Germany have built themselves in Spain’s image

The clash between Germany and Spain in the Euro 2024 quarterfinals on Friday could easily be the final of the entire competition. Both national teams have so far impressed with their sophisticated and similar brand of possession football. That’s no coincidence.

When the two nations met in the Euro 2008 final, Germany and Spain were worlds apart, but 16 years later the two have become philosophical siblings — thanks in part to Spain’s influence on German football.

That first became evident at the 2010 World Cup when Joachim Löw’s mildly revamped squad featuring the likes of Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos looked less and less like the teams of old. Whereas previously the primary focus had been on athleticism and stability, Germany began to play a dominant possession style, until they met Spain in the semifinals and were pinned in their own half for most of the game, eventually losing 1-0 to the eventual winners.

To some extent, that Germany team was reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side of a similar vintage. The Catalan coach’s influence on Germany grew even more when he took over at Bayern Munich in 2013.

Guardiola wasn’t the only Spaniard leaving his mark in the Bundesliga, though. Just two months before he arrived in Munich, Bayern won the Champions League, beating domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund to the continental crown at Wembley. A major difference to the “Finale dahoam” (“final at home”) in Munich’s Allianz Arena a year earlier, when Bayern had failed to beat Chelsea, was Javi Martínez. The Basque midfielder provided the sort of unique defensive stability that the Bavarians had previously lacked. Martínez would continue to play an important role after the 2013 final, although Guardiola often deployed him in central defense rather than central midfield.

Upon his arrival, Guardiola intended to make a few tactical adjustments compared to predecessor Jupp Heynckes; not as a rejection of Heynckes’s work, but because Guardiola recognised that Bayern needed new impetus in order to remain competitive against top-tier competition on the European stage. One player Guardiola brought with him to Munich was Thiago Alcantara, who had largely been unable to step out of the shadow of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi but seemed ready to leave his mark on the top level of European football.

Only frequent injury woes prevented Thiago from having an even more distinct influence on Bayern’s game, but when he was fit, the creative mastermind was the one directing Bayern’s attacking play. Sadly for Thiago, his crowning achievement came only shortly before he left Munich. In the 2020 Champions League knockout round, which predominantly took place in a bubble due to the coronavirus pandemic, he led Bayern to yet another European trophy. At the end of his tenure, the Italy-born Spain international was almost unanimously admired by fans and pundits.

In the meantime, Germany had won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, managing to combine fluid positional play with extra protection behind the ball in attack. Subsequently, the national team leaned further and further into Guardiola’s ideas. However, Germany didn’t consistently possess the player profiles to execute the style perfectly.

In his role at Manchester City now, Guardiola has adapted his tactical approach to a certain extent in recent years, with the perennial Premier League champions making significant use of low crosses into the box and a traditional target player up front. Last season, the manager even showed signs of utilising more risk-averse football, fielding half a dozen defensive-minded players in some games.

Germany, however, never quite found the right balance under Löw. Current coach Julian Nagelsmann has been more successful in that endeavour, even if his team appeared to be somewhat careless in terms of weighing up defensive risks in favour of attacking prowess at the beginning of the Euros.

Most recently, however, another Spaniard has left his fingerprints all over the Bundesliga, as Xabi Alonso redefined the style of Bayer Leverkusen and thereby dethroning Bayern with patient passing and positionally innovative football. It seems as if Alonso, who as a player spent two years under Guardiola at Bayern, is following in his former boss’ footsteps. He is doing so with his own concepts and style, which is also geared toward dominance, but is by no means a carbon copy of the positional play perfected at Barcelona.

Spain, who have emerged as the strongest side at this year’s Euros, are as dominant in and relentless out of possession as previous Spanish teams because they not only control the ball but also the entire pitch thanks to a strong midfield core. Rodri, in particular, as the backbone behind Spain’s attacking-minded players, has been a key figure in terms of defensive coverage and counter-pressing.

However, unlike Alonso’s Leverkusen, Spain primarily create goal-scoring opportunities through their incredibly technical and intuitive one-on-one players on both wings: Nico Williams and Lamine Yamal. Germany rely more on their attacking midfielders, especially Jamal Musiala, who are technical marvels in narrow areas between the opposition’s lines.

Both nations are quite similar in how they approach games and the way in which they want to win them. Much has changed in Germany in the past 16 years.