Against Kazakhstan Germany lined up without a recognized striker in a competitive game for the first time in its history. It was a landmark tactical decision that symbolized both a growing talent pool of attacking midfielders in German football and the acclimatization to a generational trend in football tactics.
With more and more of these versatile and technical attacking players being integrated and Löw expanding his tactical arsenal, just what are Germany’s options going forward? Let us examine the various tactical formations Löw has used and at his disposal and the strengths and weaknesses of each in the context of Germany’s continuing development as a team.
This is the status quo and has been the standard under Löw ever since he first used it at the 2008 EUROs against Portugal in the quarterfinals. The change helped Germany on their way to the final then and has been reliable since. It has been a platform for a two consecutive semifinal runs at major international tournaments, a record-breaking unbeaten run leading up and going into the EUROs in 2012 and a stable way of integrating all the up and coming talent. It is also likely to remain the formation in the foreseeable future
Simply put, it is a tried and tested system. Germany have been using this for well over five years now, and most Bundesliga clubs have adopted it as well meaning that the players are accustomed to its nuances and comfortable with its tactical setup. The majority of Bundesliga clubs utilize the 4-2-3-1 as do the various youth teams through which most of the national team players came through. Familiarity breeds consistency and that has very much been the case with this formation over the years.
The weaknesses are a bit subjective and dependent on a team’s personnel and a coach’s interpretation. Inherently, the formation is defensive in nature. It consolidated the midfield from one defensive specialist in the 4-4-2 to two interchangeable parts. That encouraged tidier possession and better defensive security but it compromised space out wide. The two wide men atop the 4-2-3-1 are wing forwards more than left and right midfielders and often compromise space behind them when they compensate for the lack of a second striker in the middle. That has also been a criticism of Lukas Podolski when playing out on the left over the years, leaving whoever was playing behind him stranded.
The other notable element is the use of a single striker. Theoretically, with two wide forwards and a player in the “hole” he should have plenty of support and over the years Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez have each performed well in this setup. However, the problem arises when teams defend in great numbers and crowd out that lone striker. No longer able to hold up the ball or bring others into the game, teams are often forced to send in wayward crosses and struggle adequately compensate. Meanwhile, the strikers have to try to create chances themselves with two center-backs tailing them. That has been the case often when Gomez was on the field and also a growing concern with Klose’s drop in pace.
4-2-3-1 w/ “False 9”
On paper this is not any different than the above 4-2-3-1 with the exception of having an attacking midfielder up top instead of an out and out striker. That variation makes all the difference in the world though, and the difficulty to adapt to the problems presented by a traditional striker in the 4-2-3-1 have led many coaches to literally think outside the box. Spain and Barcelona represent the model for the use of such an unconventional striker and even Löw started entertaining the idea towards the end of 2012.
Unlike Barcelona or Spain’s 4-3-3, Löw has created a hybrid between the Spanish and Germany’s previous model. His go-to player up top has been Mario Götze so far, everything else remains the same, the primary difference being that Götze has a free role. He will still be the most advanced player but is asked to get involved in the build-up and freely interchange with those around him.
Variety and unpredictability. As Löw outlined in his press conference before the Kazakhstan game, the idea is to have a more mobile and interchangeable front four that doesn’t rely on direct patterns of play or predictable lines of passing. Where before one might see central midfielders looking to play the ball out wide before sending a cross inside, Götze will pull defenders with him and either the right, left or central attackers take the vacated space and vice versa. The roles are less rigid and more open to interpretation. Theoretically, it should serves to unsettle defensively organized sides and make full use of all the technically capable and quick players Germany has available.
Traditional strikers are still preferred by many clubs around the world for a reason, Germany included. Löw made sure to emphasize that they will still continue to use a traditional No. 9 going forward, and rightfully so. Simply put, they are better finishers than everyone else on the team, and when few opportunities present themselves in the game, you would usually want it to fall to the player with a proven track record of goals. There is also still the occasional convenience to playing the ball in the air and making use of some of the better headers in the team, something a player like Gomez is much more useful for than say, Götze or Reus.
This has been Löw’s go-to plan B over the years. It is a slight yet still notable change that gives the team added punch in attack. Löw has primarily used this in the middle of games rather than from the start but has gone with it from beginning on a couple of occasions leading up to the EUROs when he used Kroos in central midfield alongside either Khedira or Schweinsteiger. Because of Kroos’ versatility and abilities it is more of a variation of the 4-2-3-1 than a system in of itself but two examples prove why it is different and how it can affect the team.
