Flags of Germany and Argentina will adorn the Maracana stadium on Sunday evening, with the stage set for two heavyweights of international football to do battle once again for the sport’s greatest prize.
These two sides meet for an unprecedented third time in the final of a World Cup, following consecutive encounters in 1986 – when Argentina claimed a 3-2 victory in Mexico City – and 1990 when Andreas Brehme’s penalty sealed a 1-0 win for the Germans.
Can Germany become the first European side to win the trophy in South America? Or will Argentina add insult to injury and be crowned world champions in the home of their great rivals Brazil?
You shall not pass
Pundits were in agreement from a very early stage in the tournament that – for all the thrilling, attacking football on show – the team which lifts the trophy on Sunday night will have benefited from a strong defence. That prophecy has held true, with the finalists having two of the best defensive records in the competition.
Germany have conceded an average of 0.6 goals per game – the fifth lowest amount – while Argentina’s average of just 0.42 goals per game is the second best record of all the teams in Brazil – they haven’t conceded a goal in the 400 minutes of football they have played since the group stage.
It would be a disservice to Germany to call their semi-final performance clinical – it was so much more – but throughout the tournament they have repeatedly demonstrated their ruthless efficiency when through on goal.
Joachim Low’s side average 12 shots per 90 minutes with a conversion rate of 21% – the third highest in the tournament. Argentina, who on paper boast a glittering attack, have been shooting at an identical rate, but their conversion rate is a lowly 8.2%.
Learning to love set-pieces
Set-pieces have been a reliable source of goals during this World Cup, and these two are among three of the four semi-finalists who have relied heavily on them.
They are both recent converts to the set-piece art; no nation qualifying for the finals did so with a smaller share of goals from set-pieces than these two teams. Brazil (27%),
Germany (29%) and Argentina (38%) have scored over a quarter of their goals from either free-kicks or corners. Die Mannschaft have broken the deadlock in their last two matches with set-pieces: deliveries from Toni Kroos allowed Mat Hummels to head in against France and Thomas Muller to convert a corner against Brazil.
The goals have dried up for Lionel Messi, and consequently Argentina, since the conclusion of the group stage, and his performance against Holland was further testament to how teams are able to lessen his influence on the game.
The Barcelona star touched the ball just three times in the final third against a Holland side reluctant to venture too far forward, and a similarly compact display from Germany could see him frustrated again.
Making the final ball count
While these two teams have controlled the ball well overall, what has separated them has been how effectively they have been able to move it from within the danger area. Germany have completed one of the highest percentages of passes in the final third – 63% – and demonstrated against Brazil just how easily their players can find each other in the danger area.
Argentina, meanwhile, have often struggled to pick each other out among ranks of opposing defenders, managing to complete just 47% of passes in this area – one of the lowest shares at the finals.
Lionel Messi has been dropping deeper as Argentina have progressed through the tournament, but he may have to step further forward and take charge of the final ball if his side are not to falter.
Joachim Low’s Germany took a while to get going in the competition, but when they did they were ruthless, effortlessly shifting through the gears and mercilessly disposing of the tournament hosts.
The same cannot be said of Argentina, who have looked disjointed and short of ideas up front. With the onus now on defence rather than attack for Alejandro Sabella’s side, Lionel Messi has been starved of service.
Argentina may not have conceded in the knockout stages, but they have scored just twice compared to the six they netted in the group phase. Whether they can repel a slick Germany attack and get the best out their diminutive number 10 will likely determine who stands tall in the Maracana.