Mission 2012: German National Team not Quite up to the Task
Mission 2012. A seemingly fitting title for a side that wasn’t quite the out-right favourite of international football. I say wasn’t because in an aesthetic sense, Germany are becoming one of the worlds favourite sides to watch. With Oezil’s vision, Gomez’s finishing and Hummel’s outstanding presence, it is hard to see why anyone wouldn’t want to watch them. Before the start of the tournament Spain remained favourites, a tag they seemed destined not to shed but Germany’s squad seemed to be reaching a required maturity, something that left many asking if this time, it really was theirs to lose.
The pre-tournament anticipation was dominated by squad selection, as was the case for most countries. Unlike most countries though, Germany have a plethora of real quality to call on, making Joachim Loew’s decisions all that more difficult. Before that however, France edged Germany in the first of three international friendlies. The games were designed, as they always are, to provide the manager with answers, the players with time and the fans with hope. France showed more composure than their hosts, leaving Germany on the end of a 2-1 defeat.
When the 27-man squad was announced there were some surprises. Despite much talk of Patrick Helmes or Mike Hanke being included, it was Cacau who once again made the 27 as the third striker. Notable inclusions also included both Bender brothers and Schalke’s tricky winger Julian Draxler (18). Marc-Andre ter Stegen was also called up, putting two of the other three goalkeepers on edge as it suddenly became clear that this starlet from Gladbach was ready to get comfortable. Unfortunately for him, a less than convincing performance by his defence against Switzerland in the second friendly saw him concede five goals as Germany ‘crashed’ to an unexpected 5-3 defeat. It certainly raised some eyebrows but I can’t help but think it gave Loew the answers he was searching for. It is often easier to make decisions on the lack of a performance as opposed to the presence of one, especially in a team that bursting with talent. The following game, their last before the tournament, set those answers in concrete as Germany brushed Israel aside in a less than convincing 2-0 victory. Loew’s answers did not include Caucau, Draxler, ter Stegen and Sven Bender, all of who never got the chance to make the trip to Poland and Ukraine.
For ter Stegen it was a tough test but there is no real doubt that he will return, as it seems will Draxler and Sven Bender, both of whom were delighted to simply be involved. As for Caucau, the lack of an inclusion seems to signify the end of his international career. It clearly affected the Stuttgart captain but I’m not sure many were surprised, especially considering Germany’s formation preference and the over-flooding of midfield/wing forward quality. With the squad in place, Germany entered the tournament in the token ‘Group of Death’. Their formation (4-2-3-1 as always) and preferred starting XI (Neuer, Lahm, Badstuber, Hummels, Boateng, Schweinsteiger, Khedira, Muller, Oezil, Podolski, Gomez) had been decided. The question marks over who would lead the line and who would start in defence were answered. The former was made slightly easier by Klose’s lack of match fitness and the latter by an impressive opening performance from Jerome Boateng, solving the right back question mark. As for the centre of defence, the battle between Mats Hummels and Per Mertesacker had grumbled for a while but the combination of a fantastic season for the Dortmund man and a lack of form and fitness for the Arsenal man, made the decision easier than Loew might have expected.
Germany were nervous against the Portuguese, who were unfortunate not to have seized upon the German anxiety but as is becoming somewhat a trait of Loew’s side, they grew into the game. As previously stated, Bayern Munich’s wing-back Jerome Boateng had an excellent game, nullifying Ronaldo as best he could, typified by a fantastic block to deny the Real Madrid winger what surely would have been a clear goal. When Portugal did get the ball on target, Manuel Neuer was in fantastic form to deny them a goal, his save late on being the pick of the lot. Germany on the other hand, despite having the ball for large periods of time, had only one real chance. However, unlike the Dutch in their opener (a result which hampered them), they took it as Gomez’s brilliant header gave them three points and put the potential issue of no points after opening day to bed. Gomez’s performances in big games has been questioned, particularly after the Champions League final but he showed glimpses of real quality in the opening game. It was however Mats Hummels who stole the show, marching out of defence with the ball, spreading the play as well as performing his defensive duties. His performance was of such quality that whispered comparisons with Beckenbauer and Matthaeus were made.
Germany’s form continued into the second game as they dismantled a Dutch side that were bereft of everything and still looked in shock from their opening day defeat to Denmark. Although there were passages where the Dutch looked in control, Germany’s ability to manipulate the ball and the space was both more often evident as well as clinical. Gomez’s fantastic personal form continued with two superbly taken goals to negate Robin van Persie’s effort later on. Bastian Schweinsteiger, who had question marks over his fitness after an exhausting season, excelled in midfield (having been given the space to do so by an absent Dutch midfield) and orchestrated Germany to another victory. Germany had a great number of chances in the game but as is so often the case, tournament fluidity comes with time. Here, the most important thing was the victory.
