Dead in the air – Germany’s problems on set pieces and what is behind them

The ball goes out and a collective sigh of resignation comes over Germany supporters in Warsaw’s national stadium. Germany just earned a corner against Italy in the semi final of the EUROs but instead of excitement over the possibility of scoring a goal, Germany supporters knew it would be just another missed opportunity.  That moment symbolized a greater, more troubling trend not only for the national team but in german football as a whole, namely their weakness in dead ball situations, be it defending or taking them.

For several years now, Germany have struggled to make the most of their dead ball situations and the EUROs just reminded everyone what a glaring weakness it really is.  As if Carles Puyol’s decisive goal in the World Cup semi final two years ago or Bayern Munich’s inability to deal with Didier Drogba in this past season’s Champions League final weren’t enough of a reminder.  Yet the problem persists despite what appear to be innumerable warnings.

Those unforgettable (or forgettable) moments aside, there are some glaring statistics that accompany this trend. Germany are still waiting for their first free kick goal in over four years for example, their last coming when Michael Ballack scored the team’s winning goal against Austria in the 2008 EURO group stages.  Aside from penalties, Germany’s set pieces have become a completely futile part of their game.

Gone are the days when Karl-Heinz Rummenigge confidently told a photographer where the point his camera as he set up Horst Hrubesch winning header in the 1980 EURO final against Belgium or Karl-Heinz Riedle’s brace off two corners as Borussia Dortmund beat Juventus in the 1997 Champions League final.

Under Joachim Löw, Germany have scored just 11 goals from dead ball situations in competitive matches. Only three of those have come since the World Cup, two being penalties.  Germany have played 83 games under Löw since he took over from Jürgen Klinsmann in 2006.  In those 83 games, 194 goals were scored and only 13 of those have been scored from either free kicks or corners, a meager 6.1%  Of those 12 goals, 6 came through direct free kicks (all before Ballack’s goal in 2008), 4 from corners and 2 from set piece situations.  Of the 82 goals conceded under Löw, 8 came from corner kicks

Löw’s assistant, Hansi Flick, has even commented and admitted to this weakness yet there does not seem to be much of an attempt to address it.  “Our weakness is that we’re not very effective on dead ball situations.  On this matter I often disagree with Jogi. I think we have to practice them more and become more dynamic.”   Before the tournament, Löw jokingly bet Flick that Germany would not concede a goal from dead ball situations while Flick disagreed.  Flick was right in the end as Krohn-Dehli headed Denmark’s equalizer following a corner kick but Germany were fortunate not to concede one earlier in the tournament after Pepe’s header hit the post in the group stage opener. In that game, Germany struggled against their opponents on set pieces throughout the match.

Looking at the statistics, it becomes abundantly clear that Michael Ballack’s retirement significantly added to Germany’s deficiencies in this area.  Not counting penalties, Ballack scored 4 of Germany’s 9 goals from dead ball situations before the 2010 World Cup.  Since then, 4 of Germany’s 6 goals in this area have come from the penalty spot, further emphasizing just how ineffective their players are on set pieces.

Mats Hummels is one of the few players in Ballack’s mold, dominant in the air and great with his timed runs during set pieces, but his late integration by Löw did not help matters much and neither does the team’s poor handling of such situations.  So why is this such a glaring weakness?  Germany are stocked in talent and their defenders are physically imposing enough to be able to handle and deliver on set pieces.

The most straightforward and easy to understand explanation is the sheer lack of practice and it does not help that these issues exist at a club level either.  Bayern Munich for example had 20 corners in the Champions League final against Chelsea and failed to use any of them.  Meanwhile, the first and only corner Chelsea won also resulted in their equalizer.  Former bayern player Stefan Effenberg even emphasized caution in this area before the game and he is no clairvoyant.  Bremen and Stuttgart for example conceded a total of 20 goals from corners this past season.  Hamburg meanwhile conceded a league high of 13 goals from headers and only Schalke could be considered a dangerous side on set pieces of all 18 clubs in the league last year.  Poor execution can only be a result of improper preparation.

Another way to look at it is structurally and although it is not the definitive explanation in this case, Germany’s use, or misuse rather, of zonal marking, plays a part as well.  When defenders are asked to mark an area of the pitch rather than a particular opponent, it is meant to anticipate and clear the danger as efficiently as possible but more so than man marking, zonal marking is very much dependent on the collective organization of the team and its ability to read the play as accurately as possible.

