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.