Preview – Germany face huge test in World Cup opener against Portugal

Germany will officially kick off their World Cup campaign against Portugal at the Arena Fonte Nava in Salvador on Monday. Joachim Löw’s side will look to end the country’s 18-year international trophy drought.

The pressure will very much be on the team to live up to its ‘golden generation’ tag and finally turn all the talent and potential into silverware. Four years after impressing in South Africa, a more mature and experienced side is considered one of the favorites to win the tournament so there is no shortage of expectations of Löw’s team.

In what many describe as the ‘Group of Death’ the Portugal match will also arguably be their toughest of the group stage.  A win could can give the team the necessary momentum to qualify quickly and even wrap up the preferred top spot. A loss, on the other hand, could put them in precarious position going into a difficult second game against Ghana.

History on Germany’s side

Fortunately for Germany, they are good starters traditionally. In fact, Germany have lost only one of their 17 opening games at a World Cup, that sole loss taking place in 1982 against Algeria. Overall their record is 13 wins, 3 draws and a single loss.  Germany have always been credited with their good preparation and according to Löw, training camp has gone exactly as planned.

Their first match has also seen some of the team’s best performances in recent tournaments, whether it was the impressive 8-0 win against Saudi Arabia in 2002 or the four goals they scored against Costa Rica and Australia in 2006 and 2010 respectively. Simply put, Germany come out in top gear at World Cups and this year should be no different, despite the many injuries and squad chances the team has faced leading up to Brazil.

Germany also have a very favorable record against Portugal on the international stage. They have lost only three of the 17 games they have played against A Seleccao, the last one being at the EUROs in 2000.  The two sides have met in three of the last four major international tournaments and Germany came out on top in each one.

What Germany will we see?

The biggest question going into this game is what lineup Löw will put out. The injuries, the weather conditions in Brazil and the lack of form of certain players has led Löw to consider making radical changes to the team, both tactically and in the team’s style of play. We could see an entirely different Germany from the one we saw four years ago in South Africa.

First, one of Löw’s key priorities going into Brazil was to stabilize the team’s leaky defense. Germany have struggled to defend consistently over the years and to keep clean sheets against top opposition. Part of the solution to that problem could be a more conservative defensive approach, namely in the way the fullbacks are utilized.

Löw mentioned that the hot climate in Brazil does not necessitate the use of high-pressing and high-playing fullbacks. In the friendlies before the tournament he used centerbacks Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Höwedes in the fullback positions and could very well do the same against Portugal. Defend first, break quickly on the counter could be the team’s philosophy in Brazil.

Second, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s recurring ankle problems will likely mean the team’s vice-captain will miss out on the start against Portugal and Philipp Lahm will slot into the midfield role he so superbly carried out for Bayern Munich this season, which also aligns with the team’s more defensive approach.

But the midfield changes don’t stop there. Alongside Lahm, and Sami Khedira, could be Toni Kroos in a three-man midfield rather than the “double six” Germany have relied on so heavily in the last six years. This would give the team added defensive cover and more security in possession. The tournament so far has proven that those that can counter quickly and effectively benefit and those that cannot defend them don’t.

Up front Löw will want the same interchangeable three he used against Armenia with Mesut Özil replacing the injured Marco Reus. Özil has been played in the “False 9” role before. Only in this system he would not be a designated forward per say but a part of a mobile front three that will switch positions and drop off to create and initiate attacks.

It may be the best compromise to 1) compensate for the lack of a traditional striker and 2) fit Özil into this more defensive approach without losing the creativity he brings to the table. It’s a gamble for Löw, especially considering the system is changed so close to the tournament without real practice but it addresses and theoretically solves all the issues the team have been struggling with over the years.

Keys to the Game

The first key right off the bat is obvious: Cristiano Ronaldo. No international team relies on one player as much as Portugal do on Ronaldo, which is both an advantage and a detriment. When Portugal support their captain properly it is difficult to stop him and the team collectively. But when Ronaldo struggles or is marked effectively they have a hard time finding ways to compensate.

Two years ago at the EUROs Boateng was tasked with man-marking Ronaldo and did an impressive job and he’ll likely face the same challenge this time around. Löw will not mind sacrificing offensive output on the right side if it means stopping Ronaldo. Thomas Müller too will likely chip in and if he and Boateng can come to grips with Ronaldo that will be half the battle.

The other is unlocking Portugal’s sturdy defense, which is not only the best in the group but one of the best at the tournament. Portugal, for all the attacking flair of Ronaldo and the team’s reputation, are an extremely well organized defensive team. They defend as a unit and are very physical when they have to be. It’s the type of opponent Germany have struggled against in the past and one they just barely overcame at the EUROs.

The way both teams set up and play it could very well be a defensive stalemate with the tiniest of errors making the difference. Germany will likely sit back more in this game and look to counter. Löw will want his players to preserve energy rather than waste it right off the bat and hope that Portugal come at them full swing.

Germany will have to be especially careful when stepping past the halfway line. One miss-pass or giveaway and Portugal can release Ronaldo in an instant through players like Joao Moutinho. Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels will need to organize the back line and make sure they don’t step too far off their line.

The result may well be a draw but for Germany it will be another good start and a step in the right direction.

Projected Germany lineup vs Portugal:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 12.19.15 AM

Header courtesy of Jafar & Deviant Art

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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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