Die Mannschaft and the Struggle to Find a German Striker

In a recent interview for Augsburger Allgemeine, Germany U21 national coach Stefan Kuntz raised his concern regarding current youth development system in Germany. “We are falling behind in terms of youth development compared to top nations” he said. “We focused too much on possession football and tactics but neglected some of the football basics: how to win duels, take advantage out of set-pieces, winning headers and the handling of one-on-one situations. Those are some of the missing qualities in our youth players.”

When fans and media are questioning why Germany have failed to produce a top centre forward since Mario Gomez emerged in 2006, Kuntz’s statement gives everyone a brief idea of the fundamental issues within Germany. The rise of possession oriented football is probably a cause and the false 9 experiment is just a cover up of these problems. Compounding the issue, the False 9, which Jogi Löw is well-known for implementing, is probably making the striker problem worse.

The last time a top striker emerged in Germany? 2006/07 with Mario Gomez–12 years ago!

When your team is holding 70% of the possession each game, only playing pass-and-move, avoiding crosses and duels, your strikers are required to drop deep into the midfield to contribute to build-up play. In this case, what is required from a striker will be different from the more traditional box-dwelling and goal-scoring roles. Furthermore, when such tactics are widely used at the youth level, young strikers are going to be less comfortable doing things like winning duels and playing combatively inside the penalty box. Basically, young strikers in Germany are not exposed to combative and intense penalty box play anymore.

So how can Germany produce a traditional centre forward under such circumstances?

Seemingly, young attackers in general look to skillful players like Andres Iniesta or Lionel Messi for inspiration, but overlook other elements of attacking play. People failed to realize that you can’t win with 11 Iniestas on the pitch, and there are so many missing qualities in Germany’s games nowadays. Other than strikers, defensive midfielders are another area where tough mentality, physicality and mobility are required. Germany have failed to produce such a traditional “6” in years because of these missing qualities. Youth players are encouraged to play possession based football, keeping high percentage of possession per match, avoiding duels and body contacts. As a result, our young midfielders do not have such training and practice in matches.

Germany’s U21 national coach Stefan Kuntz is not impressed with Germany’s current youth development system.

Former Dortmund and Leverkusen youth coach Peter Hyballa, who recently worked in the DFB (Deutscher Fussball Bund), also expressed his concerns in an interview with Der Sportbuzzer  last week. Hyballa thinks clubs place too much emphasis on sophisticated tactics in youth matches, making U19 leagues like mini-professional leagues (“Mini-Profifußball”). These clubs all have similar approaches, which somewhat limits the attacking potential of young talent, who are tied down to specific tactical schemes. For example, youth players in Germany generally are not allowed to dribble, cross or make risky passes. Coaching has become increasingly conservative.

“Klose Clone”?

Currently, die Mannschaft has short-term solutions to the striking problem, but the options are very limited. Simply put, Germany doesn’t have many strikers who can provide the missing quality. In recent years, Joachim Löw has tried “striker” options such as Max Kruse, Sandro Wagner, Marco Reus, Lars Stindl, Timo Werner, Nils Petersen, Kevin Volland, Mario Götze, or the debutante against the Netherlands, Mark Uth. Obviously, with this many players cycling through, Löw and his staff have failed to find a long-term solution. Each ‘striker’ mentioned had issues: some were not exactly the type Germany needed, some had disciplinary problems, while others simply did not have the required quality.

Although 4 of the Bundesliga’s top 5 scorers last season were German, a world-class option doesn’t jump out of these four.

Curiously, more than ten teams in the Bundesliga start with German strikers. Furthermore, among the top five scorers in the Bundesliga last season, four of them were German strikers: Nils Petersen, Kevin Volland, Mark Uth and Niclas Füllkrug. So the problem isn’t one of quantity per se, but rather quality, as the current crop of starting (German) Bundesliga strikers just aren’t good enough to lead die Mannschaft.

