As the tournament rages on, we have been fortunate enough to see some of the most shocking upsets of all time. Germany were unceremoniously knocked out of their group, for the first time since 1938, Spain were held to a shootout loss to the Russian hosts in the Round of 16, and Argentina were barely able to scrape past the groups, before being outclassed by a rampaging French outfit. There is a lot of reasons as to why these supposed “big teams” were eliminated, but it isn’t as simple as people may suspect.
Poor Squad Selection
Perhaps the easiest explanation for the bigger sides being eliminated is the evidently poor selection of players that were taken to the tournament. Eyebrows were raised when Leroy Sane for Germany was left out of the final squad, and after watching their shambolic performances in their losses to Mexico and South Korea, it seems as though they could’ve done with a winger who can inject some pace and energy, and create havoc around the opposition’s box.
But Sane is an easy one to name; more glaring omissions from the Argentinians and the Spanish were Mauro Icardi and Alvaro Morata. In Icardi’s case, while he hasn’t done much with his national side, the sheer fact that a striker who scored 29 goals wasn’t even selected to the squad speaks volumes of how the selectors simply got their squad wrong. Instead, they opted with Gonzalo Higuain, who while still good, is steadily declining from his mercurial best. It does speak on how gifted Argentina are with developing attacking players, but in every other national setup, 29 league goals is rewarded with a call-up to the World Cup squad.
As for Alvaro Morata, while the second half to his season with Chelsea ended disappointingly, it’s not as though Spain were spoilt for choice when it came to strikers. Electing to start Diego Costa was an interesting choice, as he hasn’t shown a history to be Spain’s most reliable striker, on top of not necessarily being suited to Spain’s style of play. Iago Aspas and Rodrigo were certainly worthy deputies to Costa, Morata is a proven performer for his country, and would’ve provided the cutting edge that was severely lacking in Spain’s play.
It’s not enough to simply name a good squad, the players have to do the job on the pitch, but that comes down to the coaching as much as anything. In Germany’s case, the midfield was a disaster. Toni Kroos was exposed in every match, and despite his heroics against Sweden, it became evident that he cannot operate in a midfield-two, especially alongside Sami Khedira, who is too old and slow to be able to do the job required of him. It screamed of Joachim Low’s loyalty to the squad that won him the World Cup back in 2014, but a lot of those players are four years older. Oftentimes they would get caught on the counter and leave the defence isolated against faster opposition, as Mexico brutally demonstrated, as Hirving Lozano’s pace in transition was too much for any German to handle. Even Manuel Neuer as the starting goalkeeper was contentious, as he missed almost the entire season for Bayern Munich with a broken foot, whereas Barcelona’s Marc-Andre Ter Stegen had a stellar season. Perhaps the most glaring mistake was Timo Werner as the lone striker. He is an excellent young forward, but he simply didn’t suit the style of Germany as he naturally wanted to drift wide and use his pace, despite the fact that Germany are known for their strikers being big, physical players, that can poach any chance in the box, like Miroslav Klose. With the way they approached each game, and kinds of chances they created, they were crying out for a classic centre forward to get the goals.
Spain’s defeat against Russia is the easiest example as to what they did wrong. Tiki-taka football is long removed from the glorious years of 2008-2012, teams have figured out how to stop the classy midfielders from hogging the ball for 90 minutes. It became possession for possession’s sake, as they simply passed the ball around the midfield, without creating any clear chances. You can argue that Russia set up to defend and parked the bus, but can you blame them? The hosts knew they couldn’t outplay Spain, so did what any smart team would do and shut off any chance for Spain to carve them up. Regardless, Spain still should’ve done better, it’s no use completed over 1000 passes in a game if the only goal you score is a lucky own goal, and 9 shots on target from 25 total shots screams a lack of firepower up front. They were simply too predictable and bland to make any legitimate noise.
Argentina is perhaps the most perplexing case, as after their 3-0 loss to Croatia, there were widespread reports of discourse in the camp, and a near mutiny against their coach, Jorge Sampaoli. They tried a myriad of formations and tactics in all their games, in an effort to support Lionel Messi, but it all failed. The initial pairing of him and Sergio Aguero made little sense, as both are diminutive forwards who like to drop deep and collect the ball in the midfield, it simply didn’t work as a partnership. Argentina’s best success as of recent years, has come when a striker like Higuain is paired with Messi, as Higuain can hold the ball up and finish any chance in the box, which allows Messi to create from behind him. Granted, Higuain isn’t the player he once was, this is where leaving Mauro Icardi hurts them, as he is just the type of player that would have excelled playing ahead of Messi. To top off all their tactical ineptness, was playing Messi as a false-9 against France. This was the role that made Messi a star under Pep Guardiola many years ago, but for that tactic to work, the forward needs the appropriate support from his wingers and the midfield behind him, Leo Messi simply doesn’t have that with Argentina. Too often against the French he would have to come deep and dictate the midfield, leaving them without an option in attack.
It just wasn’t good enough from these teams in this year’s World Cup, and it will take a lot for them to right the wrongs, overhaul their squads and readjust their tactics for 2022.