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Spain dump Germany out of Euro 2024 after winning ‘the real final’

Spain 2-1 Germany (Olmo 51′, Merino 119′ ET | Wirtz 89′)

STUTTGART ARENA — Never write off… oh, the Spanish actually. A knockout tie that ended in abject chaos, with supporters of both teams left yelping and gasping in turn, and seemed to be heading for penalties, was won by opportunism to take advantage of wretched marking. Spain fight on, because and despite themselves and because of Mikel Merino’s majestic header. This may make them stronger. They were plenty strong already.

Rarely has a quarter-final felt more like the showpiece occasion of the tournament. Spain and Germany had done nothing wrong bar falling foul of bad luck, the two strongest teams in the tournament forced to meet two rounds too early. These were the top two goalscorers, the teams with the two highest passing accuracy figures.

Spain and Germany had the general sense of breaking out at the perfect time, a grand reawakening after both finishing second and third in their group behind Japan at the last World Cup. New managers, new moods.

But there are levels. If Germany had largely outplayed Scotland, Hungary and Denmark, Spain had stood on the neck of Italy and Croatia. With Rodri directing the tempo, Dani Carvajal and Marc Cucurella pushing high and the movement of Nico Williams, Lamine Yamal and Dani Olmo all working around Alvaro Morata, Spain were irrepressible in the first quarter of the game.

Germany’s immediate solution seemed to be one of coordinated physical assault. Julian Nagelsmann rejected suggestions before the game that his team would look to kick Yamal out of the game, but he didn’t mention every other player. Toni Kroos was lucky to avoid a booking for kicking Pedri. Antonio Rudiger upped the ante and agriculture on Olmo, Pedri’s replacement.

The combination of explicit physicality and at least one player every four minutes insisting that everyone around him calm down half did the trick. The key with Spain is not to limit their possession or their threat; these are pipe dreams. Instead, you limit the shots to outside the penalty area. If you really must allow them to be taken closer to goal, make sure it’s Morata that attempts them.

This itself presents a secondary problem, though. It’s like using your rucksack as a makeshift umbrella: ultimately you’re staying dry by getting all your stuff wet. Inviting shots from outside the box usually constitutes placing lots of your players inside it. If you’re not careful, five players are on the back foot and unable to react.

Cut to the 51st minute. It should be just another Spanish attack, the ball funnelled out to one of their prodigious wingers as it has been all tournament. But with those five German players flat-footed and waiting for the cross, Olmo was able to run for 15 yards and side foot a shot 15 yards from goal.

So it’s with some irony that Spain made exactly the same mistake. Much gets talked of England’s weakness at sitting back on a narrow lead and inviting pressure, but it’s entirely natural in high-profile matches because teams train to play in this one-dimensional format so often.

Ceding a lead when sitting back is one of those unfair criticisms, in that nobody notices the times it goes right, only the fewer times when it fails. Still, De la Fuente changed the mood at precisely the time when his team was in control of it.

Off came Williams and Yamal and then off came captain Morata too. Expecting a forward line to function when everybody is 20 yards further back is one thing, but doing so with three new players is a tactical aberration.

A Germany supporter reacts at the public football viewing area in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany on July 5, 2024, prior to the UEFA Euro 2024 quarter-final football match between Spain and Germany to be played in Stuttgart. (Photo by RALF HIRSCHBERGER / AFP) (Photo by RALF HIRSCHBERGER/AFP via Getty Images)
A German fan looks dejected at the final whistle (Photo: AFP)

Germany went direct, and direct paid off double. The goal came late, from the Mike Bassett school of attacking strategy.

Joshua Kimmich – little Joshua Kimmich! – won a knockdown and Florian Wirtz stabbed home via the post. Wirtz’s hasty coronation as Germany’s summer king has not gone well. He might have saved his path to the throne.

But Spain kept their heads slightly more than the hosts when it mattered, able to take in breaths in the thick warm air and uber-pressurised environment. They will be sore and they will have injury and suspension absentees. But on the first night of this tournament, we concluded that if you beat the hosts, you’d probably win the thing. When the mania has subsided in Stuttgart, that opinion probably still holds.

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