Germany kicked off the calendar year with their first win over France in 26 years. Their last win came all the way back in 1987 when two goals from Rudi Völler topped a French side in Berlin that featured a young Eric Cantona. It’s only their second win in France as a matter of fact, the first coming all the way back in 1935.
After what many considered an underwhelming 2012, it was a very optimistic start for a side missing many first-choice players. 2013 will be a crucial year for the team’s development and the performance, especially the second half, was a bright spot for Joachim Löw’s side. Here are five notable observations from Germany’s win.
Özil remains Germany’s most important player
Few would disagree about who Germany’s best player was in Paris. After an impressive 2012 in which the Real Madrid playmaker was the team’s top scorer and most consistent player, Mesut Özil continues to show why he is essentially undroppable for Löw. That’s a great credit to Özil’s qualities as a player, and it is obvious how much he has grown as a player in his time in Spain with Germany benefitting from it, but it can also a bit worrisome for the team.
The assist to Khedira for the match-winning goal was something that would not look out of place at Barcelona, a moment of magic that is a regular feature of Özil’s play. Aside from Ilkay Gündogan, no player had more touches on the ball than Özil in this game, and he was again behind nearly every dangerous attack Germany put together. Özil’s movement across the attacking third and his ability to combine seamlessly with those around him is what makes Germany tick at their best.
But does the team rely a bit too much on his ability to create and move the team forward? When Özil wasn’t on the ball, Germany were finding it hard to break down France or find the opportune spaces or runs. The goal for Löw should then be twofold; optimize the performance of the team with Özil but also around him. The personnel around Özil very much hinges on this happening as we’ll see later.
2013 must see Germany’s defense improve
Germany have kept just six clean sheets in their last 28 matches, probably not the most desirable record for a team with their standards and admissions. The need to improve defensively has been very apparent in the last couple of years and with the World Cup approaching, Löw must make it an absolute priority.
As was again evident against France, the team’s defense remains very vulnerable. They consistently got caught on the break and struggle with the offside trap. It was the first game of the calendar year though, it should be said, and it has been a while since this group of players trained together. Yet, the chaotic and non-symbiotic nature of their defensive performance is troubling when you consider how well a lot of these players perform for their clubs.
Löw’s team can create chances, that’s never a problem. But they also allow several. France had 14 attempts on goal and Germany rarely look comfortable when attackers run at them. A lot of it hinges on finding a consistent back line and trying to maintain it through an erratic and often unpredictable schedule. Yet the uncertainty in the fullback position continues with players continuously being shuffled around and played out of position.
How players compliment each other and the team is also important, and it is difficult to see clear confidence and communication in Germany’s back line, regardless of who is out there. Too often, defenders are put in compromising positions or have to make last-ditch tackles and resort to desperate clearances. A proper balance needs to be found, from front to back, and that starts with consistency in selection and utilization of personnel.
Germany better without a target man
Mario Gomez just recently returned from a lengthy spell on the sidelines and was given the start to try and regain match fitness so his performance has to be judged in context. However, it became very apparent that Germany’s play improved quite significantly once the striker was taken off.
The introduction of Kroos in his place removed the restrictions inherent in playing a striker like Gomez who becomes an almost stationary target for the rest of the team. Kroos and Özil each took turns being the most advanced player with Podolski and Müller coming inside when the team moved forward.
The shape of the team was less rigid and more organic, making it less predictable and more dangerous. It is no surprise that Özil’s game picked up as a result. With more outlets from both flanks and coming through the middle, he had a plethora of options, and the second goal was a direct result of the introduced fluidity.
That’s not to say that a player like Gomez cannot function in the team’s setup but Löw must do his best to try and replicate the chemistry these players display at club level at the national stage and the most optimal way to achieve this seems to include the absence of a traditional target man. This brings us to the next point.
Löw must not hesitate to think outside the box
Löw has experimented with formations before. The three-man backline against the Ukraine in 2011 or the strikerless formation against the Netherlands last year spring to mind but more or less, tactical variety has been few and far between from Germany since Löw took over in 2006. Three tournaments later, the feeling still exists that Löw still has yet to find the formulate to truly get the best out of what is one of the most talented generations of German footballers in a long time.
The nature of international football and the scheduling naturally conflicts with the attempt to create the kind of chemistry that exists at club level, but with Germany you get an increasing sense that the team sometimes relies more on individual talent than team performance. That much was obvious in the first half of the France game and at various points since the 2010 World Cup.
Having tremendous strikers like Gomez and Miroslav Klose available is a luxury for any national team coach, but Germany’s greatest strength lies in all its attacking midfielders. The versatility and innate football IQ of players like Marco Reus, Mesut Özil, Mario Götze and Thomas Müller begs for a football environment that lets them express their talents rather than restrict or limit them. Tactically that connotes a strikerless formation that adequately accommodates and optimizes their skillset.
The Netherlands friendly at the end of 2012 may not have been the best testimony of its strengths, but the circumstances of the match were more pronounced than the actualization of the experiment. As 2013 progresses, Löw should be more willing to step out of his comfort zone and allow a setup that includes his most talented players because the long-term payoff will be more beneficial than the consequences of experimentation.
2013 will be crucial for the team’s development
This year is arguably the most important the national team’s development since Löw took over. It is a year in which the team must progress to be able to turn all its potential and talent into a trophy next year in Brazil.
In an interview with French paper Le Parisien recently Löw emphasized the importance of style and pleasing the audience but Germany’s recent performances and progress in the last year has resembled more the pragmatism of the past rather than the talent of this new generation of players. The consistent rotation and changes in personnel obviously don’t help matters but Germany and Löw’s aim for the year should be to replicate Spain’s balance of interchanging personnel without compromising performance and results. Style and success should never be considered mutually exclusive.
There is no doubt that Germany will get through World Cup qualifying with flying colors, but the danger is a stagnant environment for the players’ development. With the World Cup rapidly approaching that does not bode well considering the growing pressure to end their long international trophy drought.
Header courtesy of Reuters