Germany officially sealed their place at the World Cup finals in Brazil next year following a dominant 3-0 win against the Republic of Ireland. Goals from Sami Khedira, Andre Schürrle and Mesut Özil sealed the three points necessary to top the group and continue their unbeaten qualifying campaign. With the goal of qualification reached, coach Joachim Löw can now use the final game against Sweden on Tuesday to experiment with squad rotation and perhaps even his tactics.
The return of Schweinsteiger after a seven-month absence along with question of who would play up top were the big talking points going into the game. Schweinsteiger, who made his 99th appearance in this game, was still trying to reach full fitness again after struggling with recurring injuries but was reunited with his midfield partner Khedira for this game. Rather than using the expected Thomas Müller or even Max Kruse up front, Löw opted for Özil who occasionally played up front during matches after strikers were taken off but never from the start.
Elsewhere Marcel Jansen filled in at left back for the injured Marcel Schmelzer and Andre Schürrle for the absent Marco Reus. Löw continued to put his trust in the center-back pairing of Per Mertesacker and Jerome Boateng, who appear to have become first choice after a slew of changes throughout the qualifying cycle. A point was all that was needed to reach Brazil, three to win the group. More importantly, they wanted to do it in front of the great supporters in Cologne.
The Bunker Dilemma
For much of the game, or first half anyways, Germany were trying to unlock the puzzle that they, and many of the other big teams, so often face, namely how to break down a team that defends with most of its players behind the ball. That was the big challenge for Löw’s team against Ireland and the first half suggested it would be a difficult obstacle to overcome.
Early on a lot of Germany’s play was focused down the right, primarily because Özil came out of the middle and out wide often and because Lahm, more than any other player, found himself free space. The pattern of play was often switching to an open Lahm with long diagonal balls but more than not, the ball ended up being crossed into the box and cleared. Germany needed to find a way to penetrate the Irish sixteen-yard box and that’s where they struggled in the first half. Khedira’s goal in the 10th minute itself was a shot from outside the box that took a fortunate deflection.
That said, as the game progressed Germany remained patient and in control and slowly started to find cracks in the green wall. The early goal gave them a cushion to continue to attack and put Ireland in a completely defensive mindset. Then within two minutes Germany nearly tripled their lead. First Lahm’s cross to Schürrle was perfect and only a good reaction save from Irish keeper David Forde kept it out. Second, Müller cut inside and combined brilliantly with Özil and Kroos to release a wicked shot with his left foot from outside the box that Forde again parried safe. Germany were getting closer and the half-time whistle saved what seemed like an inevitable second.
Strength in numbers
Where Germany excelled today was in midfield. Sure, the Irish did not test them as much as they could have, or were capable of. That said, when they sprang counter attacks they were quickly intercepted, ball recovered and put back into play. Khedira, Kroos and Özil coming deep did really well to control the game. While Germany came out of the break a bit slow they put more emphasis on combining through the middle and in the 57th minute Kroos chipped a beautiful ball through to an open Schürrle who controlled the ball brilliantly and put Germany up 2:0.
From there on it was smooth sailing for the most part. Schweinsteiger and Müller again tested Forde and the 4-2-3-1 became a 4-1-4-1 and then a 2-1-7 with most Germany players in and around Ireland’s box. Even the center backs got involved towards the end of the game with Jerome Boateng having a go from over 20 meters out, his shot bouncing off the crossbar.
Whereas Germany have tended to struggle against teams that bunker in the past, they seem much more equipped to handle them as this qualifying cycle has shown. The team is more comfortable in getting numbers forward without getting caught on the break as often, or without consequence. More notably, the output is continuous and consistent. Only the Netherlands have scored more goals in the qualifying cycle and that’s three clean sheets in a row for Germany now. The team is finishing the campaign exactly the way they wanted.
It will now be interesting to see how Löw approaches the final game against Sweden. Pride and the chance of a near-perfect record could dictate fielding the strongest team possible in Stockholm. The collapse against them last year will also no doubt be on their minds. That said, it provides the perfect platform for some experimentation. Kruse and Sam only saw a limited amount of minutes against Ireland and Draxler, Hummels and Höwedes could all benefit from more playing time.
Löw even has the opportunity to switch things up a bit tactically. With Bayern Munich doing so well with Lahm in midfield Löw can be bold and try the same at the international level. Although he admitted he still sees Lahm as a full-back and that is unlikely to change, it is a great option for Löw to have in games and it merits at least consideration. He certainly has the setup to do it and the players to fill in where needed. For now Germany can relax, sit back and start planning for Brazil.
Joachim Löw: “Overall it has been a good qualifying campaign. We have won eight of our nine games and we also to win our final game now. We can be very satisfied as the team fulfilled its responsibility. Against Ireland we showed patience and used our chances well at the right moments. After halftime we came into the game a bit slow and didn’t look so good in one or two situations. We have a bit more work to do. I see two weak spots as it stands: We have to become more stable in defense as well as refine our game in the final third.”
Philipp Lahm: “The team worked very hard over the course of the year. There were many good games and some that weren’t, but that’s completely normal. Against Ireland we put pressure from the start. We knew that the Irish would give everything and the important thing was that we went up 1:0 early in the game.”
Thomas Müller: “It was a little slow as our opponent had a lot of determination. The Irish played almost exclusively in their own 16-yard box. Of course, I can understand that some teams want to protect themselves against us, that’s not prohibited so we have to be able to find solutions for that and I think we did that well tonight.”
André Schürrle: “We did well getting into the game, stayed patient, looked for holes and space, scored three goals and deservedly came out winners. For my goal the pass from Toni Kroos was played perfectly.”
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