoid being run out of the match as Brazil were.
In contrast to Germany, Argentina has two of the seven best defensive performances in this tournament. More impressive still, Argentina’s best games have come in its quarterfinal and semifinal matches. With everything on the line and facing elite opponents, Argentina has prevented superstars like Arjen Robben and Eden Hazard from creating chances over 210 minutes of soccer. These are the best defensive matches in the tournament, by the same method as above.
So this is the fundamental clash of the World Cup final. Germany will send forward the same attack through midfield that overwhelmed Brazil. Argentina will keep men behind the ball and defend in numbers with the same organization and determination than stymied Belgium and the Netherlands.
We can easily predict how Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella will set up his team. Sabella has proven himself a disciple of Carlos Bilardo, the manager of the Argentina’s 1986 World Cup champion, and specifically of Bilardo’s dictum that a soccer team should be divided roughly into seven defenders and three attackers. Since the injury to Angel Di Maria, Sabella has moved to a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, with Lionel Messi usually behind striker Gonzalo Higuain. Ezequiel Lavezzi has played a support role from one wing, and everyone else has mostly defended. Argentina’s fullbacks and central midfielders get forward less than almost anyone else’s in the tournament. This is not a system designed to create beautiful soccer, but it has been effective. The way to beat a deep-sitting defense is with added attackers, but that is precisely the trap Sabella wishes to set. Add more men to the attack, and suddenly Messi might be counterattacking one-on-one across an open midfield.
Both Belgium and the Netherlands were careful for most of the match not to throw too many attackers forward at the deep Argenina defense. Without that support, they could not break through Argentina’s lines. Germany’s system depends on well-timed runs from midfield by Sami Khedira or Bastian Schweinsteiger into open attacking zones. If they are kept in reserve to protect against Messi as Wesley Sneijder and Georginio Wijnaldum were for the Netherlands, we could see a slow, plodding final. If they push on, we could see a classic.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.