Against Denmark, Germany deployed three of their best headers of the ball (Gomez, Hummels and Badstuber) zonally, using them to anticipate and clear the first ball before it becomes a threat.  In this case, Germany failed to win the first ball and neither of Hummels Gomez or Badstuber knew how to react, allowing Krohn-Dehli to head in the equalizer with three players next to him.  Similarly, because you dedicate players to zones you are inevitably leaving others unmarked as Pepe was in the Portugal game.  Pepe was allowed to run freely onto the ball and was unlucky not to get a goal.  Again, Germany looked disorganized and reacted poorly.

Gomez, Hummels and Badstuber failed to react to the second ball.


Germany left Pepe unmarked and nearly paid for it.

In such a system, the players not only have to know their role but the role of others, making it a much more difficult one to integrate but one that can be effective if executed correctly.  What is obvious is that the organization and understanding of this system is very much lacking and it is costing them time and time again.  Because Germany are developing technical players at a rapid pace there might be the perception that other elements are not needed but one should not come at the expense of another and in many cases it can be the difference between a place in the World cup final and a Champions league medal.

Here are all goals scored from dead ball situations scored under Löw in the last six years:

Germany 1-0 Ireland – 2.9.2006 – EURO 2008 Qualifying
Lukas Podolski got the winning goal in this game with a 20 meter free kick

Cyprus 1-1 Germany 15.11.2006 – EURO 2008 Qualifying
Ballack put Germany in the lead with a free kick

Germany 3-1 Switzerland – 7.2.2007 – Friendly
Torsten Frings scored Germany’s third goal from a free kick

Czech Republic 1-2 Germany – 24.3.2007 – EURO 2008 Qualifying
Kevin Kuranyii put Germany in the lead with a header from a corner

Germany 6-0 San Marino – 2.6.2007 – EURO 2008 Qualifying
Torsten Frings put Germany up 3-0 from the penalty spot

Germany 2-1 Serbia – 31.5.2008 – Friendly
Michael Ballack scored the winning goal from a free kick

Austria 0-1 Germany – 16.6-2008 – EURO 2008 Group Stage
Michael Ballack puts Germany through to the quarter finals with a direct free kick

Germany 3-2 Portugal – 19.6.2008 – EURO 2008 Quarterfinal
Miroslav Klose scored Germany second and Ballack added a third with his head off a free kick

Germany 2-0 Belgium – 20.8.2008 – Friendly
Schweinsteiger put Germany in the lead from the penalty spot

Liechtenstein 0-6 Germany – 6.9.2008 – 2010 World Cup Qualifying
Thomas Hitzlsperger hammered home Germany’s fifth goal from a direct free kick

Germany 4-0 Azerbaijan – 9.9.2009 – 2010 World Cup Qualifying
Michael Ballack opened the scoring from the penalty spot

Germany 2-2 Ivory Coast – 18.11.2009 – Friendly
Lukas Podolski scored the first of the game from the penalty spot

Germany 3-1 Bosnia – 3.6.2010 – Friendly
Bastian Schweinsteiger scored Germany’s last two goals from the penalty spot

Germany 4-0 Argentina – 3.7.2010 – 2010 World Cup Quarterfinal
Thomas Müller put Germany up 1-0 with his head from a free kick

Germany 3-2 Brazil – 10.8.2011 – Friendly
Bastian Schweinsteiger scored Germany’s first from the penalty spot

Poland 2-2 Germany – 6.9.2011 – Friendly
Toni Kroos made it 1-1 from the penalty spot

Turkey 1-3 Germany – 7.10.2011 – EURO 2012 Qualifying
Bastian Schweinsteiger scored Germany’s third from the penalty spot

Ukraine 3-3 Germany – 11.11.2011 – Friendly
Simon Rolfes scored Germany’s second off a corner

Switzerland 5-3 Germany – 26.5.2012 – Friendly
Mats Hummels headed in an Özil free kick for their first goal of the game

Germany 4-2 Greece – 6.22.2012 – EURO 2012 Quarter final
Miroslav Klose heads home from a corner

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

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