Updated: Jun 30, 2018
Group F proved that it's hard to shake preconceived notions, but Low, Muller and Germany come into clear focus in the finale.
I highly recommend Marzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald’s Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, a highly readable introduction to the growing scientific literature of implicit bias; it focuses mostly on race and gender, with the Project Implicit tests (which you can take here; I recommend it). But today it makes me think about how much implicit bias impacts everything we see. It makes us more likely to disregard bright observations of people who annoy us, or more readily dismiss or simply not see flaws in those we admire. Surely it makes a given Picasso seem better than it is, a beloved director’s lemon of a movie seem like maybe we should see it again, see how it grows on us. The list surely goes on and on, and today was one of those days that we realize that we saw it all--the whole thing--from the very first glance, but we refused to believe our eyes, because it didn’t fit what we thought to be true: surely, Germany can’t really be this bad, today’s version of “surely Argentina aren’t really that disorganized, right?" The truth was simply hidden by the blinders of prior greatness (or in Argentina's case, the most basic assumptions about a reasonably proper men's league side.
There’s a moment at, 24 minutes into S. Korea-Germany, that summed up the phenomenon for me. The ball is zipped all over the pitch at a great clip, ending with a dangerous bent ball that the Germans barely defend, and a dangerous striker unfortunately shanks his shot high. If I showed you the play, all quick, two-touch balls with great pace and accuracy, with uniforms and faces blocked out, you’d say, “Ah, the German game, a thing of beauty.” But it was Korea. We saw the actual Germany, right in front of our eyes the whole time, and we knew it wasn’t good. At all. But it was Germany. Neuer! Kroos! Hummels! And...well, hmmm, maybe not as world-class, star-studded as memory suggests. You figure there’s another gear, a tweak, the answer on the bench. But Germany played three extremely similar unconvincing games. It should be said that all three of their opponents played extraordinarily well, at peak or near-peak performance, with each running furiously to defend and to attack, and showing enormous confidence. All three goalkeepers came up big, with the wispy K-Pop Sensation-cum-goalkeeper Cho superb today. Germany ran into three go-for-broke teams that laid it all on the line. But still: every flaw was present at the creation.
Not that Germany weren’t a whisker away. Werner dug furiously and Brandt--when finally introduced--was again venomous, drawing an excellent save. Hummels had three that will haunt. Gomez...well, classic Gomez, a bullet header at the only place where it can be saved---right at the keeper--and then whiffing at the near post. Kroos and Reus had plenty of long opportunities, low odds but the kind they are capable of pulling off. Hummels and the impressive Sule made enough of the requisite 3 v. 2 stops. But still--the problems were there all along, in broad daylight. Hummels himself noted that they hadn’t played a good game since “autumn of 2017.” Here’s what I saw from the outset, but refused to believe would not be fixed well enough to at least get out of the group.
Germany got almost nothing from its flanks. Kimmich almost never beat his man to the line, and other than Werner (who supplied Reus’s goal against Sweden), they were anemic on the wing. Draxler, Muller, and Goretzka all flubbed. I figured that Low must have something special in Brandt when he chose him over Sane, and Brandt didn’t prove him wrong in the limited chances that he got. But he’s also one more inverted winger, a positioning that I think we’ve become all too enamored with, whereas Sane can take you either way, much harder to defend. A Germany with Sane and Brandt on the wings would have brought something quite different. As it was, teams were able to stack eight or more behind the ball and not even have to defend the deep/wide areas in many cases.
Maybe that works if you play the ball to the feet of Diego Costa/Lukaku type pivot and tika taka your way through with nimble touches and sudden, darting runs. We never saw these runs, because the ball was almost never played into a central striker’s feet.
No left back of note. This was noted before the Cup in one preview that I’d read, and proved not only utterly true, but ultimately telling. If Hector’s going to spend lots of time in the opposition penalty box, why not play somebody who’s actually good at doing that? No crosses, no cunning, no speed, no aerial threat, and not convincing defense, either. This led to another problem: In order to countenance Hector’s runs forward (and inside at that), Kroos was found shoring up the back line when they really needed a goal.
