Germany had 65 per cent possession, 325 more successful passes, covered more distance than France, yet they lost 0-2. In the aftermath of the World Champions' loss in the semifinals of the European Championship on Thursday, many are wondering whether this was the death blow possession football had coming its way.
There definitely is a pattern. Atletico Madrid, the ultimate anti-thesis to keep-the-ball-and-you-will-win, defeated Barcelona and Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich on their way to the final of the Champions League. Leicester City won the Premier League. Then in the Euro, Spain's long reign ended with a loss to a defensively brilliant Italy. And now Germany are back home.
POSSESSION STILL IN VOGUE
So, is it really the end of possession football? Would the likes of Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Joachim Loew and Mauricio Pochettino throw in the towel and go the Italian way? A short answer, no. First, possession football did not 'die' with the loss of Germany. It died before that, with the emergence of Atletico Madrid and the loss Spain suffered in the World Cup. But then, it also re-emerged, through Germany and Bayern Munich. Germany's game plan isn't the same as Spain's, and Bayern's isn't a carbon copy of Barcelona's.
What Bayern offered the world was an evolution of the Barcelona model. It was sharper, with Robert Lewandowski leading the line, and a little more direct, with Jerome Boateng and David Alaba floating in long diagonal balls, and faster, with the legs of Douglas Costa. Loew's Germany is closer to Bayern than the Spanish model, albeit with a significant difference; they do not have Lewandowski. That, and of course the school-boy error by Bastian Schweinsteiger, ultimately caused Germany's fall.
THE MISSING LINK
Germany, against France, did not have a man to reflect that change. Mario Gomez is no Lewandowski but had offered strength up front in the previous games, but his absence affected Germany more than the suspension of Mats Hummels in defence and the injured absence of Sami Khedira in the midfield. Also, France's win over Germany is less of a tactical victory than making the most of silly errors.
Of course, there is no denying that Atletico coach Diego Simeone has found a way to defeat even the Bayern model. The Argentine is, without a doubt, the best manager and tactical genius in football right now. And his brand of football is the new heavyweight champion of tactical battle. That, however, does not have to mark the end of the other. Football as we have seen goes through cycles. Barcelona or Spain did not invent the art of one-twos and intricate passing; Austria in 1930s, Hungary in 50s, the Dutch in 70s have all exhibited their version of possession game. In between those eras were the directness of English, the defensive resoluteness of the Italians, and the individual brilliance of South American teams.
The likes of Guardiola will not abandon their urge to retain possession, but thanks to Simeone, Antonio Conte and others, they now have to evolve. They have to go back to the drawing board and come up with a smarter plan. Till then, enjoy the beauty of the counter-attacking game.