Germany: Favourites for the Euros? Part 5 of 5: Strengths and Weaknesses
Goals – Germany were the top scorers in both of the last two World Cups, scoring 14 goals in 2006 and 16 in 2010. They also boast the top individual scorer for these World Cups, as Thomas Muller racked up 5 goals in 2010 and Miroslav Klose scored the same amount in 2006. Overall, Klose has struck 63 goals in 113 games for his country, Gomez has got 21 in 50 matches, Podolski 43 in 95 and Muller 10 in 25. You may think they have all been scored in friendlies or dead rubber qualification games, but looking closer that doesn’t seem right. Klose is the second top scorer ever in World Cups, with 14 goals, just one behind Ronaldo, and Muller and Podolski have each hit 5 in their World Cup matches. Podolski and Klose have got 3 and 2 goals respectively in European Championships, and Muller is yet to play in one. Mario Gomez has never really been given a chance in big tournaments so we can rule him out of this.
Transitional play – As described in Part 2 under “Attack,” Germany’s counterattacking play is phenomenal and their speed will cause problems to every team they face next summer.
Movement – The movement of the German players in attack is bewildering and excellent at the same time. As seen in the same goal I mentioned in Part 2, Muller and Ozil switch positions with great understanding and Ozil delivers an inch-perfect cross for Klose to head in. In Part 1, I mentioned ‘The Magic Triangle’ of these three aforementioned players and their movement will be key to Germany’s success (or lack thereof) in Poland and Ukraine next summer.
Squad Depth – I would argue that Germany’s squad is the second strongest after Spain, and you can see this with the sheer quality of players vying for starting places in the side. For example, for the No 10 role, you could have any of Mesut Ozil, Mario Goetze, Toni Kroos, Lewis Holtby or Marco Reus.
Physical Fitness – Germany’s counterattacking style demands a high workrate and good stamina. This system becomes brutal once the opponents begin to tire towards the end of the match. Just watch the second half of their 4-1 demolition of England in the World Cup last year and you’ll ee what I mean.
Leadership – As Michael Ballack will seemingly never play for Germany again, it’s likely Philipp Lahm will continue as captain for the foreseeable future. Some outspoken comments in his autobiography (read this piece) caused some controversy over in Germany and his leadership skills have since come into question.
Defence – Having kept just two clean sheets in 13 games in 2011 (one against Holland, the other against Kazakhstan), it is clear that Joachim Loew needs to tighten the ship in order for them to improve even more. Their defense is arguably made up of lots of physicality but little technicality, however this may change with the introduction of players such as Mats Hummels.
I know this was a relatively short piece, but please forgive me as I am at work and doing this while my boss is working right opposite me! I thought it would be nice to finish the series with a short piece summing up their strong and weak points, and I hope I’ve covered most of them. If you feel I’ve missed any out, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.
Coming up, I will be writing a 5-part series about England, with the same sort of pieces as I have done for this series, and maybe another 5-part series about Spain. I will also start to do some more regular tactical match reviews (like the brilliant Zonal Marking).
Part 4 of 5: Options from the bench (Midfield and Attack)
Normally a double pivot consists of a destroyer and a “sitter” who is the more creative of the two. The perfect example of this was Mascherano and Alonso, when they were together at Liverpool. However, I wouldn’t call either Schweinsteiger of Khedira a destroyer at all, and they mainly compensate for a lack of a midfield hard-man by keeping possession of the ball. Spain and Barcelona have showed that with a player in this role (Busquets) who generally looks to play short passes to the fellow midfielders, there isn’t much need for someone to play the “Makelele” role. Anyway, looking to options outside of Schweinsteiger and Khedira, here are a few that could play the role.
Toni Kroos – It seems as if Kroos has been around for a long time now, so it is somewhat surprising to learn that he is only 21 years old. Towards the end of last season, and certainly at the beginning of the current one, Kroos has begun to show his true potential and has turned in some magnificent performances, usually playing in attacking midfield (centre of a 3 in 4-2-3-1) but occasionally in a double pivot. He has the ability to pick a pass, which is rivalled by perhaps only Mesut Ozil in the squad, and this makes him ideal for either the “No 10” or “regista” role. His average of 2.4 key passes per game is the best in the Bayern Munich squad and better than Mesut Ozil’s 1.8. However, I think his defensive work needs some improvement (1.9 tackles and 0.7 interceptions per game compared to Schweinsteiger’s 2.8 and 1.5 respectively) and this is why I think he would better be used as a replacement for Mesut Ozil further up the field.
Simon Rolfes – Leverkusen’s captain is more defensive-minded than Kroos and would be a decent replacement for Khedira, rather than Schweinsteiger. Also playing in a ‘double pivot,’ Rolfes is used to the system and the role in which he would be used for the national side, and therefore would need little adjustment tactically. Rolfes is very good in the air, which would come in handy against more direct sides, and his passing is good as well, mainly because he likes to keep it nice and simple.
Lars Bender – The more likely of the Bender twins to make it into the team (or even squad), Lars is the other half of Leverkusen’s ‘double pivot,’ however he has the ability to play either role, as he has shown this season in the Bundesliga and the Champions League. He is more adventurous than Rolfes with his passing and I believe his tackling is better too. In fact, Lars has made 3.5 tackles and 3.2 interceptions per game, more than any other Leverkusen player, and this clearly shows his defensive qualities. However with 2 assists from 15 key passes so far this season, he is no slouch further up the field and for this reason I think he will be the number one replacement for either Khedira or Schweinsteiger.