The veteran German side misunderstood its lack of intensity for patience and calm. They became victims of past success, mentally. No one’s repeated since Brazil in 1962, and they were light years better than the competition at that point. There has to be a relentless hunger, and many times that comes from getting close, having your heart ripped out, and then growing a bigger one. Certainly Germany brought that with them from 2010 to 2014. This vintage, on the other hand, was a team that knew too little pain.
Finally, my main truth that I have carried into this tournament: old teams underperform. It crushed the German midfield, who struggled with the pace of every team that it went up against. Muller and Khedira were a far cry from what they needed, but they had so much in the bank already with Low. Ozil was there with all his enigmatic elements, a few great balls (the one to Hummels should have put them back in business), but he just couldn’t drive the purported precision automobile when given the key. Low was stuck in soccer's "Innovators Dilemma": He had to cannibalize his old team but could not (just as we're seeing with Mascherano now, and have seen with Rooney, Gerrard, and Beckham over the years).
South Korea go out in a blaze of glory, David slaying Goliath. They ran with utter fierceness, fouled a bunch, flopped a bunch, but mainly impressed by the great work rate and extremely tidy, quick decisions by the midfielders, particularly the ones close to the defense. Germany couldn’t make them cough it up, and they often sprung the front men for counters; had they had a modicum of calm in the second half, at least two golden chances should have been finished. For some reason my Fox Sports seems not to be HD and I had a hard time picking up shirt numbers, but the middle of the pitch simply outplayed the Germans. The backline scrambled and Cho, the keeper, was fantastic. What a confident and competent young fellow.
Meanwhile, Mexico are in after an absolute dusting by a Sweden that calls for some reappraisal. While Mexico weren’t great--and the continued lack of anything from Layun is troubling--I’d put this more on Sweden’s success than Mexico’s failings. The only weakness of note for me was the one that often bites Mexico--getting into a hole and then losing one’s center. Chicharito and Guardado, who should be all business, were too focused on the refereeing, and they really came apart at the seams. We learned, thus, this is a team that once down is unlikely to recover against a better team, a long-term weakness.
Sweden...welcome, more or less, to Stoke City 3.0, complete with Sunderland retread Seb Larssen. The front players, other than Forsberg, are just pure industry, big strapping lads who seem to have come out of Army Ranger training. They fought for everything and showed enough touch to punish every team they’ve met. Clearly they relish free kicks, long throws, the works. Forsberg--though he had a shot at 4 goals by my count and registered none--has the ability to change a game with his pace and touch, so he’s that one “special” player that a team must possess to have a fighting chance. But the defenders are another story--this has been the best backline of the tournament. Other than a squibbed finish from Reus, they’ve given up nothing from regular play, and not because of an insanely hot keeper (though Olsson's played quite well). Lindelof we know from Man U., where he has proven solid. Granqvist, the 6’4” wrecking ball, captains the upstart Krasnodar side in the Russian League. Never heard of them, you say? They only became a professional side in 2008, courtesy of a Russian grocery store magnate. He’s been an absolute horse, and thumped his penalty by Ochoa, both goals thus scored by defenders (and the third, if you count the unfortunate Alvarez own goal).The left back, Werder Bremen’s Augustinsson, was the difference today, obliterating Layun in all manners, while Celtic’s Lustig held Chucky in check. I won’t pretend it’s pretty or that I fancy it--and hence my happiness at Kroos’s resuscitory strike--but they’ve put the shackles on a bunch of German stars and two other ssets of attacking players that have caused problems for others. Tough sons-of-guns. They haven’t, by the way, played a minute from behind (they weren’t behind for a whole minute against Germany). I suspect they’d be far, far less in such circumstances.
For the shellacking, Mexico go from the party that everyone wants to get invited to (the right side of the bracket) to Brasil, and then Belgium, most likely. A big let up in the search for the modern El Cibola, the mythical 5th game.
Thanks for reading, and share if you deem worthy. More on Group E when I come back from a walk.