When everyone is talking about having a “Klose clone,” I’d say we would be lucky enough to find a new Mario Gomez- a traditional targetman. Germany need someone who can play with his back-to-goal, can win duels against big defenders, can win headers, provide a “pivot” function to diverse scoring threats.

The best example at present is France’s Olivier Giroud during the 2018 World Cup. He is not a prolific striker by any means but he has his importance and function in France’s attacking system.  Mario Gomez always makes a positive impact when he is on the pitch with Germany as well. These examples have somehow proven that you don’t need a top class striker in the starting lineup, you just need certain qualities.

The importance of a targetmen is so much more than being an aerial threat or scoring threat alone. Consider die Nationalmannschaft desperately need someone who can do the dirty work up front, we need to target someone with a combination of size, aerial threat, pace, composure and finishing. I would recommend two players out of the national pool.

Niclas Füllkrug 

The first recommended player is Niclas Füllkrug who plays for Hannover 96.  Füllkrug is a 25-year-old centre forward who had a injury riddled career before his move to 2.Bundesliga side Nürnberg back in 2015, but has managed to develop steadily since then. Last season, he managed to score 14 goals in 26 starting appearances, finishing as the league’s 3rd top scorer alongside Kevin Volland and Mark Uth.

Füllkrug can provide some of the missing qualities in this national team- he is tall (standing at 189cm), strong, very good at aerial duels, and is a decent finisher. For example, Füllkrug had 170 aerial duels won in the 2017/2018 season, ranked 4th in the entire Bundesliga, only behind Hannover teammate Salif Sane, Naldo (Schalke) and Caiuby (Augsburg). So far this season, Füllkrug has won 42 aerial duels, currently ranked 2nd in the league; on top of this, Füllkrug has 3 goals in 8 games for Hannover, a decent scoring rate given that Hannover are a struggling side and the little support Füllkrug receives from the midfield.

Borussia Mönchengladbach were interested in signing him this summer, which was confirmed by Hannover’s Chairman Martin Kind. Gladbach even wanted to break their transfer record for his services, but Füllkrug controversially rejected the move and instead extended his contract with Hannover until 2022.  The forward explained that Hannover’s support to him during the past couple of years was the main factor in him rejecting the move to another club after his breakout season.

 

As Mario Gomez and Sandro Wagner have both retired from international football, the 25 year-old Füllkrug is one of the very few young traditional targetmen in Germany’s national pool.  Füllkrug’s game is simple: win duels or headers, play back-to-goal and look for scoring opportunities. Probably something Germany need desperately on paper.

 

Davie Selke, a 23 year-old centre forward from Hertha Berlin, has similar strengths compared to Füllkrug. Standing at 194cm, Selke is not only a traditional centre forward but also reasonably mobile and quick. Despite missing 7 matchdays at the beginning of last season, Selke still managed to score 10 goals in 27 appearances. That has to be considered a decent achievement given the fact that he lacked match practice in his Leipzig days. This season, Selke also injured himself during pre-season and was out until mid-October.

He’s now recovered but has lost his place to the in-form veteran striker Vedad Ibišević.  Selke’s progress during the season has to be closely monitored. After the disappointing 0:3 defeat against Holland, German football legend Klaus Fischer and current Under-21 national team coach Stefan Kuntz have both stated that Davie Selke is someone they expect to contribute for the national team.

The Wildcard: Kai Havertz 

19 year-old Kai Havertz from Leverkusen is a complete package. He has everything you want in a footballer: size, aerial ability, pace, composure, vision, technique and finishing ability. Havertz has recently recorded a top speed of 35.02km/hr (21.76mph), which makes him the fastest player in Bundesliga so far this season. The boy wonder from Leverkusen also won the most aerial duels (89) among all the youth players (21 or below) in Europe’s top 5 leagues in 2016/2017 season. That was particularly impressive considering he was just 17 years old during that season and the other aerially dominant youngsters such as Andreas Christenen (85), Caglar Soyuncu (85) and Antonio Sanabria (76) were almost 3 years older than him.