Sven Bender – Despite getting 3 assists from just 8 key passes so far this season, Sven is, in my opinion, the more defensively minded of the twins. The ability to tackle and intercept are key for any half-decent holding midfielder, and Sven possesses these two in abundance. I hope Sami Khedira is looking over his shoulder because there are certainly lots of people pushing for his place right now.
Lewis Holtby – Holtby played primarily as a No 10 for Mainz last season and has for Schalke on occasion this season, however he has put in some solid performances in defensive midfield for “Die Königsblauen.” In this role he has shown off a defensive side to his game that nobody really saw while he was at Mainz, however he is also the third top scorer for his side and loves to get forward too. Holtby’s tackling and interception skills have improved significantly this season, while his dribbling is a quality we saw last year as well. Often paired with the centre-back cum midfield destroyer Kyriakos Papadopoulos, the pair provide a solid shield in front of the back four and the manager Huub Stevens likes both of them to defend as much as possible.
Mario Goetze – Supposedly the subject of a €35m bid from Arsenal over the summer, Goetze is one of the most sought-after players on the planet. His performances on the right or in the centre have attracted scouts from the top European clubs and I wouldn’t be surprised if he moved on from Borussia Dortmund at the end of the season. Goetze’s dribbling skills are second to none in the squad, and his ability to go past a man with ease is innate. However he can certainly spot a pass too, evidenced by his four assists so far this season, and his crossing is certainly handy when Klose or Gomez is up front. Finally, a very underrated aspect of the teenager’s game is his defensive contribution, which is vital in a high-intensity game favoured by Jurgen Klopp. In that respect he is more hard-working and arguably better than Ozil. Low tried to use the two in tandem against Ukraine in a 3-4-2-1 system that wasn’t very successful, so it’s more likely we’ll see him from the bench next summer.
Marco Reus – Undoubtedly the star of the Moenchengladbach side, Reus has been the best player of this year’s Bundesliga. 10 goals in 14 games prove his finishing ability, while 37 key passes already without an assist probably show the deficiencies of his team-mates more than anything else. Finishing and dribbling are without doubt Reus’ two best characteristics, which is why I’ve mentioned him as a candidate for a wider role or even for a striker. Head over to Bundesliga Fanatic for this far more in-depth piece about Reus. MirrorFootball also published this piece about the talented youngster.
Toni Kroos (see above)
Andre Schurrle – One of Holtby’s team-mates at Mainz last season, Schurrle hasn’t been a regular for Leverkusen since the switch, and will need to put in some more consistent performances in order to gain a starting berth. Despite being a left-footer playing on the left, Schurrle loves to come inside and use his long-range shooting ability to good effect. A fairly similar player to Thomas Muller (except on the other side and other foot), Schurrle’s dribbling stands out amongst a vast array of qualities that will see him travel to EURO 2012.
Marco Reus (see above)
Kevin Grosskreutz – A far less flashy player than club-mate Goetze, Grosskreutz is renowned for his stelling defensive work on the wing and his almost infinite stamina. Playing as an ‘inverted winger’ on the left, Grosskreutz tends to stay further back and further inside than his compatriot on the other wing and his performances have been very underrated. Crossing is not a strong point and perhaps he would be better used on the right, otherwise there would be two ‘inverted wingers,’ which leads to a lack of width up front.
Mario Gomez – Despite scoring 21 goals in 50 games for Germany, Gomez has never been very popular in the national set-up, perhaps due to his perceived lack of mobility and movement. However, for Bayern Munich, he has been firing on all cylinders, getting 13 goals in 13 games in the Bundesliga. The focal point of the Munich attack, I can’t see any reason why Gomez couldn’t be an excellent challenger for Klose’s place in the team, and by next summer, he could even have supplanted his former club-mate in the national side. Good in the air and possessing a top-class finishing ability, Gomez is a great example of a No 9, but he might need to improve his all-round game (eg. getting more involved in build-up play) to convince the critics.
Marco Reus (see above)
Thomas Mueller (see part 1)
Midfield is without doubt the most competitive, with many talented youngsters challenging the starters for their places. Joachim Loew will probably try most of these players out before next summer, and players like Goetze have already made a significant impact on the world stage. Overall, the world-class squad will certainly challenge for the title, and they have many players who can come in and perform when needed.
You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Part 4 will look at the back-ups in midfield and attack, and Part 5 will look at the Strengths and Weaknesses of the side.
Part 3 of 5: Options from the bench – (Goalkeepers and Defence)
Options from the bench
As goalkeepers are only really subsituted in the case of an injury, I will look at the back-up options should anything happen to first-choice keeper Manuel Neuer.
René Adler – The Bayer Leverkusen keeper is currently considered second choice to Neuer and is only 26 years old himself, perhaps showing that keepers are maturing ever earlier in their careers nowadays. Unfortunately the native of Leipzig has been very unlucky with injuries in the past and has not played a single game yet this season after injuring his knee in a pre-season game against Red Bull Salzburg. Adler had established himself as Germany’s number one before the World Cup in 2010 but a rib injury forced him to miss out and Neuer took his chance with both hands. Adler’s main strengths are his excellent reflexes, his aerial ability and the presence he commands on the pitch. The German has been back in training since late October but it is unknown when he will make his return.
Ron-Robert Zieler – The former Manchester United youth-team player and current Hannover 96 stopper made his debut for Germany against Ukraine and was rather unfortunate to have conceded 3 goals, which were mostly due to poor defending. In that game, the 22-year-old pulled off a number of brilliant saves particularly in the second half and deserves credit for his performance. As recently as 2009 he was struggling to get into the Northampton Town side when on loan from the English Champions and he only made his club debut for Hannover earlier this year. Zieler is a great shot stopper, evidenced by his shot-to-saves ratio of 78% in the Bundesliga, better than anyone currently in the Premier League. He also has great concentration and his great reflexes allow him to save more close-range shots than most. The youngster is not perfect however, and should look to work on his distribution and saving long shots in order to improve as a keeper. Zieler is expected to be third choice for Euro 2012, unless he suffers a severe dip in form. Head over to Manutd24 blog for this great piece on the goalkeeping sensation.