Despite winning their opening two encounters, Germany could still have failed to progress from the group stage going into their last game against Denmark. There were some calls not to start Lukas Podolski, who had largely been absent in the previous two games but Loew’s decision not to drop him was vindicated when he scored the opener on his centenary appearance for his country (an incredible feat for a man of only 27 years old). Due to a suspension for Boateng, Lars Bender started at right back, a position he had never played for club or country. Germany were visibly nervous though and eventually Denmark seized upon this, equalising through tournament star Krohn-Dehli. The longer the game remained equal, Germany seemed contented but also on edge, knowing that a goal for Denmark would send them out (because of Portugal’s winning margin against the Dutch). A late counter-attack however, saw the excellent Bender score and Germany took their win percentage to perfect. It was perhaps harsh on the Danish who had surprised many at the tournament but such is the nature of the European Championships. It is a small competition with little space for error, one where high risk means either great success or heart-breaking failure. It’s a tournament made for exciting play, deft finishes and upsets. Success is within visible distance of all those who arrive. It’s such a shame that Michel Platini has seen fit to remove most, if not all, of the above by adding another eight teams and a ridiculous knock-out qualification system to the competition in 2016.
Germany were starting to look ominous. The hype was no longer just words as the actions started to provide valid support. Gomez was scoring, the midfield was harmonising and Hummels was growing into one of the most exciting defensive prospects of recent years. Loew’s tournament plan was clearly excelling itself. There were murmurs of discontent in the camp as the likes of Goetze and Reus had yet to feature and Toni Kroos stated he felt his season merited him a place in the starting line-up. These are all great issues for Loew to have because it reminds both him and those players in the starting eleven that the quality on the bench is more than good enough. There are few who argue that Germany would be mediocre without Oezil and those that do, have evidently not seen enough, if any, Bundesliga football. Loew’s man management had been commendable though because all things considered, there is a great deal of value in a side with momentum. Changing those personnel too often can lead to a disjointed feel, something that would potentially derail this extremely fluid German side. Reus has had a fantastic season but so far, quite fairly it seems, has not been needed. Both he (suited to an inside forward role in Podolski’s position) and Schuerrle (a like for like replacement) were threatening to occupy Podolski’s spot and it didn’t seem unfair to suggest that a poor game in the quarterfinal could have left Podolski on the bench. As for Goetze, his season had been hampered by injury and although back to fitness now, Loew had no reason to drop the world-class Oezil.
Their quarterfinal opponents were Greece, surprise runners-up in Group A. The pre-match was dominated by political references and memories of Greece’s 2004 championship victory. Germany however seemed quite content at the prospect of playing a side that would almost inevitably play on the counter-attack, soaking up as much German pressure as possible before threatening any of their own. Germany though, as they had done for most of the tournament, remained confident that during that period of pressure they had the quality to score. Thomas Mueller had been the subject of a few queries pre-match simply because he had not hit the highs of his previous international tournament. It is however, typical of this excellent German side, that if one player doesn’t reach their own heights, another will, therefore allowing the end result to be just as positive.
Despite much talk of momentum, Loew sprung a surprise with the announcement of his line-up against Greece. Klose replaced Gomez and Schuerrle and Reus came in for Poldolski and Mueller. Although replacing Gomez with Klose is no real surprise, in the context of the tournament it must have left Gomez wondering what he had to do to keep his place. Miroslav Klose’s record speaks for itself though and Gomez knows that he will only be rid of his shadow when he retires. The omission of Podolski and Mueller though was surprising, particularly at the same time as Gomez. Many discussed that actually changing one or the other could have been a more sensible choice but to do both seemed risqué. Although Gomez clearly hadn’t been performing poorly, the midfield was struggling to hit the heights it was accustomed to and so Loew sought change. To change Gomez for Klose to re-ignite the midfield seemed logical, as did changing both wide men to accommodate Gomez but to do both almost seemed radical. The changing face of Germany’s front four meant that Oezil would have to adjust to two different wide men and although a world-class player, these differences can take time. Nevertheless, Loew’s decision showed a sign of intent, of freshness, one from a manager who was unwilling to be deterred by political metaphors, defensive tactics or a stubborn Greece side.
