Germany’s official preparation for the 2014 World Cup did not start as coach Joachim Löw would have wanted. In front of nearly 48,000 supporters at the Fritz Walter Stadion in Kaiserslautern, Germany had to come from behind twice to draw a Paraguay side that continually exposed their opponent’s defensive vulnerabilities.
The match was supposed to be a celebration and an opportunity to make history. In only the second-ever meeting between the two sides captain Philipp Lahm made his 99th appearance for the national team while Miroslav Klose had the opportunity to tie and break Gerd Müller’s near 40 year old record. It was anything but though as a largely uninspired German team failed to show the defensive progress that has been eluding them for so long now.
Unsurprisingly, Löw fielded a very predictable starting eleven with Hummels and Mertesacker, who was again preferred ahead of both Boateng and Höwedes, at center back and Lahm and Schmelzer on either side. In midfield first team regular Khedira was partnered by Gündogan who replaced the absent Schweinsteiger while the front four consisted of Reus, Özil, Müller and Klose. A familiar face started in Roque Santa Cruz started on the other end who was teammates with Lahm at Bayern and Boateng and Manchester City.
Against the last placed side in South America’s world cup qualifying campaign, one would expect Germany to dictate the tempo and control much of the match. Instead it was Paraguay who put Germany under pressure and found balls over the defense far too easily at the start. In fact, their first goal came as a long ball eluded Hummels and the back line was caught out of position, allowing Paraguay to easily take the lead.
The ease with which Germany’s back line was beaten and exposed was eerily reminiscent of performances like the 5-3 loss to Switzerland or more recently the 4-4 draw against Sweden. In both cases, Germany’s tendency to overcommit in attack cost them dearly at the back. Throughout the game, Paraguay found space behind Mertesacker and Hummels while Schmelzer and Lahm were constantly out of position in transition.
This was the eleventh game in which Germany have conceded two or more goals since the last World Cup. Since they have conceded 53 goals in 39 games. In those 39 games they have kept only 11 clean sheets, statistics that don’t exactly match the ambition of a World Cup champion. Admittedly, the players and coach recognize these shortcomings and have been working to rectify them but if there is progress the performances certainly don’t show it.
Where’s the answer?
Before the match, Hummels emphasized the importance of defending over attacking at this level. Hummels himself had a forgettable performance against Paraguay but his words echo louder than ever before after today’s game. Is it, then, a matter of individual defensive performances? It would be too simplistic to narrow it down to just that. While players like Höwedes and Boateng have a valid case for starting against a Mertesacker who has not had his best national team performances over the years, the problem lies in the collective, not the individual.
After the game Hummels also mentioned Paraguay’s defensive retreat when being put under the pressure. With the urgency of coming from behind, Germany stepped up their game after the break and pushed Paraguay into their own half for much of the second half. Rather than attacking with the ball in numbers, they pressed the space and won back possession before Paraguay were able to pick out gaps in defense. So is it then a lack of continuous pressure in matches? Perhaps. We saw against Sweden how complacency got the best of the team after being 4-0 up and allowing Sweden back in the game.
The back line certainly needs stability and if Mertesacker is indeed Löw’s first choice he needs to stick with him and build on his partnership with Hummels. Elsewhere, the first line of defense starts with the attackers. Paraguay played three at the back and thus had one less man in midfield than Germany yet their midfielders, Pittoni and Ortiz, had all the time in the world to pick out passes in the first half. The immediacy that makes players like Khedira, Müller and Reus so good at club level was sorely lacking and it took Lars Bender coming in to add the urgency that was missing for much of the first half.
Time is ticking…
The World Cup is 300 days away and while that may seem like a lot it’s anything but. Germany have four more qualifiers to finish the year, against Austria, the Faroe Islands, Ireland and Sweden. A ticket to Brazil is virtually booked so the mission turns from qualifying to working out the kinks that could cost them again at the finish line next summer. The DFB scheduled a friendly against Chile next year in May and they need to add a couple more that will challenge and prepare the team.
Furthermore, Löw and his team have to find a balance between the player’s attacking and defensive instincts. So far the team has swayed from being really solid defensively, as was the case for much of the European Championships last summer, or consistently creative and dangerous in attack. The scores have been either high with unneccessarily conceded goals or low with little kick up front. That quest for that delicate balance is Löw’s biggest challenge and will likely define his, and Germany’s football narrative for the coming years.
Germany: Neuer – Lahm, Mertesacker (46. Boateng), Hummels, Schmelzer (81. Jansen) – Khedira, Gündoğan (27. L. Bender) – T. Müller (81. Schürrle), Özil, Reus (62. Podolski) – Klose (54. Gómez)
Paraguay: Villar (46. Fernández) – Candia, Aguilar, da Silva – Ayala, Pittoni (62. Romero), Ortiz, Samudio (54. Melgarejo) – Fabbro (62. Rojas) – Núñez (46. Riveros), Santa Cruz (82. Sanabria)
Joachim Löw: “The game is difficult to categorize. We made some elementary errors in the first half. Our entire defensive work was too erratic and our opponent had too much space. We also made individual errors and one could see that some of the players haven’t gotten into the rhythm yet. We will definitely not play like this against Austria and will raise our game.”
Philipp Lahm: “When you only have tow days to train before a game it becomes very difficult. It’s clear that we have to do something about our defense. Next time we will have more time to prepare.”
Thomas Müller: “We know that something was wrong defensively. It was clearly our mistakes but it went better in the second half.”
Manuel Neuer: “I think that today was a warning sign that came at the right time. We cannot play against Austria like this.”
Mats Hummels: “There was a visible difference between the first and second half, especially when you saw how our opponent played when put under more pressure.”
Header courtesy of dpa
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