In the full-back areas, Joachim Löw has many alternatives to the current starters Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng, although it is unlikely the former will be replaced as he is the captain of the team.
Benedikt Höwedes – Like Boateng, Höwedes is naturally a centre-back but has the quality and the attributes to play on the right side of defence as well. The young Schalke youth product provides a greater crossing ability than his team-mate and has the advantage of (when fit) playing every single game for his club, of which the same cannot be said for Boateng. According to the statistics, Höwedes would provide a more solid defensive presence but would not be as adventurous when attacking. As well as his excellent crossing, Höwedes’s anticipation allows to make several interceptions per match, and this would be useful no doubt against the better sides in the competition. Strength and speed are two of his best attributes and his aerial ability means he would not be your typical marauding right-back. As for his weaknesses, the defender needs to improve his concentration (a vital quality for a defender) and perhaps his ball retention. Höwedes’ versatility means that he will probably play a big role in Germany’s Euro 2012 campaign.
Christian Träsch – The 24-year-old is a very difficult player to analyse, simply due to the number of different positions he has played in. He usually appears as a central midfielder in a 4-4-2 system for Wolfsburg, but has been mainly fielded as a right-back for his country. Träsch is no doubt third-choice but his versatility could mean he gets to play more games than you might expect. A very good dribbler, evidenced by his 1.9 successful dribbles per game, Träsch provides a mix of the styles of Höwedes and Boateng. Like the Schalke defender, he is a good crosser of the ball, although with Germany’s system and style of play, this is not necessarily vital. Träsch also packs a good long shot, unlike the other two options, and his interception skills are naturally good, considering he is a defensive midfielder. 3 assists to his name so far this season show that the midfielder’s passing is one of his strengths too. Tackling is not his greatest strength, shown by his 2.9 tackles and 1.1 fouls per match, but this will improve with time. He could be at a disadvantage, in that he doesn’t play regularly, if at all, at right-back for his club, so would be rusty if called upon in a high-pressure situation.
Marcel Schmelzer – A running machine, Schmelzer played every single minute of Borussia Dortmund’s league-winning campaign last year. However, owing to injuries, he has been unable to repeat that this year, and his performances haven’t quite reached the heights of last season as of yet. He is able to get forward at will for his club side, with a double pivot giving enough protection for him to do so.
Dennis Aogo – Aogo currently plays for Hamburg, who have suffered a terrible start to their season, winning just three of their first thirteen games in the league. As a result, Aogo has not enjoyed a particularly successful season thus far, and there is for improvement. Aogo has made the second most key passes a game for Hamburg, behind Gokhan Tore, showing his ability to get forward and deliver. Despite this, he has just one assist to his name so far, although perhaps this is more down to strikers like Marcus Berg and Jose Paolo Guerrero wasting good opportunities. A strong passer of the ball, Aogo is also rarely dispossessed, a vital characteristic for a defender.
Per Mertesacker – As you would expect from a man of his height (6ft 5in), Mertesacker is very strong in the air and rarely loses an aerial duel. The Gmerna also possesses great awareness and aniticipation skills, which often allow him to be in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, Mertesacker suffers from alack of speed and athleticism, which has been shown up in a few games for Arsenal this season (mainly because of their high line, which leaves space in behind). Despite having an injury-free campaign so far, he is known to be somewhat injury-prone and this could hinder him in the future. It is, I agree, pretty unfair to call a man of 79 international caps a back-up, but on current form I think Loew will go with Badstuber and Hummels in the centre of defence. Wikipedia sum up Mertesacker’s style of play, when they say,
At 1.98 m (6 ft 6 in), Mertesacker is commanding in the air but he is also sound in defending on the ground.He often uses his strength to shrug opponents off the ball and his standing tackle ability to win balls. He rarely slides or makes dirty tackles. Question marks have been raised about his speedand he had been badly exposed in a friendly against Poland.He compensates his speed for his excellent positional play. Despite his height he is regarded as a clean player as he is rarely booked.Due to his height and strength, Mertesacker is also a scoring threat in set-pieces.
Also known for his durability Metesacker played whole 90 minutes in Germany’s all seven games at the 2010 FIFA world cup in South Africa.
Despite often being criticized for being not vocal, he is a good defensive organizer. Mertesacker is also a neat distributer of the ball. He averaged 46.3 passes per game in 2010-2011 season, the third highest in the Bremen squad, and the second highest pass success rate, with 82%. Often Mertesacker is paired with a more mobile and faster defender who can track-back in counter attack situation like Mats Hummels, Arne Friedrich and more recently Laurent Koscielny, though he had successfully formed one of the best defensive pairing in Bundesliga with the equally sized Naldo during his time at Werder Bremen.
Arne Friedrich – For a versatile and solid defender with 82 international caps, it is surprising to learn that Friedrich is currently a free agent. He is only 32 years old, and I believe he could provide valuable nous and experience to even the best defences in Europe, even though he has had a long history with injuries. Friedrich provides the ideal foil for someone like Mertesacker, due to his relative pace and ability to cover. It remains to be seen whether Friedrich will keep his place in the squad due to his current status, but his hopes look rather slim.
