To Implode Or To Explode?
The last few years will go down as a bleak chapter in the history of the German national team. New talents and old heroes offer pieces to solving the puzzle, but awkward approaches to putting them together have blighted chances of success. This preview puts forward a brief appraisal of the country’s plight and the permutations that Joachim Löw may harness during the EUROs.
Written by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
Coming into the EUROs, one would be right to feel ambivalent about Germany’s prospects. On the one hand, a ‘Group of Death’ presents tricky tests in the form of the World Cup holders France and returning champions Portugal. On the other hand resides a dogged belief in the individual class of the players, not least the midfield and offensive ranks.
Adding Löw into the mix muddies the waters even further. Gone are the days when one could bank on the manager’s leadership to guide his nation to the last four of any given tournament. Nowadays, cause for consternation is never far away with this German side. For every scintillating display against say Iceland, a humbling defeat to say North Macedonia is on the horizon.
Löw’s loss of the Midas touch
Diagnosing the issues this team faces, the scars of the World Cup three years ago remain present. But the origins of this plight go back further. Following the triumph of 2014, Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola were infusing new ideas to a country synonymous with pressing. Scorn toward the Spaniard was rife, but Löw had kept a keen eye on the developments among Germany’s elite clubs.
The result was a growing focus on the use of possession. However, a weakly executed game model left the world champions dumped out at the group stage in 2018 and the manager between a rock and a hard place. Look to develop the game on the ball or twist and revert to what the DFB knew best?
Neither has happened. Truth be told, Löw has continually sought inspiration from those around him. But as the years have passed, muddled tactics have seen the team descend into an identity crisis. And as the manager enters the last arc of his tenure, dire situations have called for desperate measures.
Old heads make a last stand
A narrative that has haunted the national team setup since the World Cup exit took a dramatic turn in the prelude to this tournament. Aiming to rejuvenate the side, Löw axed three stalwarts of the squad. Jérôme Boateng is still in exile from the German setup, but the others are back from the wilderness.
Mats Hummels has come back to the fold in the defense. In a side in need of leadership, Löw will look to his experience to guide a jaded backline. The central defender also remains a valuable asset in the buildup phase. His dribbling, pressure resistance, and an ability to break lines through passing ought to offer something of an antidote to the side’s frailties against higher pressing.
But further afield an even more precious asset returns. True to his nature, Thomas Müller has again found a space at the perfect time to work his way into the manager’s plans. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Müller’s form has gone a long way to turning the tables in his favor.
Nineteen goals and thirty assists in the league alone from the last two seasons speak volumes to the importance he holds in Bayern’s current setup. Bringing a sharp goal threat, clever positioning, and wily off-ball movement to the table, the only shock in the tale is that Löw ever took away his place.
A welcome midfield conundrum?
Müller is a coveted addition to an already stacked attack, but the options in the middle of the park are even more exciting. The domineering duo of Joshua Kimmich and the box-to-box Leon Goretzka – if recovered in time – will look to translate their world class form over from Bayern Munich. Beyond these two, Löw could hope to lean on the old guard in Toni Kroos to dictate the play from deep in the left halfspace and take on a similar role as the one in which he excels for Real Madrid.
If this was not enough, crowds on the other side of the English Channel have warmed all the more to Ilkay Gündogan. Guardiola looked to integrate him higher up the pitch at the turn of 2021, triggering a goalscoring spree that projected him to the forefront of City’s rampant charge for the league title. Consummately dropping back into double pivots Two central midfielders next to each other. as the year wore on, his showing against Iceland was a glimpse of what he can do if his stellar club form in the new year persists for his country.
Löw is spoilt for choice to the extent that Florian Neuhaus, a rapidly rising star of German football, will have to wait in the wings on the bench. His time will come, but Löw faces a more urgent issue. The return of Müller, along with the choice of four outstanding sixes, presents the big riddle. How many of them can he fit into a coherent setup, and how might this play out on the pitch?
Vices and virtues of a back three
Löw has used many systems over the last year, leaving several options at his disposal. In the March international break, Löw opted for an asymmetric 3-5-2 shape against North Macedonia. Then, in the penultimate game before the EUROs, he used a 3-4-3 system against Denmark. Robin Gosens was the left wing-back both times. But picking a player for the role on the right flank is easier said than done.
Germany’s offensive structure against North Macedonia.
Back in March, the manager chose to use Sané as the right wing-back. An embarrassing 2-1 loss aside, the defensive tasks of the role raise questions about how wise it would be for him to carry on in this position. The other logical option here would be Klostermann. In the games against Iceland and Romania, the team moved from a 4-3-3 formation into a 3-1-5-1 setup on the ball. Here, the defender pushed higher up the flank to offer width while Sané stayed high and wide on the left.
He went on to play in the wing-back slot against Denmark, while Matthias Ginter started to his inside in a back three. He is, however, not an ideal candidate for the wing-back role based on his club duties at RB Leipzig. Under Julian Nagelsmann, Klostermann has featured on the right of a back three or as a fullback. As such, even though Hummels, Ginter, and Antonio Rüdiger, have thrived in a back three, suboptimal options in the right wing-back slot create another tactical puzzle for the manager.
Clarity among individual class
Bayern’s tried and tested double pivot is one route to go down, possibly to make the most of an existing defensive synergy from club level in terms of pressing. Löw may equally go for Kimmich and Kroos as he has done before, or a more combinative option in the form of Gündogan next to Kimmich. Were Kimmich to slide out to the right back position, several complements are appealing.
Indeed, the manager has already tried to use three of these sixes together. But given that Gündogan, Goretzka, and Kroos took the field in the 6-0 rout to Spain, the need for a clear tactical framework is still paramount. A lack of clear instructions to distribute roles proved to be costly in this game as it seemed, more often than not, that the midfield trio had to work out on the fly who ought to do what.
Müller, Gnabry and who?
Then the attackers come into the mix. After Müller, Serge Gnabry is the most surefire starter, but the rest is muddier in the waters. The 4-2-3-1 setup with ‘the Raumdeuter’ as a shadow striker barreling into the box is an option, but the squad lacks a point man like Robert Lewandowski. Timo Werner’s speed and movement can be of value. But if unable to run the channels, he can quickly get in trouble.
Possible Germany XI in a 4-2-3-1 shape harnessing interactions present in the Bayern Munich side.
A different variant would involve Müller working as a false nine behind two split strikers. To this end, a 4-3-3 shape could end up operating like a 4-4-2 diamond system. Gnabry and one of Sané or Werner would fill the roles ahead of Müller, and the personnel choices against Denmark in a three at the back system indicate that Löw has given this combination of forwards some thought.
Possible Germany XI in a 4-4-2 diamond formation.
Don’t rule out a 3-4-2-1 shape either. Such an offensive alignment could see Kai Havertz find a home. The prodigy has featured as the point man of this formation for Tuchel at Chelsea in the new year, but he could operate as one of the tens with Thomas Müller too. A myriad of possibilities exists for Löw.
Barring the odd weak zone, the individual quality of this Germany team is not in question. But as the last World Cup fades further into the past, that statement has come into question far less too. Löw’s primary task was, and still is, finding a way to craft out a functional outfit from an excellent crop of players. With the EUROs days away, the reality is that he is not much closer to discovering a solution.
If it came down to individual quality, Löw’s men would hold an upper hand over most adversaries. But the context of their EUROs campaign only aggravates the problems the team has endured. France and Portugal are arguably the two best sides in the tournament on a player for player basis, while their collectives seem much more on an upward trajectory. Talent has failed to bail out Löw against far less menacing opponents, so will he be able to pull a final trick out the bag in his swansong tournament?
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