Germany use one friendly to thrash a rival, the other to experiment with a new formation
Germany played two games this week – 3-3 draw away in Ukraine, followed by a convincing 3-0 win over Holland.
The games were completely different – in nature, in scoreline and in purpose. The friendly with Holland was treated as a ‘proper’ game, against a side who are both traditional rivals, and a serious competitor. The Ukraine game was used to test some ideas out, with Jogi Loew using a brand new formation.
3-0 v Holland
Taking the games in reverse order, Germany were exceptional against Holland. They destroyed them as convincingly as they dismantled England and Argentina at last summer’s World Cup, except they went about it in a different manner. Whilst the majority of goals in those games were scored on the counter-attack, against Holland they were more of an all-round attacking force, able to break swiftly through the centre of the pitch, but also dangerous when they held onto the ball for longer periods in midfield, before suddenly changing tempo and creating a chance.
The line-up in that game will be familiar for anyone who hasn’t seen Germany play since 2010. The six furthest-forward players in the 4-2-3-1 were identical to the usual line-up in South Africa, with the exception of the injured Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was replaced with Bayern teammate Toni Kroos.
The most interesting and effective part of Germany’s game was the movement of the attackers, particularly Miroslav Klose, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller. They never found themselves in the same zone – when one came in, the other came out. Muller would come inside, then Ozil or Klose would move to the right. Or Klose would come deep, and Ozil would charge on to become the highest player. It was simple stuff, but done so instinctively and so quickly, and the first two goals showed it off brilliantly.
The first came when Klose and Muller switched positions – Klose stayed at the far post, cushioned the ball inside for Muller, who slammed it home.
The second came when Ozil moved to the right, which meant that Muller took the opportunity to move inside into Ozil’s position. Ozil saw that Muller was doing that, so continued his run down the right, got the return pass, and crossed for Klose. For both goals, Klose’s movement away from the play to the far post was superb, and his touch was perfect.
Lukas Podolski had a quieter game but did his job, stretching the play by staying wider. The combination of that, and the movement inside from the other flank, made Germany a good all-round attacking force.
The real star was Ozil, who has developed so much since the World Cup. His movement off the ball continues to be astounding, and he seems to have formed an even better partnership with Klose, always making clever runs to exploit space. That was mainly a threat when Germany played more direct football reminiscent of their World Cup style, particularly in the second half when Holland tried to push forward. The third goal saw fabulous interplay between the front two. Ozil also dropped deeper into midfield to get the ball, which allowed Kroos higher up into the central playmaking role he has sometimes played for Bayern this season.
What Ozil did particularly well, though, was his positioning without the ball. Holland always wanted to pass out from goal-kicks rather than punting the ball long, which meant they spent a lot of time trying to pass from the centre-backs to the holding midfielders. Ozil didn’t drop goalside of Mark van Bommel, but instead tried to get into positions to cut off the passing angle between he and the centre-backs. Holland’s passing was too slow, and it meant that Ozil was in an immediate position to break quickly in behind van Bommel.
3-3 v Ukraine
Four nights earlier, the game against Ukraine was much more complicated. Loew wanted to experiment, and tried a (Napoli-style?) 3-4-2-1. The most exciting result of that was the inclusion of both Ozil and Mario Gotze in the same team behind Mario Gomez.
Germany were 3-1 down at half-time and were slightly fortunate to get back in the game, but there were some positives from the match. Upfront, Gomez linked well with Gotze and Ozil, holding the ball up and dropping deep, allowing the two other attackers to slide in behind. It worked better when Kroos moved forward to make more of a front four, but there were some good early chances for Gotze and Gomez. The wing-backs got forward well and combined a couple of times with deep crosses, something Napoli do very well.
The problem, though, was at the back. Germany were undone twice on the counter-attack to go behind within 35 minutes. There were various issues – the three defenders didn’t quite know how they were meant to be picking up the strikers, there was often too large a gap between Mats Hummels and the outside centre-backs, and the wing-backs were often caught too high up the pitch, leaving the three with too much space to cover. When Ukraine’s attacks were slower, the wing-backs tucked in to form a back five, but when they broke quickly Germany were very nervous.
More interesting than the precise nature of the shape was the question of why Loew tried to play that way. He regarded it primarily as an experiment, and admitted that the players had hardly worked on the system in training.
As the excellent Bunesliga Fanatic website puts it, “Löw admitted after the match to wanting to test this formation for certain in-match scenarios, in which he might have to remove a defender and chase the game.” It’s debatable whether that really works, however – look at the personnel in the 4-2-3-1 and the 3-4-2-1, and in both sides you have two central midfielders, but in the standard 4-2-3-1 you have four outright attacking players, in the 3-4-2-1 you’re forced to play with three centre-backs and wing-backs, meaning an attacker would have to be sacrificed.
How Löw would change from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-2-1 within a game – in the attack-minded fashion he suggests – is unknown. If, for example, he used Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng as the full-backs from the start in a 4-2-3-1, then Lahm would become a wing-back and Boateng would be part of the back three. But that would mean having to play either Podolski or Muller as a wing-back, or alternatively, taking either of them off for a more natural wing-back, which would help the balance of the side but would decrease the number of genuine attackers on the pitch, from four to three.
A back three might feature less defenders than a back four, but it’s not necessarily more attacking. The use of Andre Schurrle as a right-wing-back in the second half was a good use of a player that does provide outright attacking threat from that position, however.
Löw used the two friendlies very well – one to play at full pace and thrash another of the favourites for Euro 2012, the other to experiment with a different shape. The less reactive strategy compared to the World Cup shows that Germany have evolved, the attempt to use a completely different formation suggests they will continue to do so.
As this moment, with Spain wobbling and Holland on the end of this 3-0, Germany are playing better football than any other side who will be at Euro 2012.