In the end, it always tends to feel as though the various outcomes at these big tournaments were each completely inevitable—as though no alternative possibilities were ever available for any of the teams involved.
Of course, Brazil was never going to win this World Cup with that squad! Obviously Spain was due for a collapse after so much success! It’s all so simple after the events have unfolded; it’s just that it’s not half as simple beforehand or at the time.
But still, now that it’s over, I can’t believe I didn’t have Germany as winners from the start. I feel ridiculous. I’m thinking there’s no way it should have taken hindsight to step in for me to see how that team’s tournament would unfold.
You see, after even the first week, any routine survey of the teams who might have been contenders in Brazil should have revealed, pretty much every time, that only Germany combined the twin attributes required to win the thing. Only Germany had both the individual quality to allow it to compete for the trophy at all and the cohesiveness as a unit to allow it to compete properly.
Almost everyone else was short in at least one of these two aspects of what makes an acceptable football team.
Brazil didn’t have the players, so there should have been no question of it winning. With Fred or Jo up front, the attacking support required to make up for their lack of goals was going to have to be utterly outstanding—Neymar might have been, but Hulk and Oscar were never likely to be. Oh yeah, there was that defence, too.
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The Netherlands didn’t have the players, either. It had the second youngest squad at the tournament, with a large portion of those involved still operating in the Dutch Eredivisie. If they can stay together as a group and keep getting better individually, then they might be a decent bet next time around. But this time, with only Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben to offer genuine class, even Louis Van Gaal’s masterful run of great decision making wasn’t enough to push that group over the line.
Then there was Argentina. How did it make the final without actually putting in one convincing performance? Well, with respect to these teams, it only had to beat Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria, Switzerland and Belgium to get there. A draw was good enough against Holland, with penalties enough to finish the pretty grim job it performed in killing off that game as a spectacle. It may have had one of best squads going at this tournament, with Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and Javier Mascherano all showing up at the right times. But it only even momentarily came together as a team in the final itself. How many penetrating attacks did it produce per game before? How often did the side that conceded twice to Nigeria look dominant in defence? It didn’t have positive answers to either of these questions and even on its best day it couldn’t overpower Germany.
Of the semifinalists, only Germany “worked” on an individual and collective level (as I’ll explain in a second). And further down the tournament, the same applied.
France fell slightly short on both. Players such as Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba looked as though they will be “there” soon, but aren’t yet, and the regular switching around up front was a de facto concession by Didier Deschamps that he doesn’t know the best combination of his front players. Chile aced it as a collective, but maybe not as individuals—Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal being the exceptions, not the rule. Then Costa Rica was a more extreme example of the same issue. For Colombia, a really neat unit but lacking the injured Radamel Falcao, only James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado stood out as potential world beaters. Meanwhile, Belgium became the new England: a group of excellent Premier League players who look as though they have never played with each other before in their lives.
Conversely, apart from Germany, only Spain seemed to combine having players good enough to win with a decent plan as to how to play. Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Xabi Alonso were surrounded by near equals and tiki taka had proven kind of successful before. Even now that team still fulfills my basic criteria for what it takes to win pretty well; it’s just that everything else outside my criteria went wrong.
Once Spain was gone, Germany made the most sense as winners by a mile. Unlike, say, Argentina, where a number of brilliant attacking options just seemed not to slot together, Germany’s forwards and midfielders were a brilliant fit. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger offered a neat, balanced midfield shield after initial experiments with Phillip Lahm in there were rightly shelved. Toni Kroos eventually stepped up to dictate games in the later rounds. Mesut Ozil was often quiet but usually useful. Thomas Muller was brilliantly direct, and the best player at the tournament, I reckon. It all came together when Mario Goetze scored that goal.
Those good players didn’t have to be forced into an 11: they complimented each other from the start. On top of the given that they’re good enough, they’re smart footballers, well coached and have played together in similar systems regularly. And once Joachim Low stopped messing around with his defence, it showed.
Germany beat Portugal, the United States, France, Brazil and Argentina to win this World Cup, the first for a European country in South America. It managed it because it was the only team anywhere near the final stages of this competition that fulfilled even the two basic criteria for winning a World Cup.
What was everyone else up to? And, more pertinently, how did literally everyone not guess this from the start? The one distraction was maybe the negative tone that surrounded the team following the injury to Marco Reus just before the tournament, but that really shouldn’t have been enough to negate the overwhelming case in its favour. So shame on me.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.