During an enjoyably acrimonious build-up to the Cape Town quarter-final Diego Maradona asked, in a mock German accent: "What's the matter, Schweinsteiger? Are you nervoushh?" The new Michael Ballack fired off his answer with the most commanding midfield performance of this World Cup.

Ballack, the leader of the German pack since 2002, must have felt his own value plunge at the Green Point Stadium as Bastian Schweinsteiger combined the roles of deep midfield destroyer, smooth passer and jinking winger: the post he filled for the Nationalmannschaft and Bayern Munich before his club called him in from the flank last season to assume more central duties.

"Schweini", as they know him in the land of Joachim Löw's new entertainers, was a marvel in Germany's 4-0 demolition of Maradona's Argentina, whose incoherent midfield were juxtaposed so painfully with the slick workings of Schweinsteiger, right, and Sami Khedira. With Javier Mascherano overrun in the screening role, Schweinsteiger sensed his opportunity to punish El Diego for his pre-match provocation, which Saturday's outstanding player had invited with a succession of swipes at Argentinian culture.

"The Argentinians provoke and are always whingeing to the referee to try and change his opinion," Schweinsteiger had said. "It starts before the match. You see their body language, how they gesticulate, how they try to influence the referee. That is not part of the game. That is a lack of respect. It's their mentality and character and we'll have to adjust. That's what the Argentinians are like in general." After this verbal war on the shore Schweinsteiger turned in a masterful display that explained why Chelsea are reported to be shovelling together £25m to offer to Bayern for his services. Weeks after Ballack's Stamford Bridge contract was not renewed Carlo Ancelotti has identified a new German enforcer. But only agitation on a Bolshevik scale from the player would persuade Bayern, who signed him at 14, to sell the most influential midfielder of this tournament and break up his partnership with Holland's Mark van Bommel.

Along with the thrust and tenacity of Schweinsteiger's play we witnessed a cameo from the old days when he swerved round the entire right side of Maradona's defence to deliver a pass for Arne Friedrich to score his first international goal. This flourish showed him to be capable of impersonating Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane in a single game.

"He was fabulous, I have to say. An extremely hard worker. He ran long distances, was a leader, the head of the whole set-up," said Löw, the Germany coach. "He was the linchpin in every attack we had. The way he set up Friedrich was second to none. You couldn't do that better, going through three or four players then feigning a pass and cutting out their defenders. A magnificent performance."

While this World Cup has cast shadow across its most aristocratic names – Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Fernando Torres – Schweinsteiger is foremost among a group who have used the grandest stage to elevate their own standing in mid-career. Still only 25 he already has 78 caps. His 50th came at 23. But there were undulations along the way. He was the star of Germany's third-place play-off victory over Portugal at the 2006 World Cup but lost his place on the left to Lukas Podolski at Euro 2008 before returning to flay Portugal again with a goal and assists for Ballack and Miroslav Klose.

In Löw's youthful constellation Germany have devised a system that allows Schweinsteiger's new attributes to glow. The two-man defensive midfield partnership might not seem the most enthralling spectacle but when it works this well it liberates the four most advanced players to attack. Among English club football's best examples would be Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit (Arsenal) and Mascherano and Xabi Alonso (Liverpool).

To play two lumpen tacklers in those positions is anachronistic. But blessed is the coach who can employ two defensively strong ball players, as Löw can. Schweinsteiger worked on his tackling at Bayern to add the final virtue to his game and his presence is a gift to Khedira, 23, who is learning his business next to a more experienced and combative pro. This radiant German set-up was not properly tested by England but withstood a long spell of Argentinian pressure in mid-game before Klose and Friedrich scored within six minutes to close the deal. In their planning room Spain will be searching for a formula that negates the flashing German counterattack and disrupts the central defensive block of four that blanked out Carlos Tevez and Messi.

"We did extremely well tactically and scored whenever we had an opportunity," Schweinsteiger said. "Argentina are one of the great teams, so it's awesome to beat them, but now we must look to the semi-final. I'm happy with my own performance but I can only be good if the team are good. Everyone contributed. This is far from easy. We need a great deal of team spirit, but that's what we have. We all enjoy playing in this team."

Even before Paraguay had been knocked out in the day's other quarter-final Schweinsteiger said: "I'd rather have Spain, to be honest. They're also a top favourite but we lost 1-0 to them two years ago [in the final of Euro 2008] and I'd like to take on the strongest." These are not the thoughts of a nervoushh man.