As quite possibly the best World Cup of all time drew to a close, we had one last battle still to go. Germany were favourites having handed a historic thrashing to Brazil, but Argentina still looked a good bet after edging out the Dutch on penalties.
Neither side were going to make any changes from their previous games, although Cristoph Kramer was drafted into the midfield at the last moment when Sami Khedira was injured in the warm-up. Germany played the same 4-3-3 they used throughout the tournament and Argentina continued with the 4-4-1-1 they adopted in the quarter-finals.
Both teams found joy down the right thanks largely to Alejandro Sabella’s decision to play Ezequiel Lavezzi on the right this time. The more defensive option would have had him lining up against Philipp Lahm, pinning back the German captain while leaving the conservative Benedikt Howedes free on the left, lacking the attacking verve to get forward with any threat. Instead, Lavezzi was chosen on the right where his pace was a constant menace to Howedes – his threat best shown for Gonzalo Higuain’s disallowed goal where Howedes had come way too far into the centre following Higuain. Lionel Messi also drifted out to this flank frequently and sped away from Mats Hummels with a stop-start run in the first half.
This did however mean Lahm was free to get forward down Germany’s right. Messi’s reluctance to track back – and while he obviously plays in a free role, his failure to even step towards players three yards from him when Argentina were defending was ridiculous – meant Enzo Perez played narrowly to make up the shortfall in midfield and had to constantly shuttle in and out to cover Lahm’s forays forward. It was a similar situation to what we saw the United States use to their advantage against Portugal. It enabled Kramer to join the attack and Thomas Muller was as dangerous as ever, with Lahm advancing behind them.
Joachim Low was forced into playing his wildcard early, when a blow to the head forced Kramer off after half an hour – Andre Schurrle replaced him as Germany moved to more of a 4-2-3-1 shape. At half-time, Alejandro Sabella made his big change: bringing on Sergio Aguero to partner the disappointing Higuain at the expense of Lavezzi, switching back to the 4-3-1-2 used in the earlier stages of the tournament. This worked in an attacking sense, as Argentina tested the high German backline with balls in behind, but it also opened up the game further by giving the German full-backs complete freedom to come forward.
The decision to make the change was a good one, but its timing was appalling. Argentina were never going to last the distance after playing 120 minutes against the Netherlands a day after Germany were able to all but stop trying after half an hour when Brazil capitulated, and Lavezzi had been one of the most energetic players on the pitch. Making this change now firstly meant not making much use of Lavezzi’s running and secondly opening up the game further so that the rest of the Argentinian team would get worn out much quicker.
After this there was no real tactical changes to either side. They both had their weaknesses, but they made allowances for their strengths, so both coaches were content to leave things as they were as the players tired.Â Rodrigo Palacio was brought on for Higuain, but what he made up for in freshness he lost by being utterly useless, showing some truly terrible touches to waste some great chances behind the German defence, while Fernando Gago and Mario Gotze are different kinds of players to Perez and Miroslav Klose yet neither substitution meant any alterations to the system.
Argentina had probably been the better team over the ninety minutes, however as the game headed into extra time their wearier legs began to show. The defence could no longer support the three attackers doing none of the defensive legwork and Argentina found it increasingly difficult to keep the ball out of their half, although they did manage some good counters. You could deconstruct things more specifically but Gotze’s goal was basically all about the Argentinian tiredness. Schurrle picked up the ball in a fairly innocuous position and ran with it deep into the Argentinian half, crossing for Gotze – it was a matter of stretching an Argentinian defence that was simply physically unable to get across anymore. The greatest example of this was thatÂ Javier Mascherano would have stopped the cross if Schurrle had waited any longer – Mascherano has dug deep at every single point through Argentina’s run to rescue them when his teammates were incapable of doing so, yet he was simply unable to get there in time for Gotze’s goal.
For the first time at the tournament, Argentina had gone behind and they had no way of replying to a German team that rarely impressed but were ultimately the best team on display in Brazil. Messi’s enduring memory will be lining up for a free-kick on the edge of the area like a Nike advert, his one final opportunity to give his country a lifeline sailing harmlessly over the bar.