Well, there’s a thing. Maybe there is something to be said for these so‑called experts after all. For 53 minutes of this 1-1 draw Germany and Spain played out a carefully hedged, engrossingly mannered game of football. This was a game of midfield squared, of Big Midfield Energy, a quiet debauchery of midfield.
Al Bayt Stadium is essentially a vast illuminated fibreglass tent dumped down in the desert scrub. It was packed here, or almost packed. But at times in the second half it was so quiet in the stands you could hear the air conditioning hiss. This is, it seems likely, not a sentence that has been typed before in a football report.
The game wasn’t dull, or unengrossing. But it was oddly samey and controlled. Spain don’t play with a central attacker. Hansi Flick chose not to here, at least not a real one. And there was a feeling from the start Germany were so worried about Spain’s midfield they forgot to pack a sharp edge, so keen to smother the centre that they smothered themselves.
There was a difference in approach here. With 53 minutes gone Spain, who had largely dominated the play, sent on Álvaro Morata as a central striker, and it felt like a variation, an active choice. It broke the game open too, as 10 minutes later he scored.
It felt weirdly easy too, like simply walking in through the front door after jimmying away at a window for an hour. Jordi Alba’s cross from the left was rolled into a useful area. Morata made a classic striker’s run, haring at an oblique angle across the corner of the six-yard box. It seemed to flummox Niklas Süle. The finish from Morata was a lovely thing, the ball bouncing up just right for the flick off the outside front half of his foot, the fourth toe, to flip it up over Manuel Neuer.
Flick responded, sending on Niclas Füllkrug , who is 29 and a bulky, classical No 9. He scored with his third touch, making a nice little inside run, letting the ball roll across him and then absolutely spanking it into the top corner, a thrilling full-bodied example of the 29-year-old high‑class journeyman striker’s art.
And so a 1-1 draw means Germany live on at this World Cup. Somehow Flick’s team have found a tournament wormhole where they can stumble along but still remain alive, in the hat, still fighting for this, and loving it, loving it, if they beat Costa Rica three days from now.
This was a game that will pose questions too. Germany dredged up a point here out of sheer sporting will, the ability to scrap and rat, elements some have identified as missing from the recipe packet. But they will need to fix the front of this team, where the level of talent has not been reflected in a stodgy and fraught World Cup.
Flick picked a more tooled-up three-man midfield. The attack was led, more or less alone, by Thomas Müller, which isn’t in itself a bad idea. This is Müller’s seventh tournament. He really is the most durable of ambling warrior-forwards, a footballer who still doesn’t really have a category, except basically playing like Thomas Müller.
He led Germany’s first charge, galloping through the centre of a vacant Spain midfield, moving unerringly fast for a man of his age – he is 33 – while still looking as ever like a junior doctor on a fun run.
This was pretty much it for Germany as an attacking force in the first hour, Müller, lolloping on to lofted passes, a flailing, gangly, Catherine wheel of a man in full flight. Is this really a plan? It is not so much about the personnel. This is not 1956. It isn’t necessary to field some bullocking hair-oiled goal-tower. It was more the lack of width, the lack of variation and angles. Germany looked, in those moments like a spooked and mimetic version of their opponents. Which is telling in its own right.
Spain and Germany are powerfully connected in the recent history of football tactics, the age of pass and press, of high grade metrics-football. Spain helped to make Germany into the last good version of themselves. Jogi Löw, a devotee of that Pep-Cruyff-Barça style that won a World Cup with a blend of possession and German pragmatism.
It has been hard to replicate the success. Functional gegenpressing, for example, seems to demand a level of drilling that is beyond international football. Perhaps, in the end, it is simply winning that is Germany’s authentic self: tournament play, hard-headed mean-boy footballers. Where are my mulletted mentality-monsters, my moustachioed shootout kings of yesteryear? As for Spain, the most interesting thing about this team is how much they resemble a Spain team, at times to an almost parodic degree. This is Spain turned up to 11.
How much more Spain can a possession-based, technically nimble, counter-pressing Spain become? The answer is none more, none more Spain. This has been the process behind Luis Enrique’s team. Spain have improved by becoming a more authentic version of themselves. They took just a point here. But they have the method and the midfield to test any team in this tournament.