Other options – Benedikt Höwedes (mentioned above) and Jerome Boateng (mentioned in Part 1) are both natural centre-backs and either would be a good option should there be any injuries to the other centre-backs. Heiko Westermann, of Hamburg, is another good option who has experience and could slot in with ease.
Germany have many different options in their defensive positions, and most of them are in their early-to-late twenties, meaning they have plenty of time to develop and have yet to reach their peak. Strength in depth is key to success in month-long tournaments and it is clear that Germany possess it in abundance.
Part 2 of 3: Tactical Analysis and Alternative Systems
Joachim Löw generally sets his side out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is very similar to lots of other national teams.
In defence, this system becomes more of a 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-4-2. The reasons for this are that, 1) Lukas Podolski and Thomas Muller drop back to help out their full-backs, thus creating two rigid lines of 4, 2) Mesut Ozil often pushes high up on the defence to try and win the ball back as quickly as possible. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger act as two defensive midfielders normally would, squeezing the space between the lines and aiming to stop the opposition central/attacking midfielders playing.
Mats Hummels and Holger Badstuber/Per Mertesacker often sit deep and do not let their opponents play in behind them and this cleverly covers up Badstuber and Mertesacker’s lack of pace. Lahm and Boateng on the outside are two quick and solid defenders and so they rarely get beaten on the outside.
This system differs from their biggest rivals next summer in that the two wide forwards drop back and the central attacking midfielder pushes up, while for Spain the opposite is the case, as Xavi drops deep to help out Busquets and Alonso while whoever plays wide stays up the pitch to try to win the ball back quickly through fierce pressing. Spain also play with a high line while Germany prefer to sit back, soak up pressure and counter.
First things first, Germany’s transitional play (counterattacking) is superb. They attack with speed and in numbers, helped out by the great passing ability of Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield. Of course, the main skill of being a good counterattacking team is to have pace, and Germany have it in abundance. The two full-backs, Lahm and Boateng are very quick, as are the two wide forwards/wingers Podolski and Muller. Klose himself is no slouch either.
However, to suggest that Germany are purely a counterattacking side would not be wholly true. Not one of their six goals in the last international break (3 vs Ukraine, 3 vs Holland) was scored from a counterattack. Under Jogi Löw, they have developed into a passing side and they can open up stubborn defences by passing through them. Their ability to keep possession and wait for the right moment to attack (like Spain, just quicker) is an underestimated asset. When Germany want (or usually need) to, they can also play direct football with the Starting XI, and the same cannot be said of Spain (unless they start with Torres or Llorente). Klose is a great header of the ball (as seen in this goal against Holland last week) and in Muller, Podolski and Lahm, they have some great crossers too.
I agree that Germany may have been undone at the World Cup in South Africa because of their failure to keep possession against Spain and because their counterattacking style did not work in this type of match, but since then they have developed considerably and I am sure Löw has recognized all the mistakes he (and his team) made in 2010 and has worked hard on them since.
Although Löw has, to my knowledge, not yet tried out the 4-3-3, I will try and explain why I think it could work as a plan B for Germany.
The 4-3-3 is perhaps the best system for possession-based play and it would allow Germany to keep possession even more than they already do. The introduction of Kroos, who has been playing brilliantly for both club and country, in a central midfield role would give greater passing options to the side and would also mean that Khedira (or Schweinsteiger) could get forward more, like he did for Real Madrid against Zaragoza on Saturday.
In fact, these three midfielders could take it in turns to go forward, as they are all adept defensively and offensively, and this would give Germany the element of surprise, whereas their system is rather predictable at the moment (except for the movement of the front 4).
With a solid three-man midfield, the full-backs could push further up the field and move into the space vacated by Ozil (who would definitely drift inside) and Muller. Lahm and Boateng have excellent attacking abilities and, if this system was used, they would be able to show that more often.
The counterattacking play of the side would not diminish severely, as they would have three good passers of the ball in midfield (Khedira’s ability in this respect is massively underrated) and they would still have the pace of Muller, Klose and the full-backs. They would only lose the speed of Podolski on the left and Ozil spraying the ball out to the flanks.
Miroslav Klose would have the opportunity to drop deep into ‘the hole’ as he loves to do. He does this quite often at the moment but Ozil is usually occupying that position. This would help drag defenders out of position and allow Muller, Ozil or one of the three midfielders to try and attack the space left by the defender. (This would be slightly like a ‘false 9,’ although Klose would not drop off as often as Messi for Barcelona, Silva for Spain, Fabregas for Barcelona etc.)
As far as my untrained eye can see, one of the only real weaknesses to this system would be the obligation to use Ozil on the wing, where he is not quite as effective, and he tends to drift inside anyway. They could also lose the attacking threat of Muller coming inside, because it is very difficult to play with two wingers who come inside, as Spain showed against England last Saturday.
This is the system Löw used against Ukraine, although he did not have the right players fit in order to use it to its full potential. I have a few points to make about the 3-4-2-1.
Arguably the two key players in this system are the wing-backs and Löw started with Denis Aogo and Christian Trasch against Ukraine, whereas the first-choice pairing would be Lahm on the left and Thomas Muller or Andre Schurrle on the right.
Having Gotze and Ozil in the team rather complicates things as they tend to make the same runs and want to do the same thing. Perhaps this could be fixed by switching to a 3-4-1-2 with Ozil in behind Klose and Gomez.
The 3 centre backs were often caught too high up the pitch against Ukraine and would need to provide more defensive solidity. Generally one of a 3-man defence likes to step out of the back and act as an additional midfielder. In my opinion this should be Hummels who has been playing this role brilliantly for Dortmund since the beginning of last season. The ‘libero’ can help to start attacks or even counterattacks by stepping out of defence and Hummels would be ideal for this.