As mentioned above, another attacking presence can aid the playmaker and provide more support for the goalscorers. Perhaps the best example of this was Germany’s 6-2 win against Austria in September, 2011. A little earlier, Löw used Kroos in similar fashion when beating Brazil for the first time in 18 years, and it worked brilliantly again versus Austria. With Özil and Kroos, Germany essentially had two playmakers on the pitch and three players focused on just scoring ahead of them. Another advanced player also allows the striker to hang inside the box which only amplifies attacking options. Those added numbers in attack is also why this will probably only be used as an in-game option in the future.
Where the 4-1-4-1 worked so well against Austria and Brazil, it was a disaster against Switzerland in May of 2012. The Swiss won their first match against Germany in nearly six decades, scoring five past Löw’s men and exposing the weaknesses in this formation. Instead of Kroos, Götze was the added man in midfield, which showed that to play this system you need a two-way player to be that extra man. To be fair, it was also a makeshift formation with Ter Stegen getting his debut and Özil and Götze starting together for the very first time. Khedira was stranded in the middle with no defensive cover from his attackers, the back line exposed from all angles and ample space for the Swiss to counter in. It is unlikely that Löw uses this again without two of Kroos, Schweinsteiger or Khedira in there.
A formation that has had a significant re-emergence in football over the last couple of years, most notably in Serie A and with the Italian national team. The recent success of Juventus and Napoli as well as Italy at last year’s EUROs has confirmed the 3-5-2 as a viable formation in the age of the four-man back line and single striker systems. For Germany, the 3-5-2, or 3-4-2-1 as Löw interpreted it, was a fleeting experiment and for many a considerable failure. Löw used the formation in a friendly against the Ukraine in November, 2011 to practice a scenario in which he would have to pull a defender to chase a game. The outcome had mixed results to say the least.
Ideally, the three-man back line should give a team strong defensive cover. Juventus and Italy’s success in the last two years is predicated on a solid defensive foundation. The use of two wing-backs who can quickly slot in alongside the three center-backs and three men in midfield gives a team the cover against any permutation of attacks. The way the players are set up also aids quick counter attacks, thanks to several players sitting deep and available to play the ball forward quickly, which would suit Germany’s fast players perfectly if given enough time on the training pitch. If trained properly, it can be a difficult system to beat and several teams have used it to great effect in history.
And that time on the training pitch is the crux of this formation. Löw admitted to little to no practice time before he used it against the Ukraine and the unfamiliarity resulted in a leaky and uncoordinated defense in a system that should otherwise be very sound at the back. Naturally, it takes more time to perfect communication between three players than between two. Christian Träsch and Dennis Aogo were the two wing-backs on that day and their difficulty to find the right balance between attack and defense also provides perhaps the biggest problem with this system, it requires certain kinds of players. Two extremely fit and quick wing-backs, a skilled ball-playing center-back who can act as a sweeper, very skilled midfielders and quick strikers. That specialization leaves very little room for adjustments and variation.
Löw has not used this formation often, and when he did in the semifinals of the EUROs last year against Italy, it was an unmitigated disaster. That said, there is a lot to suggest that this formation could be the most functional given Germany’s personnel and Löw should seriously consider it as a viable option going forward. At the EUROs Löw admittedly made an error in judgment and played into Italy’s hands rather than play their own game. The formation and lineup itself was problematic as well. The addition of Kroos alongside Khedira and Schweinsteiger was a good idea theoretically but pushing Özil out wide while starting Podolski and Gomez was where the idea fell apart.
The 4-3-3 is probably the best formation to optimize a team’s true attacking potential. With the players available to Löw it makes more sense than any other. It’s perfectly tailored for a “False 9” and improves an area of the game Germany still need to work on, possession. Germany will always have the majority of the ball against smaller teams but against the likes of Italy, Spain, France, Argentina, etc. their retention game has struggled. An additional midfielder, like Kroos or Gündogan for example, would go a long way in improving that. Needless to say, that improvement in possession will also have ad-on effects defensively, another aspect of Germany’s game that absolutely needs to improve ahead of the World Cup.
Unless Özil takes up a wide position or plays as the False 9, there is no real way to fit him into this system and that dilemma is the biggest concern of the 4-3-3 as it applies to Germany. Özil is arguably Germany’s most important player and best performer since the World Cup and removing him from his role to accommodate others may come at the expense of hindering his game. He has played out wide for Bremen before though and always drifts during games even when he starts in the middle but assigning him a different role is definitely something to consider. The 4-3-3 would also mean one less slot for the many attackers Germany has and finding exactly the right front three could take more time than Löw can afford leading up to the World Cup.