It was a night that was all too familiar to German supporters. Germany stumbled when it mattered most – once again it was Joachim Low that guided a dejected group of talented footballers down the tunnel and into the dressing room, to explain why they wouldn’t be participating in the finals.
Surprisingly, Low’s head didn’t drop when Stephane Lannoy blew the final whistle at the National Stadium. The German manager stood on the touchline emotionless, in his crumpled white dress shirt, blankly staring at the pitch, potentially questioning where he went wrong. His men were second best on the night. An experienced Italian side outdid Low’s men, thus continuing their inability to defeat the Azzuri in a competitive match.
While one nation rejoiced, the other had to watch 23 of their finest players solemnly stand – or sit – in disbelief, as they knew another golden opportunity passed them by.
Frankly, many tipped the Germans to come out of their shell and avenge their recent two tournament defeats to Spain, along with their semi-final exit on home soil against Italy in 2006. But it didn’t happen. Yet, despite their catastrophic exit in Warsaw, Low assured that his side – the youngest team in the tournament – was flustered, but would grow from this experience.
“I’m not going to question everything we’ve done. The team has great quality. It will continue to develop and learn,” Low stated. “Even though there’s disappointment today, we played a wonderful tournament and I am sure we will be able to cope with this defeat,” he added.
However, Low was correct. His men produced top-class performances in their last two tournaments, prior to the semi-finals, giving many false hopes that they’d gasp in glory. The German manager, hailed for evolving this splendid group of young talent, witnessed his men cruise through tournaments, yet buckle when they encountered elite opposition. What’s more shocking is the manner in which they’ve conceded matches.
In 2010, Low’s side focused on defensive solidity, quick transitions and pace on the counter-attack. They often dropped into two banks of four, and exploded into attack when they won the ball, which undeniably handed the likes of Sami Khedira, Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil world recognition. Germany was devastating on the counter, handing England and Argentina a footballing lesson en route to the semi-finals.
But, their energetic threat on the counter was simply nullified when they came across a Spanish side that possessed a midfield at their peak of their careers. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Khedira were unable to cope with Spain’s midfield, as Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque instructed his men to overload central areas, ultimately making it 4v2 in midfield – with Andres Iniesta drifting infield. With Thomas Muller suspended, and Sergio Busquets admirably tracking Ozil’s movement, the Germans were simply outclassed.
Subsequently, Low’s men headed into Poland and Ukraine a different machine – one that consisted of more depth, which should’ve provided Low the tactical flexibility he didn’t possess in South Africa.
The German’s transformed into a side that focused on ball retention, and were keen on dictating possession. Likewise, they found ways to carve open the likes of Portugal and Greece, who preferred to sit deeper than most. However, once again, they came across an elite side that focused on superiority in midfield, and Low’s men were on the losing end of another major semi-final.
Cesare Prandelli fielded a midfield diamond to dictate the match and nullify Schweinsteiger and Khedira, thus leading to a dominant first half performance from the Italians. Meanwhile, Low’s men – mainly Ozil and Toni Kroos – didn’t seem to comprehend their tactical duties. Ozil often drifted into Kroos’ space, whereas Kroos wasn’t sure when he should press Andrea Pirlo.
While many can criticize Low’s team selection, along with his initial game plan, defeat at the same stage, in the same manner – with a better squad – is unacceptable.
While Low was busy evolving Germany, did he evolve as a manager?
Low was quick to brush off the scrutiny he received after Germany’s loss in a press conference ahead of a friendly against Argentina.
“We wanted to go to the World Cup in 2010 in South Africa and begin forming a team that could then win Euro 2012, so the loss in the semifinal against Italy was particularly painful,” Low said.
“We now have the task of working on the errors we made at Euro 2012, and find solutions to those errors over the next two years. We went on this path a few years ago, and we have a long-term plan to which we will stick,” he added.
The apparent solution has been to implement a false-nine system – one that has reaped success for Barcelona, and most notably, their competitive rivals Spain. With Miroslav Klose aging, and Mario Gomez branded as a one-dimensional striker that disjoints their fluidity, testing out a system that would be beneficial to Germany’s attack was logical. And it’s evident that Low is short on strikers, as he’s recently called up Max Kruse as a potential option upfront – while Stefan Kiessling has ruled out a national team return.
Although, Spain has enjoyed success playing without a striker, they’ve often struggled to grind out results. Meanwhile, Cesc Fabregas possesses a direct threat from midfield, which explains why Spain can succeed in this system. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say Low’s false nine can succeed if he displays authority in his team selection opposed to picking favourites.
As of late, Ozil has operated as the false-nine, but Germany hasn’t looked any better going forward. Their passing tempo is too slow, forcing them to spread the ball out wide – and they possess minimal aerial threats. Meanwhile, runners aren’t getting forward, legitimate goal-scoring opportunities are decreasing and they lack bodies in the box.
Temporarily, it’s difficult to assess Mario Gotze’s ability to play in this role, albeit shining against inferior opposition such as the Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan. More so, it’s strange to witness Low continuously search for an answer upfront, when he possesses one in his squad.
Thomas Muller produced a magnificent performance at the Ethiad Stadium earlier this month, in a convincing Bayern Munich away victory – where most assumed he was a false nine, yet he was far from it. Muller worked hard to close down City defenders, and his ability to win aerial duels gave Bayern Munich a different outlet going forward. The self-proclaimed space investigator ran the channels superbly, linking play with his teammates, as he nonchalantly roamed around the final third.
Indeed, Muller and Gotze can provide an alternative – or possibly a permanent – role upfront for Die Mannschaft, but this leaves Ozil out of a spot. Now, it would be easy to hand him a spot as Germany’s central playmaker – as Low has done throughout his tenure – but Germany can do without their sleek, bug-eyed creator in the ‘big’ games?
In both semi-finals exits, Ozil had minimal influence on the final result. It was somewhat reminiscent of Champions League ties against Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, during Real Madrid’s downfall.
Coincidentally, both Kroos and Gotze were the opposing playmakers in Madrid’s Champions League exits, and the duo showcased their ability to provide a balance of defence – by dropping deep to create a midfield three – and attack in their play.
The Arsenal playmaker conducts his business in the final third, but the modern game now relies on playmakers to produce on both ends – Spain and Italy’s creators were tactically disciplined enough to fulfill these duties, thus resulting in a numerical advantage in central areas.
Over the past 12 months, Kroos has developed into a legitimate world-class player, and he merits a start in a central playmaker role in matches against elite sides – even at the expense of Ozil. Kroos’ tactical awareness to find space in midfield to receive the ball, and drop deeper to prevent overloads is vital in the modern game. The 23-year-old midfielder has completed 95% of his averaged 90.5 passes in his last four competitive appearances for Germany. Also, Kroos completes 3 key passes per game, as he plays incisive balls in the final third to complement his ability to sustain possession.
Promptly, this isn’t to say Ozil isn’t a key cog in Germany’s attack, but Low needs to have the pluck to tactically align his side according to his opponent’s strengths. The managers that have defeated him in these fixtures – Prandelli and Del Bosque – utilize their squads to the fullest, and it’s a craft that Low has yet to master.
Likewise, the fabricated belief that a false-nine system is required for the Germans to succeed is farfetched. While it does display a sign of evolution, Low has catered more to the bigger names, opposed to starting the astute personnel.
As the Germans continue to struggle defensively, the issue that has been the focal talking point of the German national team can be altered easily. Muller is a logical option upfront, whereas Kroos’ brilliance can no longer be ignored – but will Low rise to the occasion, or once again watch his side underachieve on the world’s biggest stage?