Spain set to pose unpredictable threat as Germany face crucial World Cup test

An elastic approach to positioning and selection makes La Roja a difficult team to prepare for but Hansi Flick's side must avoid defeat to keep campaign alive

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

At their remote training headquarters in the north of the Qatar peninsula, a range of tricky questions have kept Germany, the 2014 world champions, busy over the last four days.

Quite apart from asking themselves how they let a position of dominance, and a 1-0 half-time lead, turn into defeat against Japan in their opening fixture, they had to ponder how best to combat the least predictable set of threats at this World Cup - Spain’s.

Lose on Sunday evening against the Spanish and Germany face, for the second World Cup in a row, an abrupt group-stage exit. Repeat the scoreline from the last time these storied football countries met - a 6-0 Spain win in the Uefa Nations League in 2020 - and the humiliation would become truly historic.

The difficulty for Germany coach Hansi Flick, as he persuades his players that the 6-0 was a freak result, is that, with the Spain of Luis Enrique, it was not so freakish. They periodically inflict mammoth scorelines, and second-guessing which individuals might lead these routs is devilishly hard.

As the German squad, stunned by Wednesday’s Japanese comeback, headed back to their Al Shamal base, they were obliged to watch, through the journey, the many highlights of Spain’s masterly performance later in the day: the nimble turns of Dani Olmo, Ferran Torres and Alvaro Morata for goals one, four and seven against an overwhelmed Costa Rica; the clean finishing of Marco Asensio, Gavi and Carlos Soler for the second, fifth and sixth goals.

There were six different scorers in all, a celebration of what Enrique calls the “the associative way we get our goals”. It is trademark of his tenure and perhaps owes something to his own playing past. He is a former Spain international, whose career spread across Real Madrid and Barcelona and was notable for its flexibility. He could lead the attack, galvanise midfield, or even fill in at full-back.

For the Spain he manages, goals come from all over the pitch. In his 41 matches in charge of Spain, Luis Enrique has seen 28 different goalscorers.

Spain v Costa Rica player ratings

That fact, and the elastic approach to positioning and selection that underpins it, poses difficulties for Flick. “I probably won’t field the same starting XI for Germany,” teased Luis Enrique, before acknowledging that certain habits are utterly ingrained. Probably became definitely. “I’ll certainly make changes.” He always does, from one game to the next.

It helps every member of the squad feel included, readied for opportunity. It keeps the opposition on their toes. Nor will studying club form provide Germany’s technical staff with much insight into who might be the chief Spanish threats.

Enrique’s chosen front three against Costa Rica were: Olmo, who has spent much of the last two months recovering from ligament problems and scored just once for RB Leipzig this term; Torres, who is used off the bench more often than in the starting line-up at Barcelona; and Asensio, who has been in Real Madrid’s starting line-up for only one Liga fixture in 2022-23.

Each of those are fully tuned in to Enrique’s mantra: “It’s far more important what players do for me than what they do for their clubs.” David de Gea and Kepa Arrizabalaga have learned that the hard way. Both have starred in goal for their high-pressure employers, Manchester United and Chelsea, since August. Luis Enrique preferred to take Robert Sanchez and David Raya, of lower-profile Premier League clubs Brighton and Brentford, to Qatar in support of his first-choice gloveman, Unai Simon.

Germany v Japan player ratings

Against Costa Rica, the Manchester City midfielder Rodri started at centre back, another hard-to-foresee quirk of selection. Alex Balde came on at left-back, to good effect, for his first international cap, one of three Barcelona teenagers - Gavi is 18, Pedri turned 20 on Thursday - used by a coach who chose not to bring Sergio Ramos - 36 years old, 180 caps - or Thiago Alcantara - 46 caps, 11 league titles - to the adventure in the Gulf.

The Thiago exclusion was met with raised eyebrows at Liverpool, his current club, and at Bayern Munich, where he enjoyed huge success, and won the European Champions League under Flick. The several Bayern men in Germany’s squad recall Thiago being trusted as much as anybody to keep possession, find his target as a passer over short range and long.

Spain, under Luis Enrique - the coach who, says Asensio, is “searching for perfection” - evidently have no need for Thiago. Quite apart from the seven goals in their opening match, they set fresh statistical landmarks for combination play. They racked up 976 accurate passes. Germany’s challenge is not only to seize and clutch on to a lifeline, but, first, to get hold of the ball for long enough to save their World Cup.

Updated: November 27, 2022, 4:46 AM