October 22, 2017

3 Things We Learned from Germany’s Italian Job

Joachim Löw’s 100th match in charge of the German national team ended in a 1-1 draw in a tightly-contested, and at times feisty, match in Milan.  Mats Hummels gave Germany the lead before Ignazio Abate equalized shortly after.  The result continues Germany’s near 20 year winless run against the Italians but gave Löw plenty of chance to experiment and further prep his side ahead of the upcoming World Cup.

Löw wanted to test his players against the toughest opposition possible and for Germany there are few trickier fixtures than Italy.  The match served its purpose perfectly and pushed Germany harder than they have been throughout World Cup qualifying.  It answered some questions, it underlined some already well known answers and it raised some interesting possibilities ahead of the remaining preparation.

The Lahm midfield experiment should continue

Taking a page out of the Pep Guardiola book of tactics, Löw started Philipp Lahm in midfield against Italy.  With Bastian Schweinsteiger absent and Mesut Özil not 100% match fit, Lahm slotted in alongside Sami Khedira and Kroos pushed up behind striker Mario Götze. As Lahm has proven all season at club level, he is tailor made to play the No. 6 role and showed that in that position he gives Germany a different look and potentially an outlet they haven’t had so far.

Alongside Khedira, Lahm was Germany’s standout player against Italy.  Assured in his passes, quick to read plays and holding his own against Italy’s midfield diamond, Lahm was the link between defense and attack and the kind of holding player Germany have missed for years.  All of Khedira, Schweinsteiger, Kroos and even Ilkay Gündogan are players whose game is hinged more on getting forward, initiating attacks as well as participating in them.  With the double pivot, it has been a matter of rotating central midfielders for Löw since 2008 but with Lahm there as a central pivot Germany’s shape is more unified and roles spread out more distinctly.

Khedira for example was able to roam and participate in attacks down the left, middle and right because of Lahm’s presence in the center.  Boateng and Hummels, whose partnership was questioned in the past, had a good game and great cover in front of them.  Lahm provided a blanket of security for both center backs and always made himself an outlet when necessary.  With Balotelli and the rest of the Italian players putting pressure high up the pitch, having a player like Lahm there was vital, and will continue to be.

The only drawback of course is removing a world class fullback from a position that is already a weak point for the team.  As hard as both Marcell Jansen and Benedikt Höwedes worked against Italy, neither really provided the team with the width expected at the highest level.  Höwedes is very good at covering and anticipating runs but his link up suffers going forward, and understandably so. The decision not to play Lars Bender there, which Löw did at the EUROs last year, may also signal the possible inclusion of Kevin Grosskreutz whose has stood out playing at right back for Borussia Dortmund this season.  His workrate will make up for Lahm’s influence on the right and his natural attacking inclinations for the lack thereof without him there.

Germany need to be more patient in attack

To a degree, Germany were unlucky not to come out with a win here.  They hit the post three times and fluffed a chance in the last minute by confusing themselves.  The fast and furious style of attack that has made the team so entertaining over the years has served them well in qualifying and in most friendlies.  Against opponents like Italy on the other hand, a more patient and calculated approach is necessary.  Too many times, Germany carried the ball forward rapidly, trying to catch Italy off guard and out of position only to miss the final pass or run themselves.

The direct approach is often the best when the space is available but Italy’s tight marking and good defensive organization seldom lends itself to such circumstances.  As such, Germany’s best options are holding the ball, passing it around and trying to provoke Italy out of position rather than engaging them in a contest of speed.  With players like Kroos, Özil, Götze and Reus they more than have the players capable of breaching Italy’s defensive wall so it may just come down to the instructions given by Löw.  Certainly this game hinted at a “break and run” methodology rather than a more deliberate waiting game that may have proven more fruitful.

Löw learned from the EUROs…to an extent

This isn’t to suggest that Germany were poor throughout or mirrored their disappointing performance from the EURO semifinals last year but there were still moments in the game that were certainly reminiscent of that.  Germany, especially after their goal, controlled the game.  They outplayed Italy’s midfield and set up to match them every step of the way.  Kroos and Khedira did a lot of defensive work in front of Lahm and did not allow Marchisio and Montolivo to get involved in attacks.  Most importantly, Pirlo was pressed much more than he was at the EUROs, no longer free to pull the strings all game long.

However, in the second half Italy adjusted very well and varied their pay enough to really put Germany under pressure.  In the first half Italy tried taking advantage of Germany’s high backline like they did at the EUROs and when that didn’t work, they started pressing the defense individually.  Balotelli, Marchisio and Motta stayed right on top of Hummels and Boateng and forced some nervous build up out of Germany’s defense. Germany’s poor build up in the second half put Italy in control and bringing on Özil and Reus did not help much either.

In the end Germany again relied on their quick play and individual quality to try and get the win and created the better chances in the game but it was not the controlled composed performance Löw probably wanted to see.  The personnel changes did not help of course and neither did Özil’s fitness, or lack thereof, but there is every expectation that after seeing recurring issues Germany should perhaps adjust better to in game changes against opponents like Italy rather than relying on the same formula.

Reactions

Joachim Löw: “I am satisfied with how the game went overall.  We put in a good fight and defended well. Mats Hummels did very well on his goal. On the equalizer we could have reacted quicker but the Italians did very well there.  In the second half we missed the opportunity to put them more under pressure but we had a chance to win it at the end. That the Italians never play a friendly against us is clear.”

Philipp Lahm: “We could have easily won here. Overall we were the better team. We had better chances and hit the post in the last second. We did a lot of things well but it can still get better than this.”

Thomas Müller: “I would have loved to have won this game but the shot that hit the post at the end was fitting of this game. The Italians played like they’re known to play and the referee went along with it the whole game.”

Toni Kroos: “You could see that both teams wanted to win this game. A test against an opponent like this is always good so you can see where you stand as a team. We were the better team and played very well.  What Thiago Motta did could be labeled as assault but I could care less.”

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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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