Germany: need the right combination upfront

June 12, 2014

Germany have reached at least the semi-finals of the last four major international tournaments without winning any. Frankly, it’s about time that changed.

It’s worth remembering Germany went into the 2010 World Cup with many key players relatively unknown outside of Germany. The likes of Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng, Manuel Neuer and Sami Khedira were very raw, yet were rightly thrown in at the deep end and proved extremely capable. By Euro 2012, Jogi Low could add Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Andre Schurrle. Now, he can add Julian Draxler.

Attacking combination

But all four of those ‘new’ players are attacking midfielders, and there’s a concern Germany haven’t found the right balance in the final third. Of course, that is a constant worry about Spain, and they’ve clearly managed pretty well, but with Germany it’s slightly different: they don’t demonstrate the ceaseless ball retention of Spain, and their gameplan naturally depends upon more directness and penetration. It’s still slightly shocking to look at Germany’s squad list and find only one natural striker – 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, now in his fourth World Cup and close to becoming the competition’s all-time top goalscorer.

Possible Germany XI - but there are questions in almost every position

However, Low’s first-choice quartet was Gotze as the false nine, Ozil in his favoured number ten position, with Reus cutting inside from the left and Muller buzzing around from the right. Reus will sadly miss out through injury, however, with Schurrle or Lukas Podolski appearing the most natural replacements.

Podolski always delivers for the national team, but he generally goes down the line, whereas Schurrle cuts inside onto his right foot, and is therefore a better Reus replacement. He was outstanding in his final Leverkusen campaign from the left, and his quiet first season at Chelsea was partly as Eden Hazard was in his favoured position.

On paper there’s no problem with this system, especially because the two wide players contribute goals, but it hasn’t always gone swimmingly. Gotze has occasionally done OK in the false nine role and combined nicely with Ozil, but it hasn’t been flawless – Gotze coming towards the ball and Ozil breaking into the space is great aesthetically, but there’s no great goal threat. Muller could be pushed upfront, of course, but in a way this could bring less variety to the attacking quartet.

The obvious Plan B is Klose, and this probably makes more sense against weaker opposition in matches where Germany are guaranteed to dominate possession, create chances, and therefore need a penalty box prowler to stick the ball in the net. Klose has always been an unfussy, limited but useful striker, and the majority of his World Cup goals in open play have been against poor sides. That ability shouldn’t be underestimated, however, because otherwise this rotating band of playmakers could struggle against deep defences.

That links back to the feeling that Germany were too reliant upon the counter-attack at the previous tournament. In their brilliant demolitions of England (4-1) and Argentina (4-0) they went ahead early, and therefore could afford to sit back and break. When they came across Spain in the semi-final, their opponents rarely allowed them counter-attacking opportunities, and when Germany went behind they were unaccustomed to pressing high up the pitch to win possession and force the issue. There’s absolutely no doubt Germany have become more proactive in the last four years, pressing higher up the pitch and playing more of a possession game, although individually their attackers are still suited to the counter-attack, and Low has complained about the sloppiness of Germany’s passing recently.

Midfield

In the deep midfield positions, Low used two out of three throughout qualification – Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira. Again, th key is finding the right balance, and Low has generally been keen to use a physical midfielder like Khedira (or Ilkay Gundogan, though he’s injured for this tournament) alongside a passer. Khedira’s season was heavily disrupted through injury, of course, and he was clearly only half-fit for the European Cup final, so Low might have to be careful with how he uses him, while Schweinsteiger has also been unfit recently.

Again, the quality of opposition will come into play – Khedira might not be needed against weaker sides. Kroos-Schweinsteiger have started a European Cup final together and can cope perfectly well as a partnership, although there’s a feeling Schweinsteiger can be overpowered against top-class opposition. Kroos is primarily a technical, creative midfielder – but Germany have that quality from elsewhere, and he might need to provide physicality as much as creativity. With Gundogan and the Bender twins unavailable, youngster Christoph Kramer is the fourth option in central midfield, but has no experience at this level.

Defensive questions

Philipp Lahm has played much of the season as a holding midfielder, of course, and Low tried him there for a (rather fortunate) friendly victory over Chile in March. But it doesn’t make sense considering Germany are badly lacking options at full-back. If Low could, he’d play Lahm at both right-back and left-back.

Whichever side he chooses, Germany will have problems on the opposite flank. Lahm is best on the right, but that means the left-sided role will probably have to be played by Erik Durm, who was picked ahead of Dortmund teammate Marcel Schmelzer, another who has suffered from fitness problems.

However, Jerome Boateng was surprisingly used at right-back in the warm-up against Cameroon. This could well be seen in Brazil, with Benedikt Howedes a possibility at left-back. This would mean Mats Hummels coming into the middle, despite the fact he’s rarely played well for the national side. In goal, Manuel Neuer is arguably the best in the world and should come to Germany’s rescue if the defence fails.

Conclusion

Talented players everywhere, but guaranteed cohesion nowhere. It feels like there’s a World Cup-winning XI somewhere in this side, and if Low had infinite friendlies to work out who works well together, he’d eventually find the winning combination.

But it remains difficult to find an part of this team that definitely works, so expect to see Low chopping and changing throughout the competition. Germany are a genuine contender, but with this amount of individual talent they should probably be in a better situation.

Quick guide

Coach: Joachim Low – has now been with the national side for ten years, first as assistant, now as coach. Likes to tinker tactically, but isn’t always successful.

Formation: There have been experiments with a three-man defence and a 4-1-4-1, but it’s certain to be 4-2-3-1

Key player: Arguably Sami Khedira, as he provides physical presence in the midfield zone

Strength: An astonishing cast of talented playmakers

Weakness: Not one single zone of the pitch feels certain

Key tactical question: Does Low get the balance right in the final third?


Germany: need the right combination upfront

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