Standing at 188cm, Havertz is easily an aerial threat.

Everything sounds perfect but wait……isn’t Havertz an attacking midfielder? He is still in the early days of his career so everything is possible, but I am talking about his potential to become an all-round striker for the future. Let’s not forget even elite strikers such as Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez, Roberto Firmino and Diego Costa started their careers in other positions before they became centre forwards.

When Lewandowski first joined Dortmund in 2010, he was an attacking midfielder until Jurgen Klopp converted him into an all-round striker. In fact, in this season’s Europa League group match against Ludogorets, young Havertz scored a goal which was incredibly “Lewandowksi-esuqe”- he played with his back-to-goal, kept close control in a tight spacs, turned on the ball quickly and the ball went straight in at the far post with his supposedly weaker right foot.

Remember Germany DO NOT lack strikers, there are plenty of German strikers starting in the league. What Germany lack is certain qualities in attack. In spite of being an attacking midfielder now, if Havertz gets to the box more frequently, his function can still be similar to a striker.

Havertz himself should also be aware of his development in the long run. The attacking midfielder position (or what we call the “10”) is no longer a popular position in modern football. Teams tend to play with a 4-3-3, or 3-4-3 formation these days. Take Real Madrid and Barcelona as examples, they always play a defensive midfielder (a “6”, such as Casemiro or Busquets) behind two central midfielders or box-to-box midfielders (two “8”s, such as Kroos and Modric). A reason behind this is to strengthen the core during midfield battles.

Even in a traditional 4-4-2 formation, coaches tend to prefer having two defensively capable midfielders in the middle. Such a trend is making the traditional “10”  obsolete. Fewer and fewer teams are playing the 4-2-3-1 formation nowadays.

Bayer Leverkusen tried a 4-3-3 formation earlier this season. Coach Heiko Herrlich used Havertz as a central midfielder (an “8”) but the outcome was not encouraging. Havertz is an attacking talent, pulling him away from the final third and exposing his defensive weaknesses was not a clever decision. Perhaps Herrlich noticed this as well, as he moved Havertz to a more advanced position later on.

If 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 is Joachim Löw’s preferred formation , then to utilize Havert’s strengths fully, the yougster has to play as one of the three attackers up front. Given that he is the ‘complete package’, I do see his potential in becoming an all-round striker for Germany. As a matter of fact, former Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt and Germany Under-18 youth national team coach  Meikel Schönweitz  have both used Havertz as striker, but in a two-striker formation.

Standing at 188cm, Havertz has the ideal height for a centre forward; he is pacy, skilled, composed and clinical. Havertz is slightly lightweight at the moment, but that is normal given his young age. If the 19 year-old is able to gain another 5-6 kilograms of muscle, his physicality and combativeness would improve and make him more comfortable playing with his back-to-goal and inside the penalty box against big defenders.  Havertz is not too far off at 82kg, but there is still room for development.

Neglecting the importance of physicality and combativeness, is a big reason why Thomas Müller, Andre Schürrle and Marco Reus have failed to perform when they were given chance at the centre forward position.  They have not been asked to improve this area of their game simply because their coaches do not think they needed to.

What about the Others?

Three strikers tried by Löw, who all failed to have a real impact.

Had Sandro Wagner not retired from international football, he might have been a short-term solution in the striker position. By 2020, he will be 32- not the youngest by any standard, but still be useful. If we look at the bigger picture, most of the world-class strikers such as Lewandowski, Aguero, Mandzukic, Cavani, Suarez, Higuain, Giroud, Benzema and Diego Costa are all at a similar age. The striker drought doesn’t just apply to Germany, but many other countries worldwide. Löw has publicly stated that a return of Sandro Wagner to the national team is impossible, so this is an unlikely scenario.

