Serbia 1-0 Germany: red card changes the game

June 18, 2010

A game that was shaping up to be an interesting battle until Miroslav Klose’s unnecessary sending-off towards the end of the first half. Serbia won but failed to impress, whilst Germany had the better of the second half despite their numerical disadvantage.

Germany predictably kept the same eleven which thrashed Australia 4-0 in the first game, and they set out in the same 4-2-3-1 system.

Serbia made three changes from their opening day loss to Ghana. Neven Subotic for the suspended Aleksandar Lukovic was expected, whilst Zdravko Kuzmanovic replacing Nenan Milijas was a slight surprise in the centre of midfield. Marko Pantelic, anonymous in the first game, was dropped with Milos Ninkovic coming in.

This meant a change of shape for Serbia – the 4-4-2 was shelved in favour of a system that could be described as 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 amongst others, but was broadly a 4-5-1. Dejan Stankovic sat deepest on Mesut Ozil, whilst the two other central midfielders essentially played as carrileros. This change in shape made the decision to bring in Kuzmanovic more understandable, as he is a better user of the ball than Milijas.

Serbia shut out Germany

Although they never really showed attacking quality themselves, the change in shape worked well for Serbia. When Germany played Australia, they prospered in midfield because they had an extra man in that position – Ozil, generally – and so dominated possession and played their way around the Australians easily. It would have been the same situation had Serbia maintained their 4-4-2 from the first game, especially as they didn’t really play a true holding player in that system. But it was 3 v 3 in the centre of midfield, and Ozil was far quieter today.

Serbia also pressed more effectively than Australia. Pim Verbeek’s side tried to close down all over the pitch, which resulted in a high defensive line and space in behind. Serbia were more reserved and more intelligent – letting Germany have the ball in defence, before pressing the three central midfield players when they got on the ball.

Serbia’s lack of a player ‘in the hole’ meant Germany’s two central midfielders didn’t need to remain in that position, and took it in turns to charge forward to link up with Ozil and provide support to Klose. Sami Khedira was particularly effective at this and had a good game in the Michael Ballack role – indeed, he provides a lot more energy than Ballack is capable of these days, and he was often the main threat, with Ozil being taken care of surprisingly well by Stankovic.

On the other hand, Serbia were unable to form many attacks of their own, because Germany were also pressing well in midfield. Dejan Stankovic was not allowed time on the ball by Ozil, and struggled to get the ball forward. The full-backs were again disappointingly reserved – Aleksandar Kolarov got forward slightly more, but was tracked well by Thomas Muller.

With no-one getting much time on the ball, the game was a bit of a stalemate early on. The runs of Khedira combined with the movement of Klose looked most likely to break the deadlock – Lukas Podolski and Muller were both disappointing when they got the ball in wide zones, and Serbia barely got into the final third. When they did, they looked for the two wingers, but Germany coped well – Schweinsteiger and Khedira doubled up with their full-backs and crosses rarely arrived into the penalty area. Germany’s defensive shape was excellent when they had eleven men.

Klose off

The game changed with Miroslav Klose’s second yellow card. To get sent off for three such innocuous tackles is rather unfortunate, but if you commit the same foul three times, you are risking a sending-off. Most other referees would have shown some leniency because they were three nothing tackles, but then strikers get away with ‘persistent fouling’ far too much, and Klose was stopping a mini-counter-attack.

Joachim Low didn’t really change his change after that goal, he simply left Ozil as the highest central player and kept the two wide players in position – although Podolski played slightly higher up and made some excellent diagonal runs.

Route one the best options for Serbia

Serbia took the lead immediately following the sending-off. They got the ball to Milos Krasic, he crossed for Nikola Zigic, who headed down for Milan Jovanovic to score. It was a move notable for its sheer simplicity, and because it was so rare that the front three actually linked up together.

Zigic may be more than a mere target man, but Serbia’s best moves all came from using his height. In addition to the goal, he later hit the bar with a header from a right-wing cross, and he also won the ball and flicked it back for Krasic. He was brought down, and Kolarov’s free-kick went close.

Podolski the main threat

The gap between Serbia's two right-sided defenders was too large, and kept letting Podolski in

Germany were creating chances by playing the ball towards Podolski, mainly because the gap between Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic was huge, making balls into that space very, very easy. Podolski had two shots that went close, and his cross also resulted in the penalty when Vidic needlessly handballed, although it was Podolski who missed from the spot.

Germany certainly could have scored, but the tactics that Low used were a little disappointing – keeping Ozil high up the pitch meant he had little chance to influence the game. Sometimes, when going down to ten men against a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3, moving to a 4-3-2 system is preferable to a 4-4-1, especially when the ‘1′ is uncomfortable upfront anyway.

Take Jose Mourinho’s tactics in the Milan derby when Wesley Sneijder was dismissed – he went 4-3-2, which meant he still had 3 v 3 in the midfield, and then he told his forwards to play between full-back and centre-back, and track the full-back to the halfway line if needed. That way, he didn’t lose the midfield advantage and was still able to cause the Milan back four problems. Low could have done the same here – moving Ozil into his usual position, and telling Podolski to work the right-sided Serbian defended, and Muller the left-sided two.


Bringing on Cacau and Marko Marin were the obvious changes, but they influenced the game little as Serbia sat deep. Serbia were awful at closing out the game, though – despite having an extra man they were hitting the ball long into the corners rather than retaining possession and taking the pace out of the game. They defended well at the back, but it was a far from impressive performance.


A difficult game to draw too many conclusions from, because the red card changed everything. Serbia look like they’ll be best off trying to nullify the opposition and use the height of Zigic – if not, then the two wide players will have to up their game – they’ve both been disappointing so far.

A big setback for Germany, but you sense they would have won with eleven players on the pitch. Playing three central midfielders against them is the way to go – you can’t afford to give Ozil space between the lines. The final game against Ghana will be very interesting, because Ghana’s defensive 4-5-1 shape might be exactly the way to play against Germany…

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