In terms of disadvantages, this system would really hinder the movement and understanding between the trio of Muller, Ozil and Klose. Muller would have far more defensive responsibilities and as such, would be unable to contribute as much in an attacking sense.
Also, despite it being a 3-man defence instead of a 4-man one, it is arguably less attacking (obviously this depends on how Löw uses the system, but the players suggest it would be) because there are only 3 out-and-out attacking players in the team.
Width is a real problem. Muller and Lahm would be very capable wing-backs but they would have to be more careful when attacking as they don’t have any full-backs in behind them to cover. In a defending sense, the opposition full-backs and wide forwards could double up on the wing-backs and create opportunities out wide, something Germany found out against Ukraine.
This is Part 1 of a 3-part series. Part 2 wil look at Germany’s tactics in detail and their alternative systems while Part 3 will look at their options from the bench and their strengths and weaknesses.
With Spain’s recent disappointing results and Germany’s comfortable win over Holland on Tuesday, it would not be outrageous to say that ‘Die Nationalmannschaft’ are currently the favourites for next summer’s European championship. Having won nine and drawn three of their 13 matches this year, they are on top form and if they play as well in Euro 2012 as they did against the Netherlands (probably their best performance under Jogi Loew) then who’s to say they can’t go all the way.
That is perhaps what an injury-free Germany side would look like next summer. This means that Germany potentially missed 3 starters on Tuesday (if you consider Mertesacker a non-starter), a frightening prospect considering just how well they played.
The goalkeeper will almost certainly be Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, while on the right of defence Loew is as of yet undecided between Neuer’s club mate Jerome Boateng and Schalke’s Benedikt Hoewedes, two natural centre-backs although the place will probably go to Boateng.
Joachim Low’s first-choice tactic is the most popular formation in football today, the 4-2-3-1. In goal, they have arguably the best goalkeeper in the world today, Manuel Neuer. The Bayern Munich stopper is still only 25 years old so should have at least 7 or 8 years ahead of him in goal for the national team. In defence, Low plays with two attacking full-backs in Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng. Both players are two-footed and so could swap positions if needed, and in fact Boateng’s best position is in the centre of defence. Although these two players are attacking, they are defensively very good as well, and I believe Lahm has probably been one of (if not the) the best full backs in the world for the last five years, along with Ashley Cole and, more recently, Dani Alves. Despite some recent controversial comments in his autobiography, Lahm is likely to be captain at the Euros next year. His consistency is perhaps his key asset and his passing ability is very underrated as well. Despite playing on average 9.8 long balls a game, he has the highest passing success rate of any Bayern player at 90.6% (only including those who have started more than five games).
His team-mate on the other side of defence (for both club and country), Boateng, has arguably been a victim of his own versatility. Boateng played the whole of the World Cup 2010 at left-back, while when he was used at Man City (rarely) he played on the right of defence. He signed for Bayern in the hope that he would play alongside Holger Badstuber in the centre, but he has only started half of his 12 matches so far in his preferred centre-back role. His crossing ability needs to improve in order for him to become a top-class full-back but he is solid enough to be considered first-choice.
In the centre of defence, Jogi Low has a choice of two between Per Mertesacker, Holger Badstuber and Mats Hummels. Let’s say he picks the latter two (Mertesacker is covered below anyway) and take a look at their games. Hummels has been a revelation since he moved to Borussia Dortmund in 2009 and was instrumental in their title triumph last season. His man-marking skills are top-class and he has kept many brilliant strikers quiet in the Bundesliga, both this season and last. One key aspect of his game is his ability to get forward, acting as a deep playmaker and the first man of a counterattack. He is able to do this through his dribbling skills, and this is something he could bring to the international stage. Another quality he possesses is the remarkable ability to concede next to no fouls (0.3 per game this season) and as a result, he was carded just twice in the whole of last season, and has been shown a yellow twice in sixteen games this season, an astonishing statistic considering his position. However, the reason why he is able to do all this is through his number one quality, and that is his anticipation. He is just like Thiago Silva in this regard, in that he is always positioned correctly and he makes defending look just so simple. He has carried on his great form of last season into this campaign and he can now be classed as one of the best defenders around.
Alongside Hummels, Holger Badstuber has slowly integrated himself into FC Hollywood’s starting line-up and can now be considered a starter for club and country. He is very solid mentally and his positioning is very good as well. He is also very decent in the air, which means both he and Hummels are good at dealing target men or crosses into the box. Not a man to cover himself in glory, Badstuber is a no-nonsense defender and will most likely play the sweeper/stopper role while Hummels acts as a ‘libero.’ Like the rest of the defence (and indeed the whole team), Badstuber has a great passing ability, something which is becoming increasingly necessary for the modern-day centre-back.
Their midfield is set up like most 4-2-3-1s, with a ‘Doppelsechs” (double pivot – 2 of 4-2-3-1) comprised of one defensive midfielder (Sami Khedira) and one deep-lying playmaker (Bastian Schweinsteiger). Khedira has not been performing too well lately for his club side, Real Madrid, and he has only started seven of Los Blancos’ fifteen games in La Liga and the Champions League so far. However, just like Klose for example, he seems to always play well for the national team, and in this position he is by no means a ‘destroyer,’ more of an all-rounded deep-lying midfielder with the ability to defend as well as to get forward. He tends to play the ball short to his fellow midfielders rather than spray the ball out wide to the wingers/full-backs (à la Xabi Alonso) and this is proved by the fact he has played one long ball per game this season to Alonso’s 9.8.