Ultimately a manager lives and dies by his decisions, much like every person does. The difference being, and I emphasise this because of the size of the difference, the manager’s tend to be extremely public and when played out badly, can be highly embarrassing for all involved. Germany’s quarterfinal affair with Greece threatened, if only momentarily, to do just that. Greece sat deep and Germany attacked. It was hardly revolutionary, nor was it a surprise. What was however was Germany’s lack of composure in front of goal. Whether the bogging nature of the pitch or the changes in the front four, that final pass or effort on target wasn’t perfect. Reus and Schuerrle both threatened, with the former link nicely with Oezil (who should have scored) and the latter cutting in and threatening the goalmouth with his own efforts. Fortunately for Germany, the time Oezil needed to make those adjustments (due to a change in personnel) was hardly noticeable. Apart from a few misunderstandings, Germany looked just as fluid as they always have. Loew’s sideline antics were understandable though. The one thing you must do as the stronger side is convert early pressure. If not, the weaker side dares to believe and then the embarrassment may loom. Germany were not to be denied though but their goal came from the most unlikely of sources. Philipp Lahm, the captain and one of the best in the world in his position, caught a half volley (of sorts) perfectly and bent it past the hapless Greek goalkeeper. Greece’s game plan had been undone. They would have to come out and play.
Germany jittered after the break, maybe distracted by a frustrated Loew who may well have told them to win the game before the hour mark. Greece reacted, brought on a striker, and against all odds and on the counter, they equalised. Cue delirium in the stadium (for the evidently smaller Greek contingent) and around the world. Surely Germany wouldn’t lose? No, of course not. Where many sides would have crumpled and been left full of anxiety at having conceded, Germany took a deep breath and took the game back to Greece, who were left, like most of us, aghast. Khedira volleyed in a superb second before Klose headed in his 64th goal for Germany to give Germany an unassailable lead. Reus added a deserved and superbly taken fourth before the referee, somewhat sympathetically it seemed, gave Greece a late consolation penalty that their best player, Salpingidis scored. 4-2 seemed to flatter the Greeks and for anyone who had watched the game, they realised Germany were finally moving up the gears. Loew’s change in the starting line-up could hardly be considered a gamble. Not only did they win the game but also it was obvious from the opening minute that Loew saw Schuerrle and Reus as more penetrative wingers, something they needed to implement against a likely wall of Greeks. Despite there being validity in the momentum argument, such is the understanding of the German players, that changes do not (or at least seem not to) disrupt the harmony. Oezil was once again excellent, although suffered from not scoring, and Marco Reus finally arrived on the international stage. Italy or England in the semi-final then. Historical meetings.
After England’s failing, it was Italy who were to be Germany’s semi-final opponents. Many had said they would have preferred to play England and the fact Germany had never beaten Italy in a competitive fixture certainly left Germany pondering. Pre-match there was the bout of confidence from both managers and although many may have seen it as the usual media rigmarole, Loew’s statement of confidence and intent seemed to be at its most genuine. Germany were ready to rid themselves of this Italian curse and take on Spain in the final, one they felt was finally theirs to lose. After England’s failure to press high enough for long enough as well as an inability not to close down Pirlo, it seemed clear what Germany’s game plan would be. Yet so many were baffled not to see Marco Reus start after his impressive performance against Greece in the quarter final and even more so to see Toni Kroos start instead. Although Kroos is a quality player, he failed to fulfil the role that Loew desired of him. He had clearly been chosen to nullify the threat of Pirlo and despite occasionally doing this by drifting in from the wide position; he (as well as his team-mates) didn’t do enough to stop the Italian playmaker. Gomez also returned to the starting line-up, another decision that seemed slightly odd because of Klose’s return to form and big game experience. It proved to be the case as well as Gomez was largely kept quiet. The defence though was the issue that would come to haunt both Loew and Germany. Badstuber had yet to be questioned all tournament but the semi-final found him wanting. The same could be said for Boateng, who despite impressing up until the semi-final was left looking exposed by an Italian side driven forward by Pirlo and Balotelli. Germany found themselves two goals down at the break and looked just as bemused as their fans. This was not part of the plan and yet the feeling of unease before the game, whether due to their opponents or the prospect of not making the final of a tournament that seemed theirs for the taking, seemed to be justified.
