Messi’s moment never came. Or perhaps, it came and went when he uncharacteristically scuffed his chance wide of Neuer’s goal.
In a strange match that held our attention more for the grandeur of the moment than for the actual proceedings that played out on the pitch (at least in the second half anyway), Argentina are surely ruing their missed chances while Germany celebrating their one moment of undebatable quality.
In a tactical sense, Jogi Loew and Alejandro Sabella had their hands at least a bit tied, as injuries (or fitness issues) to key players surely played a part. (Yes, I saved you all the Schuerrle pun that was at my disposable – consider yourselves lucky. Or blessed. Or both.) Angel Di Maria was not enough to play a part; Sami Khedira, who proved such a pivotal player in a pressing sense in Germany’s 7-1 dismantling of Brazil in the semi, was ruled out just moments before the match began; Ezequiel Lavezzi, who was surely Argentina’s best attacking player in the first half, was visibly struggling to catch his breath late in the first half before being replaced at halftime by the ineffective (and still clearly unfit) Aguero; and of course, Messi seemed to aggravate his hamstring midway through the second half.
In an interesting – and ultimately, correct – decision, Loew played Khedira’s replacement , Christoph Kramer, in a midfield three above Bastian Schweinsteiger and alongside Toni Kroos, allowing Schweinsteiger to sit deep and control Germany’s possession and attacking tempo. Even after Kramer’s exit (yet another injury that affected tactics), Ozil came inside and Germany remained in a similar 4-3-3, albeit with a more fluent attacking shape.
With Phillip Lahm again at right-back, I thought Sabella may have been better suited playing Lavezzi on Argentina’s left flank, so as to pin back the German right-back while leaving Benedikt Hoewedes more space on the left – as it was, Lavezzi tormented Germany’s left-back (and Hummels for that matter), dribbling at will and generally providing Argentina’s attacking impetus going forward. As a result, Messi was free to sit higher up the pitch, waiting for the ball to come to him rather than him going to find it – something that became a huge issue in the second half.
For Germany, it was Schweinsteiger who set the tempo (and tackled and battled and bled) and Lahm who built the play – even at right-back, Lahm’s presence is felt in Germany’s early buildup, as he led all German passers with 92 completed passes (out of an attempted 104) with 70 of those going to Oezil (24), Schweinsteiger (23) and Boateng (23). Meanwhile, Kroos, Oezil, Mueller, and Schuerrle played the more intricate and creative passing moves further up the pitch. Mueller, in typical Mueller fashion, found and/or created space early and often, but ultimately failed to make it matter.
Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia dealt well with Kroos, who likely had his quietest match of the tournament. But as we now know, Germany’s success this World Cup never came in the form of one single superstar.
At the back, it was the ex-City centre-back, Jerome Boateng, who put in the performance of his surprisingly star-studded young career. (No, seriously: look at what Boateng’s already accomplished at age 25.) While Hummels had a shocker, Boateng was immense, successfully completing all six of his attempted tackles – two of which occurred in Argentina’s half.
The second half saw Aguero on for Lavezzi, shifting Argentina from a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 into a very narrow 4-3-1-2. Had Aguero been fit or effective, it might have been a useful change, but as he was (which, I’m guessing was around 50-60% fit), the only thing he was really good for was knocking into people with late challenges and going into headers with a WWE-like flying elbow. What Sabella didn’t account for was how much deeper Messi would have to drop to pick up possession – something that then forced him to dribble through two and even three lines of the German defence to get into dangerous positions.
Two strikers and Messi means there wasn’t a dynamic enough midfield to push the ball forward. And that began to bog down each individual Argentine attack as the match wore on.
In 2010, it was Maradona’s absurdly attacking philosophy that ultimately cost Argentina. In 2014, it was exactly the opposite: without Di Maria’s creativity and attacking impetus, the attacking burden fell to Messi, who in the end wasn’t able to carry a strikeforce that combined for a measly one goal in seven matches. Sabella’s defensive stability carried Argentina to within eight minutes of penalties, but ultimately it was a system that asked too much of the world’s best player.