No absolutes in the game

Angel Di Maria...star of Argentina’s victory against Germany in the football friendly in Dusseldorf.-AP

Playing not on the right wing as he had done in Brazil but in a free floating role, Argentina’s Angel Di Maria simply took the German defence to pieces in the friendly match in Dusseldorf. By Brian Glanville.

Germany 2, Argentina 4.The World Cup final result stood on its head. True, the Germany team in this Dusseldorf friendly lacked three players who had retired from international football, of whom the versatile skipper Philipp Lahm was certainly the most important, not least for his influence as a shrewd captain. But Per Mertesacker has never been the most mobile of centre-backs while striker Miroslav Klose, now in his mid-thirties, was something of a surprise at centre-forward.

There were, in fact, plenty of World Cup winning players, some as substitutes, to make this a match of some significance. What needs emphasising is the fact that Argentina were without their talismanic attacker Lionel Messi, while they were able to deploy Angel Di Maria, just transferred from Real Madrid to Manchester United for a massive fee; who had missed the World Cup final through injury. And what a huge difference he made! Playing not on the right wing as he had done in Brazil but in a free floating role, he simply took the German defence to pieces.

First his superb pass with the outside of his foot gave Sergio Aguero the simplest of chances to put Argentina ahead. Next Erik Lamela volleyed on Di Maria’s long cross into the top corner of the net. The third Argentine goal was scored by Swansea’s new centre-back Federico Fernandez, heading in another cross by Di Maria. And it was 4-0 when, very fittingly, Di Maria scored after a fine solo with an exquisite chip.

For my own part, I felt excessive significance was given to Germany’s success in Brazil, leading to the usual paeans of admiration, the implicit suggestion that some glorious formula for success had been found. That where countries such as England had stagnated, the Germans, having failed in the European finals in Portugal some years back, had, thanks to the co-operation between the Bundesliga and the German Football Federation, worked out elaborate coaching and training plans with the clubs, which produced revolutionary improvement. Hence the 7-1 destruction of Brazil in Belo Horizante, hence the conquest of the World Cup.

Yet, in the Final itself, and indeed in certain preceding games, victory had not been remotely as sweeping. Against Argentina in Rio, they only just managed to produce the winning goal, however spectacular, in extra-time. And that against an Argentina team which couldn’t even use Di Maria, who was injured, and whose salient player, Lionel Messi, who didn’t even play in Dusseldorf, was so plainly not fully fit. As for Argentina themselves their passage to the World Cup Final had been a tortuous and somewhat shaky one.

If, as has been suggested, the Germans had found the magic formula, the system to produce winning teams at the highest level, notionally at least it should make no difference if certain, however, prominent players had dropped out and younger, less-noted or experienced elements had replaced them. But in Dusseldorf, where Germany fielded a 20-year-old new centre-back in Matthias Ginter, embarrassingly out of his depth, it became all too clear that seasoned stars were far from easily replaceable.

FROM LEFT: Germany's Per Mertesacker, assistant coach Hansi Flick, Miroslav Klose and Philipp Lahm were honoured on the occasion of their retirement from the national team, before the friendly match.-AP

Previously in the 2014 Finals, a once-admired, lauded and envied Spanish team, holder of the World Cup, was thrashed 5-1 in its opening match against a Dutch side of which no great things had been expected and which, having lost to Spain in the 2010 World Cup Final, had fared disastrously in the more recent European Championship finals. For several years it was widely believed that the Spaniards, especially the Barcelona club, with its elaborate and comprehensive youth scheme, had found an ideal and potentially irresistible way of playing, call it tiki-taka or what you will.

With such outstanding players as Lionel Messi, Argentinian, but at Barcelona since his adolescent days, Xavi and Iniesta, the Catalan team dominated the European Cup, and Spain, without Messi it is true, but with that other splendid midfield player Alonso, became the envy of the footballing world. Their style based on supreme ball control and a web of intricate short passes, guaranteeing sustained possession and guaranteed too to weary the legs of chasing opponents.

But first Barcelona lost their way in Europe, routed by German opposition, with the pragmatists of Bayern Munich, far too functionally effective for them, then the Spanish national team itself imploded. Humiliated by the Dutch. Whether or not it was possible for either teams, at club or national level, to emulate Barca and their style, it now became irrelevant. Putting it crudely, tiki-taka has ultimately been found out.

And so historically, it has always gone on. Go far back in time to 1925 when, after an almost casual test game at the Arsenal stadium, the English Football Association following the change in the off-side law (whereby only two rather than three players, including the goalkeeper, would put a man onside), half with the old system, half with the new, Arsenal themselves promptly invented the so-called third-back game. With a stopper centre-half — the so-called third-back — flanked by two pivotal full-backs, two so-called wing halves (which actually they weren’t any more) playing behind two inside-forwards. Arsenal’s success prompted almost every Football League club to adopt the same system. Which would last until Brazil, in the 1958 Swedish World Cup, introduced 4-2-4 to the game. In no time at all, the third-back game was obsolete.

In the early 1950s along came the dazzling Hungarians of Puskas, Kocsis and Hidegkuti — the latter functioning as a deep-lying centre-forward behind two spearheads in the other pair. When Hungary thrashed an England team, previously never beaten at home by any foreign side, 6-3 at Wembley in November 1953, it seemed the Hungarians had found all the answers. Both in skills, tactics and training. There was even a book published in England “Learn to play the Hungarian way.” But by the time it came to Sweden in 1958, Hungary were a ponderous team. Puskas and Kocsis were in Spain. Hidegkuti, a veteran. Modest Wales put them out of the World Cup.

The early 1970s saw the thrilling emergence of so-called Total Football in which versatility was the watch-word; attacking defenders, defensive attackers. The Dutch and German international teams, the club teams Ajax and Bayern Munich, the inspiration given by Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer. Generating a thrilling World Cup Final in Munich in 1974. Both Ajax and Bayern won the European Cup three times in a row. But after those six coruscating years, the virtue seemed to go out of the exciting system. It was Northern Island’s clever captain Danny Blanchflower who once said to me about the versatility theory, “I believe in players being different because people are different.” And, all too soon, total Football became a happy memory.

Moral: In football there can be no absolutes.