As for Schweinsteiger, his switch from a winger to a central midfielder around 3 years ago has proved a masterstroke, and many people (including myself) now regard him as one of the best around in his position. Like Khedira, he is very good defensively (he has made 2.8 tackles and 1.5 interceptions per game), however he clearly contributes more offensively, having contributed 2 goals and 3 assists to Bayern Munich, while Khedira has yet to register on either count. He plays a more expansive passing game to Khedira, attempting 9.2 long balls per game and with the likes of Lahm, Muller and Boateng in the side, this is a very good tactic. ‘Schweini,’ as he is known in Germany, tends to dictate the pace of the game whenever he plays, and some have even labelled him ‘the German Xavi,’ which is not a bad comparison considering they have both played the most passes in their respective leagues.
Further up the field, Podolski tends to hold his position as inside-left while the trio of Mesut Ozil, Miroslav Klose and Thomas Muller change positions with fantastic fluidity (more about them later). Podolski has never really been rated very highly at club level (despite a three-year spell at Bayern Munich) and is currently at FC Koln, the club with whom he started his professional career. His role at his club side is different than where he plays for “Die Nationalmannschaft,” as he usually plays as a lone front-man or a second striker in a 4-2-3-1 for Koln, while he plays on the left of the attacking trio for the national side. This means that he has far more defensive responsibility than he does when playing in the Bundesliga, something which he carries out well. He’s more of a reliant or dependable player than most, putting in consistently good performances, but not the player you’d look to to create something out of nothing. Despite being a left-footer on the left wing, Podolski likes to cut inside and from there he can use his long range shooting ability to good effect. Set-pieces and his finishing ability are two more aspects of his game which stand out, although ‘Prinz Poldi’ is definitely the attacking player most at risk of losing his place (as described in Part 3).
The Magic Triangle
No, this is not going to be a paragraph about some maths theory I know nothing about, rather three players whose understanding and fluidity makes it seem they’ve played together their whole life. Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Miroslav Klose are key to their country’s hopes of winning their first tournament since 1996. Able to switch positions with surprising ease, their movement is a nightmare for defenders. The ability to counterattack with these three players (+ Podolski) could cause many teams a lot of trouble, as Ozil has the ability to find the pass, while Muller, Klose and Podolski all have the pace needed for an efficient counter.
Muller started the 09/10 season in Bayern Munich’s second team, and by the end of it was the World Cup’s leading scorer. His astonishing rise to fame could have seen him become complacent and push for a move to a bigger club, but he stayed and his performances this season have been consistently excellent. His ability to draw a foul could come in handy due to Germany’s excellent set-piece takers, and his record of 2 goals and 3 assists in 12 league matches so far is not to be sniffed at. Muller’s finishing skills are very good for someone who plays on the wing, and his crossing is excellent but his ability to spot a pass is underrated and he should play a key role in Germany’s campaign in Poland and Ukraine.
The playmaker Ozil has not been an automatic starter for Real Madrid this season after Kaka’s recent return of form, however there is no doubt about his place in Germany’s side. Although he is rarely able to complete a full 90 minutes, his contributions when on the field are vital and I would argue he is the key man in Germany’s system. The reasons for this are numerous. Firstly, his playmaking abilities are second to none, and his passing skills are crucial for the likes of Klose and Muller. Despite not being the quickest player on the field, he can dribble extremely well and in a counterattacking system this is definitely necessary. Ozil may not contribute the most defensively, but with two holding midfielders and two hard-working wingers, this isn’t particularly worrying.
Finally, we come to Klose, Germany’s second top scorer of all time (he only has 6 goals to go to beat the 68 of Gerd Muller). His great start to life in Serie A with Lazio came unexpectedly but he is another who has always performed for Germany while his club form has wobbled. Clearly, goalscoring is his main asset, although under Low he has become more instrumental in Germany’s build-up play. He often drifts to the right while Ozil and Muller exploit the space he leaves and this can cause defenders problems (see Germany’s 3-0 victory over Holland on Tuesday), and he gives Germany something none of the other attacking players can, an option in the air (see the second goal in the aforementioned match). This means that if their plan A isn’t working, Klose can act as a target man, which he did brilliantly a few times while at Bayern Munich.
The understanding of where each other will go, where to put the ball and the ability to draggplayers out of defence for one of the other two to exploit the space is natural and something which hours on a training pitch can’t teach. To repeat, this trio is crucial to whether Germany succeed next summer, and let’s hop that they all keep fit and in form for the rest of the season.
The German team are very used to playing with each other and this is most certainly a positive aspect not every team can boast. Their ‘magic triangle’ will be necessary to unlock stubborn defences who sit deep and stay compact and is one reason for their thumping victory against the Netherlands. The defence is not the strongest, given that they have only kept 2 clean sheets in their 13 matches this year (one on Tuesday and one against the lowly Kazakhstan) and this will be explored in Part 3.
Ahead of England’s game against Sweden on Tuesday night, I have decided to do a scouting report on the opposition and hopefully tell you a little bit about how they will play. England go into the game as hot favourites following a 1-0 victory over the reigning World and European champions Spain on Saturday, while Sweden come to Wembley on the back of a 2-0 defeat to Scandanavian rivals Denmark on Friday night. However, that was only their third defeat in their last 13 away matches and the last five matches between the two sides have ended in a draw, the last one finishing 2-2 in the group stages of the 2006 World Cup (including this goal!).
The team for the match has already been confirmed by manager Erik Hamren, as they make five changes from their game against Denmark. Former Manchester City goalkeeeper Andreas Isaksson comes in for Johan Wiland, while in defence Blackburn left-back Martin Olsson replaces Behrang Safari and Celtic defender Daniel Majostorovic plays instead of West Brom centre-back Jonas Olsson. 35-year-old Anders Svensson is rested and in his place comes AZ Alkmaar defensive midfielder Pontus Wernbloom, and finally Rasmus Elm will play instead of Emir Bajrami.