Mark Uth had his international debut against the Netherlands, and he showed that he is just another versatile forward who plays up top. We could not see anything that separates him from the “False 9s” Löw had tried in the past. He needs to improve his physicality and combativeness, currently he isn’t strong enough to win duels and playing back-to-goal against top defenders. Mark Uth’s weaknesses also apply to Nils Petersen, who was called up to Germany’s World Cup preliminary roster.  Both have a decent scoring instinct and height, but are not complete enough as they lack qualities in other required areas.

Lars Stindl and Max Kruse are good strikers in Bundesliga, but both are not the type of striker Germany desperately needs. They are very technical and both are reasonably consistent performers, but they cannot bring any new elements to the current setup. Kevin Volland and Maximilian Philipp have similar issues in that they are not  exactly the most fearsome attackers inside the box.  These false 9’s are versatile and technical enough to play every attacking position, but they lack specific qualities to enhance Germany’s attack.

Germany has produced more than enough versatile forwards in the last couple of years, but haven’t produced too many tough-nosed, physical and dynamic strikers to provide something different à la Miroslav Klose or Mario Gomez.

Timo Werner? The thinking is that he will be used as a winger in the national team from now on. However, he lacks the technical ability to take-on defenders, which makes him rather limited on the flanks. He needs a significant amount of space in order to utilise his only weapon: pace. Timo Werner is a counter attacker, nothing more and nothing less. A striker who can only contribute under counter-attacking situations?

We all know Germany’s opponents at the top-level won’t allow them to have too many opportunities to play counter. What worried me is Timo Werner was a decent aerial threat earlier in his career, but he only had 0.6 aerial duels won per match last season and 0.4 aerial duels won per match this season thus far. If Werner has lost his aerial ability as statistics show, he is extremely limited as an attacker at international level.

In conclusion, Germany DO NOT lack strikers, but they lack strikers who can help them to play with more directness. International football is significantly different to club football- the training period is short and it is difficult to establish an attacking system. Sometimes you have to think about playing simple and direct. When your attackers are physical and dynamic enough to win duels and headers, that facilitates your game and makes things easier. Football is all about options and Germany’s problem is a lack of options.

Germany should consider giving up the possession approach and forgetting about using possession to avoid duels and one-on-one situations. Youth players should be encouraged to take on defenders, to fight and take risks. They need such difficult situations to temper their potential and will. Especially for young players from the age of 15 to 19, they shouldn’t be restricted by tactics.

HSV’s Fiete Arp.

Striking talents such as David Otto (Hoffenheim, 19), Fiete Arp (Hamburger SV, 18), Jesaja Herrmann (Vfl Wolfsburg, 18), Ware Pakia (Dortmund, 16), Nick Woltemade (Werder Bremen, 16) and Emrehan Gedikli (Bayer Leverkusen, 15) are widely considered as top striker prospects in Germany. They are all trained to be technical, tactically aware and versatile.

But they should also focus on individual training rather than system training alone, certain qualities that have been completely neglected in German football over the last 8-10 years. It takes time for the youth program to catch up, but the danger is Germany will fall further behind in the youth department. Meanwhile, we can see why French and English youngsters are preferred over young German in Bundesliga nowadays. Clubs want specialists at each position but Germany are not producing them: they focus too much on versatility and tactics.

Bayer Leverkusen’s Emrehan Gedikli.

All these missing qualities and elements (physicality, aerial ability, strong will and combativeness) are why Germany have failed to produce a top class striker in many years. Germany do not lack strikers, they lack strikers with the required qualities. We can only hope Füllkrug and a transformed Havertz can be our short-term solutions.

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Silas Swarbrick

Silas Swarbrick was born in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, U.K. but moved to Düsseldorf at the age of 3. Since 1990, he's been watching the Bundesliga closely. Because of the German talent drought in the 90s, he's devoted himself to following the development of German youngsters, even developing close connections with youth coaches for several Bundesliga clubs. Over the years, he's proudly witnessed the rise of stars from Bierhoff and Klose, to Timo Werner, Julian Brandt, and Goretzka more recently, to the coming-soon-talent of Johannes Eggestein.

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