Spain 1-1 Germany: Substitute attackers serve the narrative
Everyone thirstily highlighted this game as the World Cup groups were drawn, and Germany’s seismic loss to Japan in their first game only added to the interest (and pressure on the Germans) ahead of this European heavyweight showdown. Spain scored a paltry eight goals in their successful but dismal 2010 World Cup campaign, but came into this match just one short of their total after a single game in 2022. This is an expansive and developing Spain team, but would they be able to show that it on the biggest stage? As in late November 2022 means Al Bayt Stadium, Qatar.
Tournament specialist Dani Olmo got the ball rolling in the seventh minute when he struck a shot on target, only to be denied by a combination of Manuel Neuer’s left hand and the crossbar. It came after a sequence of 35 passes from Olmo’s team and a move more Spanish can hardly be imagined, even by researchers.
Germany were sporadically threatening, but Spain’s pressure saw them operate on a razor’s edge of functionality for most of the first half. The likes of Neuer and Antonio Rüdiger are not the type of players to panic – and they didn’t – but they were forced to throw the ball unorthodoxly on more than one occasion as Spain switched the ball from flank to flank. Further on, Rüdiger attempted a 35-yarder that would have ended up in the Persian Gulf had there not been a stadium in the way. He can’t be blamed: this Spain gets into your head and hacks your decision-making processes.
Rüdiger had a much better effort on goal in the 40th minute, heading the ball firmly into the Spanish net from a free kick. It was a decisive finish, but it was partly because the Real Madrid man had gone too early, as VAR confirmed quickly and easily. The hated offside law of 1925 rears its modern head again before World War II. Rüdiger even found time for another shot as the half ended, hitting a Marco Van Basten-esque volley from the right of the penalty area. Two (well, maybe one and a half) legitimate tries and a disallowed goal made Rüdiger the surprisingly prominent striker in the first half.
It was 47 pleasant minutes of probing, prodding and special experimentation from two teams operating at a very high level. Like a knockout match in the group stage, which is basically what it was. Spain finished the half with 68% possession, David Raum finished with the most interceptions.
Germany had the first shot in the second half, after a loose pass from goalkeeper Unai Simon led to Joshua Kimmich curling an effort towards goal, allowing Simon to equalise. A striker in that position could have made much more of the opportunity, but Germany’s team is light on these options, as we know. Jamal Musiala continued to impress, his close control and Spain’s methods of dealing provided Germany with a few set pieces, which they continued to squander.
Spain had sought to address their own lack of clean strike options by bringing on Álvaro Morata and, surprisingly, he opened the scoring in the 62nd minute, expertly finishing a Jordi Alba delivery with a beautiful finish. It was just the sixth time in World Cup history that a player has scored as a substitute in consecutive matches, ensuring Germany’s pursuit of a first clean sheet in 2022 will continue. Morata has now scored eight goals in the EC and World Cup, at least twice as many as any other player for Spain since 2016. He is better than you think he is.
Jamal Musiala, who was just seven when Spain won the 2010 World Cup, continued to carry most of Germany’s threat. Within 42 seconds he created a chance for substitute Niclas Füllkrug before having a clear opportunity himself, forcing Unai Simon into another decent save.
In a world of volatile cheats and drifting 10s, this World Cup reminds us that actual centre-forwards are still quite useful. Brazil have Richarlison up top, a man who has been around the Premier League for years, while Spain have looked better in both games when Morata has come on. France have enjoyed another vintage performance from Olivier Giroud and Germany saved themselves in this game via some muscular action from Füllkrug, a Bundesliga journeyman making just his fourth appearance for his country. It was the first World Cup goal by a German substitute since Mario Götze in 2014, and while not as iconic a contribution, it’s almost as important as it means Germany still have a chance of getting through a group stage that has bothered them so far. Füllkrug had four touches in the box in his brief cameo, more than any other German player in this game and four more than Thomas Müller.
The lesson is clear: beat the big man and you still have a chance.