Here are a few points about the Swedish team:
Rasmus Elm is naturally a centre-midfielder and he is being asked to play on the right of a 4-2-3-1 (he is very similar to Jordan Henderson) and therefore will naturally come inside to his strongest position. He will look to play deeper than Larsson and I suspect he has been picked because of his defensive capabilites, so he can counter the attack-minded Leighton Baines, statistically one of the best attacking full-backs in Europe (or maybe Ashley Cole).
On the other side of the attacking trio, Sebastian Larsson will also look to come inside on his stronger right foot and his crosses and set-pieces will be a problem for England to deal with. His inswinging deliveries will most likely be aimed towards Ibrahimovic or Elmander, both players with good heading ability and suspect he will see a lot of the ball.
I believe that most of the Sweden’s attacks will come down their left hand side, a) because of Martin Olsson and Kim Kallstrom (explained in the next two points) and b) because they will look to attack England’s inexperienced full-back Kyle Walker. Walker is well-known for his offensive abilities but will have to prove his defensive skills on Tuesday night.
Anyone who has watched Martin Olsson play for Blackburn knows just how attack-minded he is and in fact he used to play as a left-winger. He will look to attack the space vacated by the left-winger Larsson and Walker will have to watch out for this. He could be asked to rein in his attacking instincts however, should Capello opt for a 4-3-3 with Sturridge/Johnson on that side.
Kim Kallstrom, the left-footed centre-midfielder, will also look to drift to the left and something to watch out for will be his diagonal crosses from deep aimed at (again) Ibrahimovic or Elmander. This is something very rare in the modern game (a non-offensive centre-midfielder drifting wide) and he will play a similar role to Charlie Adam at Blackpool and now Liverpool. Kallstrom will probably be given the task of playmaker, along with Larsson, as Elmander is not a true ‘No 10’ rather a second striker who will play much further up the field. The Lyon midfielder has been used to playing the defensive role with captain Anders Svensson in the side but he will have the holding midfielder Wernbloom, known for his tough tackling, next to him. Fabio Capello, the England manager, will probably hand Jack Rodwell the task of marking him, and this will be an interesting battle.
(Watch out, as Elm could in fact start on the left and Larsson on the right)
One man team?
Many England followers probably think that Sweden are very much a one-man team, and fair enough. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has won league titles in the last seven seasons at four different clubs in two different leagues (although the two with Juventus were later revoked in the Calciopoli scandal) and has scored 9 goals in 11 games for AC Milan this season. He is widely regarded as one of the world’s best strikers and rightly so. However, Sweden have been performing far better lately without ‘Ibracadabra’ in the side and have won their last 10 qualifying matches when he has not played (including against Spain in 2006 and Holland in 2011) and his form has dropped considerably since Hamren made him captain in 2009. In fact, they have won every single Euro qualifier in the last 10 years without him and only won 11 of every 20 games with him (credit goes to this brilliant article by the Swedish journalist Marcus Christenson) Many Swedish fans actually long for his retirement, so to say that Sweden are a one-man team is simply not true.
There are two possible reasons for this odd phenomenon.
Many people believe that when Ibra plays, his team-mates feel they have to give him the ball every time they get it and so this makes their game predictable and him easy to mark. He is not a playmaker and their game would undoubtedly improve were they to spread it wide more or look to Larsson or Kallstrom to dictate the play.
In a 4-2-3-1 formation, the lone front man should be able to combine the qualities of a pacy striker looking to get in behind the defence (eg. Javier Hernandez for Manchester United) and a deep-lying striker looking to get involved in the play (Wayne Rooney, David Villa) and the perfect examples of this are the two men fighting for the Real Madrid No 9 position, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain. Benzema has developed the ability to drop deep and combine with his team mates and Higuain is just as complete as the Frenchman. For this reason, I believe Ibrahimovic is not ideally suited to this role, and although he is by no means a target man, he is not a complete striker. The Swede usually plays alongside another striker in a 4-3-1-2 formation for Milan (Antonio Cassano, who unfortunately has a long-term injury/illness and so probably Robinho from now on) and Elmander is in a lot of ways similar to him.
To conclude, there are a number of things to look out for at Wembley on Tuesday; firstly, the full-backs Martin Olsson and Mikael Lustig providing the width as Elm and Larsson move centrally; secondly, Johan Elmander playing very high up as a second striker, as he is definitely not a No 10 in the Mesut Özil-mould; thirdly, Pontus Wernbloom tracking Frank Lampard from midfield and looking to break up the play à la Soctt Parker; finally, Bobby Zamora giving Olof Mellberg and Daniel Majostorovic a hard time in defence due to his ability in the air. This will be an interesting game and a test for England’s youngsters, so let’s hope the result they can provide a good performance.
The match unfolded almost exactly as everyone had expected it to. Almost. Spain dominated possession, created many more chances than the home side, and spent barely any time in their own half. The result, however, as they have become accustomed to in recent friendlies, did not go their way, with the home side coming out 1-0 winners, thanks to a Frank Lampard header at the beginning of the second half.
Fabio Capello sprung a surprise the night before the match by announcing that Phil Jones, playing in only his second international, would play in central midfield, a position where he has played once for Manchester United and a handful of times for his former club Blackburn. John Terry, in the midst of a race row over comments he allegedly made to Anton Ferdinand, was an unused substitute. Capello elected to play Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka together at the back, with the out-of-form Glen Johnson on the right. Darren Bent played on his own up front with Theo Walcott and James Milner on the flanks in a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 formation.
