On the face of it, the World Cup is going swimmingly for those two European footballing powerhouses, Germany and Spain. With a win under their belt after their opening fixtures, both teams look to be on target for a comfortable progression into the knock-out round of the competition.
Although they face one another on Wednesday in what should be the deciding match for the group winner, a final group match against South Africa for Germany and China for Spain would suggest that both of these sides would make it through to the Round of 16.
But scorelines can be deceiving. On Saturday, Germany struggled to a 1-0 win over China in a match that China will have been disappointed to have come out of without at least a point. As Michael Caley’s xG map of the game shows, while Germany maintained pressure throughout the game, they did not translate their control into good chances. China, on the other hand, although they gave up possession and looked to counter-attack their opponents, ended up running out with the best chances in the game.
For Spain, on the other hand, it was not chance creation that held them back but finishing. In light of the fact they produced the second highest xG total from open play, they might have hoped that their 2.4 xG had been converted into more than the singular goal from open play that they managed.
Fortunately for them, the Video Assistant Referee was feeling officious: Jenni Hermoso stroking home the two penalties which proved to be the difference between the two sides.
When it comes to the fixture between these two sides, then, this match-up offers an interesting prospect: a misfiring Spanish team coming up against an unproductive German side. But beyond making the argument that this could be a tense, low-scoring affair, it is very difficult to say much of any certainty.
For instance, it is not entirely clear how each side will set up. The Spanish, who are the more consistent of the two teams in terms of a tactical style, tend to set up in a 4-3-3 which is strongly reminiscent of the 4-3-3 played by the famous Barcelona of Cruyff provenance.
Their coach, Jorge Vilda, was a youth player at Barcelona and has spent his managerial career working with the Spain national team’s youth set-ups. It is hardly surprising that his side are geared to play possession football and utilise the concepts of positional play.
But when it comes to playing stronger sides, Vilda has been known to field a fairly standard flat 4-4-2 or a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, the latter of which he used against both Brazil and England earlier in the year. If the goal of this tactical shift is to create more chances, the pay-off is that his team look more exposed in defence.
Against England, Spain outperformed their opponents per xG 1.84-1.65 but eventually went on to lose. Given that they were producing chances against South Africa, Vilda might be tempted to stick with the 4-3-3.
Jenni Hermoso is fundamental to the way that this Spain team play. Playing possession football and looking to work space for themselves by manipulating opponents, the Spanish rely on Hermoso dropping deep and wide to pick up the ball, creating pockets for her teammates to move into.
Looking at her performance against South Africa at the weekend, this movement out of the box is obvious. But with Hermoso out of the box, it is fundamental that her wide players overlap and replace her to create chances in the box. Against South Africa, she took four of her team’s 20 box shots and created three. This is a good production rate, of course, but facing Germany, those sorts of chances will be harder to come by.
When it comes to the Germans, it is even more difficult to speculate as to what approach they will take. On Saturday, they employed a 4-3-3 formation. But their coach, Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, who has only been in charge since the beginning of the year, has used a different set-up in every game so far: a 4-4-2 diamond vs France, a 3-4-3 vs Sweden, a flat 4-4-2 against Japan and a 4-2-3-1 against Chile.
Within the context of this discussion, the big question is how Dzsenifer Marozsán, their most creative player, will be used. Against China, she was fielded as a right-sided midfielder in a midfield three as you can see from the Twelve player plot above. Often played as a second striker, in a slightly deeper position, Marozsán had a negative impact on lone striker Alexandra Popp’s production.
In 93 minutes, Popp only took two box shots: one of which was blocked and one of which missed. On Wednesday, expect Voss-Tecklenburg to tweak the German team so as to bring Popp and Marozsán closer together in a bid to produce more and better chances.
It would be a brave person who looked to call this game either way. Germany come in as the slight favourites but will need to change things up if they are to compete with a quietly ominous Spain side. Spain might take a lesson from China and sit deep, looking to catch their opponents on the transition. But Jorge Vilda is wedded to his possession football, so this seems unlikely. On the day, it will likely come down to which team is the better at finishing their chances.