Euro 2012 preview: Germany

June 5, 2012

Germany's possible starting line-up. Klose may start instead of Gomez.

They didn’t win the competition, but Germany hit the greatest heights at World Cup 2010. While Spain embarked on a series of controlled but rather uninspiring 1-0 victories, Germany hit four goals past Australia, England and Argentina.

The problem was, those matches tended to be won with predominantly counter-attacking football. It’s a little harsh to criticise in this respect – you can hardly blame Germany for scoring early, the opposition having to come forward more and then Germany hitting them on the break – but the contrast in styles during their defeat to Spain in the semi-final was obvious. Spain were about proactively pressing and winning the ball high up, Germany wanted to counter.

But once Spain went 1-0 up, Germany could no longer counter as Spain weren’t leaving spaces at the back. Furthermore, they found it difficult to come out of their shell and press to win the ball. They had to become a more proactive side.

Pressing

Now, things have changed. Germany don’t sit deep in two banks of four – they’re more energetic, more mobile. They press more, forcing the opposition defence into poor passes, they win the ball in the opposition half, and are good at tactical fouls. “We are no longer focused on the fast transition from defence to attack,” says Philipp Lahm. “We are playing less on the counter. We now have players who are so good that we can dominate the game against any opposition.”

In addition to the increased pressing, Germany’s possession play is also superior. They hold the ball for long periods, using this period to rest, but they keep the tempo high and circulate the ball quickly. Jogi Low is particularly proud of the latter aspect – since he took over in 2006, the average amount of time each player spends in possession of the ball has fallen from 2.8 seconds to 1.1 seconds.

But Germany haven’t lost their ability to break quickly. That quick pace means they can still transfer the ball forward swiftly and efficiently. Spain remain the side to beat, but can be too predictable. Germany are the best all-round attacking side, at least on paper. “We have a good understanding in our build-up, and are quick to turn defence into attack,” says Mario Gomez.

Striker?

Gomez is one part of the greatest conundrum in the side. Should he start upfront, or should it be Miroslav Klose? It’s a classic situation of form against familiarity – Gomez has scored 80 goals in the last two seasons compared to Klose’s 32, but Klose has a superb understanding with Lukas Podolski in particular, but also with Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller. Fitness concerns also play a part – Klose missed the final two months of the season with a thigh strain. If he’s 100% fit, Low will probably choose him for the sake of understanding and cohesion, but that looks unlikely and the more robust Gomez will instead play. He’ll have to score quickly, however, or Klose will return to the side.

With Klose, Podolski’s place is also less secure. He has consistently done well for Germany even when his club form has been poor, and he offers pace, direct running and a goal threat from the left. Andre Schurrle is challenging him for a place on the left, and in the final pre-tournament friendly over Israel, Germany were much improved once Schurrle replaced Podolski, but Low is likely to stick with the Arsenal-bound forward for the opening game.

Attacking

In the centre is Mesut Ozil, who stands a great chance of being voted the Player of the Tournament. He is perfect for this German side – he can orchestrate counter-attacks by directly dribbling with the ball at speed, but he can also unpick deep defences because of his superb spatial awareness. His off-the-ball movement, his overlapping runs and his amazing selflessness in the penalty box make him an ideal central playmaker, and if he performs to his maximum ability, he will have a greater influence than any other player in the tournament. On the right is World Cup Golden Boot winner Thomas Muller, who is disciplined defensively and clever with his movement.

Germany have great attacking options from the bench. In addition to the players already mentioned, there is new Dortmund signing, forward/winger Marco Reus, who would prefer to take Muller’s place, Dortmund’s other wonderkid in Mario Gotze, who could play in any of the three attacking positions and offers great speed and dribbling ability, and Toni Kroos, who could fill in for Ozil – but is more likely to be seen in one of the deep-lying roles.

Double pivot

The first choices for those positions are again Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, who were united for the World Cup after the injury to Michael Ballack. Now, Ballack is out of the picture and these two are very much established in the centre of midfield. With the continued shift from a counter-attacking side to a possession-based team, their roles have changed slightly – they’re forced to make sudden runs to connect midfield and attack and provide another attacking option. When they did that two years ago it was generally as part of a direct attack, now the runs come as a more gradual part of the build-up play.

They move forward in turn, and seem to take their positioning from Ozil – if he’s to the right it’s the left-sided midfielder who moves forward, and vice-versa, keeping a triangle in the centre of the pitch with one player becoming the holder. Khedira is generally more defensive, and now Germany press more, he often has to cover a large amount of space ahead of the back four. Kroos, Lars Bender and Ilkay Gundogan are alternative options.

Defensive worries

Germany’s problem is at the back. Well, it’s actually two problems. First, their best left-back and best right-back is the same player, Lahm. He’s comfortable on either side and doesn’t seem to mind switching at short notice, and Low has taken a while to decide which flank to field him on. Now, with Dortmund’s Marcel Schmelzer disappointing for the national team in his left-back position, it seems Lahm will play on that side. However, Bendikt Howedes of Schalke hasn’t been great at right-back either, so Jerome Boateng (a centre-back for Bayern, though a right-back earlier in his career) will fill in. He and Lahm could, in theory, switch sides.

Second, they lack a sturdy centre-back partnership. Holger Badstuber has continued to improve and looks a certain starter in the left-sided centre-back role, but Mats Hummels hasn’t brought his Dortmund form to the national side, and Per Mertesacker has been injured for the last few months. He also lacks mobility, which is a real option with Germany playing much higher up the pitch, and getting less structural support from the midfield. Mertesacker’s experience seems likely to get him a starting place, but Germany will be troubled by balls played in behind the defence. Having moved from being a counter-attacking side to a possession side, they’re now most vulnerable to counter-attacks themselves.

Conclusion

Germany were very close to Spain’s level two years ago, and while Spain have lost a couple of key players, Germany have improved. Technically and tactically they might be as good as Spain. They lack that experience of winning, although that could be turned around into a positive – they’re still hungry for success, and this time around, having been knocked out by Spain in 2008 and 2010, they might just win the competition.

Quick guide

Coach – Jogi Low

Formation – 4-2-3-1

Key player – Mesut Ozil

Strength – Pace, energy and an excellent squad

Weakness – Uncertainty and a lack of a solid unit at the back

Key tactical question – Klose or Gomez upfront?

Key coach quote –  “They are desperate for success, and simply love coming together to play high-tempo attacking football.”

Betfair odds: 4.3 (10/3)

Recommended bet: Germany to score the most goals in the tournament at 3.85

Further reading: James Tyler on Germany’s new identity, Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger’s Tor!: The Story of German Football, and the excellent Bundesliga Fanatic website.


Euro 2012 preview: Germany

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