Armchair Pundit

Europe 3, South America 0

Alex Chick

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Last Sunday the Observer published a column by Paul Wilson describing South America's vast superiority over Europe at this World Cup.

The piece, backed up by a raft of statistics, contained the following quotes:

"The story of this World Cup is turning out to be that few teams, even central American ones, are capable of overcoming South American opponents."

"Maradona looks born to the role (of Argentina coach)."

"Some of the grandest names in Europe, Spain apart, are responsible for some of the most constipated football."

"A South American team will win the World Cup by the end of next month."

I'm not trying to mock Wilson's article, which was well-argued, persuasive and an accurate reflection of the World Cup's first fortnight (and he's right that it's a scandal Africa and South America get the same number of teams).

I'm just pointing out how quickly things change.

South Americans went unbeaten in their first 14 games at the tournament, but lost three out of four in the quarter-finals and were a wayward Asamoah Gyan penalty away from getting whitewashed.

Meanwhile, Europe's big beasts woke up at crunch time - Holland beat Brazil, Germany annihilated Argentina and Spain pipped Paraguay. Old World three, New World nil.

We should not read too much into this reversal of continental fortunes. The progress of Holland, Germany and Spain does not make France, Italy and England any less abject.

And it does not change the fact that only six of 13 European sides were good enough to escape the group stage, whereas all five South American teams went through.

It is also instructive to see the make-up of the European semi-finalists. All three teams are small, dynamic and attacking. They prize technical ability over physical strength.

The big lumbering dinosaurs who played typically European football are back at home conducting painful and fruitless inquests.

Wilson may be right that the South American style is supreme - it's just that it is being played best by teams from another continent.

Germany are unquestionably the tournament's great entertainers. Yes, Germany. They have hit four goals three times - against one poor team, one average team (England and Australia can fight over which is which) and one very good team.

And it is especially exciting that their commitment to attack should make the semi-final against Spain one to savour.

In their five games so far, all but one of Spain's opponents made it their number one priority to protect their goal (Chile are the only team to actually have a go).

The European champions have been largely stifled by negativity, relying on the magnificent finishing of David Villa to get them through.

But Germany... they will be organised, they will have a plan, but they will try to score goals. Which means we may see more of that sublime Spanish midfield at its best. Xavi and Iniesta versus Ozil and Schweinsteiger? Yes please.

When these teams met in the Euro 2008 final, Germany were the underdogs who had snuck in, and they duly lost 1-0.

This time they are the team in form and, although Spain are very marginal favourites, it would not be surprising to see a run of bets on the Germans make them go into the game dead even.

- - -

So, how do the Germans do it? After the Argentina game skipper Philipp Lahm made it sound painfully obvious.

"A better team beats better players," he said, going on to explain that Argentina's best players are all in the middle so they made sure the ball stayed in wide areas.

Simple words, but a 4-0 scoreline certainly lends them credibility.

Joachim Loew has looked at the talent at his disposal, and built a system that suits it.

Again, it sounds simple, but successive England coaches have just taken their 11 best players and shoehorned them into a 4-4-2.

After England lost to Germany, everyone decided we had to play the same 4-2-3-1 system as them.

But nobody stopped to think whether Joe Cole has the pace to counter-attack like Lukas Podolski (no), whether Aaron Lennon poses the same goal threat as Thomas Mueller (no) or whether Steven Gerrard has the same speed of thought and foot as Mesut Ozil (double no).

Fabio Capello's decision to stick with 4-4-2 was unpopular but understandable. It's no good apeing successful teams when you have a totally different set of skills. And if he had wanted flying wingers who could cut inside and shoot he would have taken Adam Johnson and Ashley Young to South Africa.

Miroslav Klose is the perfect embodiment of the German system. Is he a great player? No. He's just a good, solid centre-forward who knows what his job is - to score goals.

And how he has done that. Fifty-two in 100 caps including 14 at the World Cup, more than anyone except Gerd Mueller and Ronaldo. In the next week he could become the first man to win the Golden Boot twice.

How? Because the Germans know how to play to a system. And Klose is the guy who knocks the ball in the net.

It is simultaneously dispiriting and encouraging for English fans. Dispiriting to see how far ahead of us Germany are, how they bring their U21 players through and how they have a team that could dominate for years.

Encouraging to see that IF you get all of that right, you don't need a team of superstars to succeed. Yes there are some top class individuals in Lahm, Ozil and Schweinsteiger, but most of the rest are just good players performing roles that suit them perfectly.

And when a centre-forward who is not much better than Darren Bent has a shot at becoming the top scorer in World Cup history, you know Lahm is right.

A better team beats better players.

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