Darren Bent was very unfortunate in my opinion, as he was so isolated in attack, yet he never stopped trying to run the channels and closing down the man in possession. Danny Welbeck, who replaced him, was more fortunate as England had grown into the game by the time of his substitution and therefore he received more support from midfield.
Spain, on the other hand, had their full-strength team out on the field. They lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with David Villa, David Silva and Andres Iniesta up front. The manager Vicente Del Bosque chose the 22-year-old Valencia defender Jordi Alba to play at left back, a position many believe to be Spain’s weakness. Cesc Fabregas and Juan Mata, despite their sparkling club form, were only good enough for the bench.
In hindsight, I truly believe that Spain do not need a double pivot of Alonso and Busquets. Because they have so much possession (it was 71% in this game), no matter who they play against, I think they can afford to fit in a more adventurous midfielder, like Fabregas or Mata, and take out one of these two holding midfielders. This worked at Euro 2008, when Marcos Senna was the only defensive midfielder in the side.
Xabi Alonso & David Silva
One interesting aspect of Spain’s style of play was the use of Xabi Alonso. This is a player unique to the modern game, and he has no equivalent. This season, he has become accustomed at Real Madrid to dropping in between the two centre-backs when in possession, allowing their full backs to push high up the pitch. He is able to do this due to his fantastic passing range and acted almost as a quarterback for most of the game, spreading play out wide to the wingers/full-backs. Against England however, he regularly dropped in on the left of the three, perhaps wary of Sergio Ramos’ weakness on the left-hand side.
I don’t think I was alone in thinking that Iniesta and Silva would support the central striker Villa in attack. However, as had happened in their 3-1 victory over Scotland in October, David Silva played as a ‘false 9,’ the position Lionel Messi occupies for Barcelona with Villa cutting in from the left and Iniesta playing very narrow on the right.
This could perhaps be a ploy by Del Bosque to add a few tactical alternatives for Euro 2012, so that he can switch to a plan B if things aren’t going his way. In the same way, I believe the Spaniard is trying to mimick Barcelona’s extremely successful style of play, with Silva playing in the Messi position. He could if he wanted to field an all-Barcelona front six, with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets in midfield and Villa, Fabregas (false 9) and Pedro up front.
England stay tight and sit back
Spain expectedly had an enormous amount of possession but weren’t able to do much with it. In fact, Adrian Chiles on ITV produced the stat that by the end of the game England had had 3 shots, while their opponents had had 23, however they both recorded just 2 on target. This highlights the fact that Spain often became frustrated and had a lot of long shots out of desperation.
England did not press too high up the pitch, but sat back in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Scott Parker protecting the back four. To give credit where it’s due, all three of Parker, Jagielka and Lescott had excellent games and the latter two certainly justified their selection. They looked to try and counter Spain using the pace of the wide men Walcott and Milner, but they rarely got the chance and Spain defended well when they did.
Spain’s left back – a weakness?
There has been much debate about Spain’s left-back slot recently, as World and European champion Joan Capdevila is currently warming the bench at Benfica. The incumbent in this game, Jordi Alba, played very well and got forward numerous times. He linked with Villa and Silva well, although his overlapping runs were well tracked by Theo Walcott, except for one midway through the first half. Defensively, he was sound and he kept Walcott quiet by sticking tight to him and not allowing the Arsenal winger to get a run on him.
On this performance, Alba will be unlucky not to keep his place, although there are plenty of other options should Del Bosque wish to experiment before the European championships next year. Jose Enrique, the Liverpool defender and Nacho Monreal, who plays for Malaga, have both been mentioned as possible candidates although Monreal is being kept out of his club side by Eliseu, nominally a right midfielder.
Both managers made the maximum allowed six substitutions, taking advantage of the quality that was at their disposal on the bench. In terms of making an impact, Danny Welbeck, Jack Rodwell and Juan Mata stood out for me.
Welbeck twice ran at Gerard Pique, his former team mate at Man United, and both times exposed his lack of pace, something which has been covered up well at Barcelona. He looked to stretch the play and got a lot more support than Darren Bent, whom he replaced, had got in his 65 minutes on the pitch.
Jack Rodwell looked totally at ease, despite this being his debut and the match being against the best side in the world. He played alongside Barry (who had replaced Lampard) and Parker in a deep 3-man midfield, but was allowed the licence to push forward on occasion. In one move, he linked well with Welbeck but couldn’t control the ball as he approached Pepe Reina in goal. Like Phil Jones, he sees his future at centre-back rather than in midfield, but David Moyes at Everton has consistently played him in a ‘double pivot’ (the 2 in a 4-2-3-1) and he looked assured.
Juan Mata, a very similar player to David Silva, played on the right hand side of the front 3 and looked to drift inside and find space, which he did on occasion, but Parker was often there to plug the gaps. He was given more defensive responsibility after Spain had switched to a 4-4-2 (with his Chelsea team mate Fernando Torres and Villa in attack) but was shackled by another team mate of his, Ashley Cole.
As I said in the intro, Spain controlled the game but some superb individual performances by England, in particular Jones, Lescott and Parker, contrived to stifle the reigning World and European Champions. Neither Jagielka nor Lescott was dragged out of position by the ‘false 9’ Silva and they never left any space in behind them. Parker frustrated the likes of Silva and Iniesta in the holding midfield role and just ahead of him, Jones and Lampard had good games themselves. This wasn’t quite as bad as conceding 4 to Argentina or Portugal, and I doubt Spain will be worrying too much about this loss either.