The clock had already ticked past the 90-minute mark in Germany’s 2-2 draw with Ghana, when Jogi Löw could no longer contain his frustration: visibly angry that his team gifted Ghana the chance to score the winning goal on the break just before the end of the match, the DFB coach kicked the Brazuca, which had rolled towards him, away in despair. Referee Sandro Ricci was forced to calm Löw down, who sheepishly apologised for his outburst. It was not so much the fact that Germany failed to beat Ghana that caused the Löw to lose his cool, but the way in which his team’s composure slowly disintegrated over the course of the second half. Following a convincing 4-0 win over Portugal, Saturday’s game confronted Löw with the sobering realisation that there is still a lot of work to be done if Germany want to have a realistic chance of reaching the final in Rio on July 13th. Here is a list of four issues that the DFB Coach may need to address in due course:
The Back Four
In their first group game, Germany’s back four looked solid defensively and dangerous in attack. The way in which the full-backs Benedikt Höwedes and Shkodran Mustafi (a substitute for the injured Jerome Boateng) were exposed in the second half by an aggressive Ghana side, however, is a cause for concern. Indeed, makeshift left-back Benedikt Höwedes struggled with Christian Atsu’s blistering pace throughout the majority of the match. All too often the Schalke skipper acted too hesitant out of fear of being overrun, in the lead up to Andrew Ayew’s headed equaliser Höwedes failed to close down Harrison Afful.
When Germany had the ball, Höwedes worked hard to get involved in the attack, however his passing lacked precision and his movement the required agility. Germany generally looked too static when in possession, not least because overlapping runs by the Höwedes, Mustafi and Boateng were generally a rarity. Unlike Portugal, Germany’s second group opponents sat deep and the full-backs were unable to exploit the spaces created by the attacking midfielders. Having played 45 minutes less than his teammates, Mustafi had more energy to make several determined runs, one of which created space for Thomas Müller to cross the ball for the 1-0 lead just after half-time.
On the plus side, the extra height and additional aerial threat provided by four central defenders may yet prove to be an important advantage in tight games. After all it was Höwedes’s header that led to Miroslav Klose’s vital equaliser on 71 minutes. For a long time Jogi Löw was rightly accused of not making the most of set pieces, thanks to Hansi Flick’s persistence Germany have finally practiced set-pieces and it is already paying off. All this should, however, not obscure the defensive deficiencies that were all too evident against Ghana. With Erik Durm and Kevin Großkreutz in the squad Germany have more traditional options for the full-back position at their disposal, should Löw want to change things around. But is the current back four actually the main problem and who else must take a share of the blame for the defensive frailties against Ghana?
Defensive support from attacking midfield
While Thomas Müller’s work ethic cannot be called into question, Mario Götze and Mesut Özil will have to accept some criticism for their low defensive work rate against Ghana. Benedikt Höwedes in particular, has received little support so far which meant that Ghana and, to a lesser extent Portugal, were able to target this weak spot in the Germany set-up over and over again. On too many occasions Höwedes had to watch more than one player, usually a runner on the flank as well as the man in possession, due to a lack of defensive help from his teammates on the wing.
While Götze and Özil are both brilliant individuals, Löw may have consider giving Lukas Podolski or Andre Schürrle the chance to provide the necessary support for Höwedes in the games to follow. Both Schürrle and Podolski are very hard working and the latter additionally boasts a highly valuable, physical side to his game. Podolski’s determination may even rub off on his colleagues, something that is arguably unlikely to happen with Mario Götze.
While a change in Germany’s offensive midfield would fail to address the lack of attacking threat offered by the current full-backs, it may solve some of the defensive issues the Nationalmannschaft has had. Considering that the last two World Cups were won by teams that only conceded two goals each, strengthening the collective defensive unit must be considered a priority.
Composure in the face of adversity
To the neutral spectator, the second half of Germany’s game against Ghana was nothing short of a spectacle. The way that both teams were trying to land a lucky punch and secure the three points was highly entertaining and, at least from a Ghanaian point of view, understandable as the Black Stars really needed a win to increase their chances of progressing into the next round. For Germany, a point put them in a very good position going into the last group match against the USA, yet towards the end of the Ghana game Löw’s side came very close to carelessly throwing it away. Unlike with England, who followed a similarly reckless approach in their game against Uruguay, there was no Luis Suarez to punish the Germans.
Toni Kroos stated after the game, that the way his team got sucked into a manic period of wild attacking football was highly unnecessary and not what his team, potential World Cup contenders, should be aiming for, and it is difficult to argue with him. Germany got caught up in the emotional climax of the game and lost their concentration and organisation as a result. For all of Germany’s attacking potential, it is fair to say that consistent, focused performances over 90 minutes have been a rarity more often than not under Löw. Furthermore, Germany’s ability to keep their composure when dealing with unexpected blows has come under scrutiny yet again.
On a more positive note, Germany showed great morale against Ghana where they managed to come from behind and rescue an all-important point. Moreover, Löw got his substitutions spot on, introducing Bastian Schweinsteiger and match-winner Miroslav Klose in time to salvage a point.
Without a doubt, the immense heat and high humidity in Fortaleza played a part in Germany’s performance deteriorating in the second half against Ghana. The conditions in Recife around 1pm local time, when Germany play their third group match against Jürgen Klinsmann’s USA, will put the fitness of Jogi Löw’s team to the test yet again. With the likes of Erik Durm, Kevin Großkreutz, Christoph Kramer, Andre Schürrle and Lukas Podolski, Jogi Löw has plenty of incredibly fit players on the bench, bursting to put in a good shift and prove their worth on the biggest stage. The extent to which these individuals actually enjoy Löw’s trust and whether the DFB Coach is flexible enough to accommodate these individuals in the current side remains to be seen.
Löw’s rotation for Germany’s 2012 Euros quarter-final with Greece paid off, against Italy he surprisingly brought Toni Kroos into the team, a player who had not started a game before the semi final in Warsaw. Nonetheless, Löw’s previous tactical mistakes should not rule out the possibility of a rotating starting eleven in Brazil. Given the continuous question marks over the fitness of players such as Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger or perhaps even the suitability of Benedikt Höwedes, Löw will soon need to decide whether Christoph Kramer, Erik Durm or the versatile Kevin Großkreutz are actually viable alternatives or not. Löw’s trust in Mustafi may have been somewhat surprising, yet fielding a centre-back in a full-back position remains a reasonably safe and conservative option. The fact is that every time Löw has to take off Schweinsteiger or Khedira, he is also depriving himself of an additional substitution that may or may not decide a close game in the same way that Klose did against Ghana.
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