Inexplicably, Germany had done exactly what England had done. They had played with great intensity for the opening 20 minutes, leaving the Italians shaky and nervous but pivotally failed to score. The images of Johnson and Hummels’s chances are in fact oddly alike, particularly in the depiction of disorder in the Italian defence. Italy then grew into the game and started to exploit Germany on the counter attack. The opening goal had seen Germany sit off Pirlo too much, the first cardinal error, and then, after his pass, Hummels was turned far too easily by Cassano (something he later apologised for) before Badstuber failed to jump, leaving Balotelli with a free header from six yards. It was a thoroughly avoidable goal and it left Germany looking far from the side they had the potential to be. The second goal was not much better either. From a defensive corner, Italy launched a counter-attack after a wonderful ball from Montolivo, who had a fantastic tournament, found Balotelli in the clear after he broke a poor attempt at the offside trap. Lahm was out of position, leaving Balotelli onside and the German captain tried desperately to scramble back in time but just before he did Balotelli finished superbly, leaving Neuer no chance. Lahm’s face straight afterwards displayed a clear frustration. He himself had been caught the wrong side, Podolski had drifted and Schweinsteiger was absent from his defensive cover for Hummels and Badstuber (both of whom were returning from the corner). It was an offside trap that would continue to look poor all evening as Germany failed to make Italy’s counter-attacking threat redundant. It all seemed a bit embarrassing for Germany and at half-time, everyone involved in Loew’s camp, fan or player, seemed a little deflated. Rightly so as the last time Germany went behind in the European competition was in the 2008 final (qualifying included).
The arrival of Reus and Klose at half time was no real surprise and their impact was instant, with Reus cutting in from wide before misfiring his shot at Buffon. No end product but far more intent from Germany and it was all too clear that the second half would consist of German attacking, Italian defending and then, eventually, Italian counter-attacking. Reus’s impact on arrival seemed to highlight the error of not starting him from the beginning though and by the time the hour mark rolled around and the score unchanged, there were concerns that Germany really had left too much to do. Mueller then arrived as Loew tried to throw everything at the Italians but they defended resolutely and passionately. They had the drive that is perhaps lacking in this youthful German outfit. As the game continued Germany’s desperation increased, playing as if it were the last minute for the last 20 minutes. As a result, and unsurprisingly considering the nature of the game, Germany were often caught short at the back but fortunately for them Italy were largely wasteful with their chances to kill the game. Manel Neuer’s late theatrical attempts to get the ball forwarded, his diving header in particular, highlighted a passion that was maybe lacking both further up the field and earlier in the game. A late Oezil penalty did nothing but excite the crowd but by then it was all too late. The Italian game-plan had worked and Loew’s decisions had not. His shuffling had not paid off and it left many wondering why he had not opted for the same side that dispatched of Greece in such emphatic fashion. Furthermore, the counter-attack that Greece had executed so easily against Germany appeared to have been something that Loew had not heeded as similar mistakes were made against Italy. There can be no doubting that Italy are far superior opponents but what Germany needed was width that provided more of a killer instinct (see Reus or Schuerrle) and better delivery. They had more of the ball, made more passes and had more shots on target and yet only scored from a penalty. The decision-making was poor (not normally the case) and resulted in superior statistics not being converted. It is also worth noting that Schweinsteiger looked completely out of sorts all game, so much so that I don’t understand why Loew didn’t move Kroos to his role (or play Bender or Guendogan) and substitute the Bayern legend. The engine room of the German side has to work the hardest and although Khedira seemed in great shape (and has looked fantastic all tournament), his partner looked weary. Germany lost the battle in midfield and in defence they lost the game.
Mission 2012 has been a failure. There can be no denying that. This was a side ready for greatness, especially after two consecutive semi-final failings. As it stands, they remain an extremely talented side but lack the ability to be great because of their failings in the crucial stages of tournaments. It is easy to question Loew’s position but all things considered, I expect him to have one last attempt at the next World Cup and then, victory or not, let someone else take the job. What is important to remember is this. Germany have failed here in Poland and the Ukraine, but what they have done is add further invaluable experience to an incredibly youthful side. This is of course, no consolation at this moment in time but come Brazil 2014, such lessons, so long as they are learned (and I can’t imagine them not being) are priceless. In footballing terms, we are living in a blissful era of talented teams. Spain and Germany are without doubt two of the most talented teams in recent years, the former one of the greatest of all time and such is the quality that we can often forget to recognise it. It is often easy to forget the achievements and quality of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic in the tennis world because they produce so often. Sometimes it takes a shock result for us to realise that greatness is not always permanent and although the Nadal/Germany comparison may seem strange and difficult (individual vs team), there is truth in it. Yes Nadal’s success has been more recent but like Germany, the quality is there and sometimes, as happened yesterday, talent can be overcome by the right game plan. In that same breath, despite the temptation and the lasting bitterness of three semi-final defeats, don’t give up on this Germany squad. I won’t. Their time will come, just don’t try and predict when that it will be.
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