Coach Joachim Löw boldly went where few other coaches have in the last decade and opted for an unfamiliar and attack minded 3-4-2-1 instead of his preferred and proven 4-2-3-1. With the European Championship a little over 6 months away Löw had some room for experimentation and continued to look for tactical alternatives. The friendly against the Ukraine provided the ideal platform for such experimentation. To Löw’s chagrin, the formation had detrimental effects in the first half and allowed the Ukraine to exploit a seemingly out of sync system to take a 3-1 lead at the break. Despite the poor showing, Löw stuck to his guns in the second half and a more settled Germany got back in the game and and leveled the score.
The result proved the difficulty of adopting an entirely unversed system and implementing it on such short notice but it does hint at Löw’s willingness to make the side more unpredictable and flexible ahead of what is sure to be a difficult tournament next year. Löw started Germany’s prodigious playmakers together; Özil and Götze, for the first time and gave Ron-Robert Zieler his first international start after just 28 league appearances. Mario Gomez captained the side in his 50th international match in only Germany’s fifth meeting with the Ukraine.
Travails of the unknown
Löw took longer than most international coaches to adopt the 4-2-3-1 back in 2008. Since doing so, the formation has worked wonders and Germany have gone from strength to strength all while continuing to infuse an assembly line of talent into the squad. Despite the success and a flawless qualifying campaign, Löw remains ambitious and seeks to make his side more unpredictable. In the last two years he reverted back to the 4-4-2, albeit quite unsuccessfully, as well as a 4-1-4-1 which had some encouraging results. Neither provided the fluidity Löw wants though so the time was ripe for something out of the ordinary. Löw admitted after the match to wanting to test the 3-4-2-1 for certain in-match scenarios in which he might have to remove a defender and chase the game. Appropriately enough, that is the exact scenario that unfolded against the Ukraine.
If anything, the first half displayed the weaknesses of the formation more than its strengths although one should not lose sight of the fact that the personnel went into the match untrained in this system. Müller commented afterward that there was little tactical preparation for this formation so the result should not be all that surprising. Either way, the most noticeable repercussion was Germany’s lack of organization and how easy they made it for their opponents to counter. As one would expect, Germany had the bulk of the possession but did relatively little with it as Blochin’s men were all too happy to sit behind the ball. Perhaps that gave Germany a false sense of confidence but the more the game unfolded in the first half the more nervous Löw’s men became and the more ready the Ukrainians were to take advantage of that. There appeared to be a lack of coordination and communication between Germany’s defenders and midfield and Shevchenko fired an early warning sign after the striker was played through rather easily. The first two goals came under similar circumstances after two excellent counter attacks following German corners caught an advanced German backline unprepared and out of position.
For the rest of the half Germany seemed ill equipped for the formation and completely vulnerable to its structural deficiencies. Özil and Götze found it particularly hard to get involved in the game with little support and no outlets out wide. Accustomed to particular roles at their respective clubs and in the National Team they found it hard to adapt to their new responsibilities, especially now that they played alongside each other. Much of the creative play rested on the shoulders of Kroos who pulled a goal back on 38 minutes after an ambitious long-range shot. Ukraine regained a two goal lead seven minutes later though after an equally stunning strike from Nazarenko, who had come on for Bezus just four minutes earlier.
The discrepancy on the flanks was particularly detrimental to Germany. Both Träsch and Aogo, perhaps unaccustomed to the exact role and responsibility of a wingback in such a formation, struggled to find the right balance between attack and defense. As such, both Ukranian fullbacks had a surfeit of space and time down the flanks. Selin and Butko had more ball contacts than any other Ukranian player other than Tymoshchuk and started many of their team’s counter attacks.
Löw tweaks formation and spares blushes
Most coaches would have taken the safe route and reverted back to their comfort zone. Löw remained steadfast though and stuck to his new formation, bringing on Rolfes and Schürrle for Khedira and Träsch. To their credit, the game settled and Germany were able to level the game in the span of 11 minutes. Hummels cleverly played the ball to an open Rolfes after a corner on 66 minutes for an easy tap in. Soon after, Müller, who had come on for Götze, was rewarded for an opportunistic shot after he cut in from the left and Ribka fumbled his shot into the goal.
Germany’s performance in the second half was more controlled and more importantly, more composed. They were less prone to turning over the ball and covered gaps better. Overall the shape remained the same but Löw must have instructed Schürrle and Müller to stay out wide more and further up the field. What was a 3-4-2-1 in the first half more closely resembled a 3-2-4-1 in the second. That is not to say that Germany were free of their vulnerabilities. The Ukraine still found more time and space to counter than they should have and could have scored two more goals on the break but the adjustments did help to curb their threat. With Müller and Schürrle so far up the pitch neither Butko or Selin had the room they did in the first half. It did force some urgent tracking back from the two German attackers though which was a very risky proposition but it also aided their comeback.
While most will likely look at this as a failed experiment it might be more productive to consider another perspective. As Löw noted after the match, it was an experiment above all and as nerve wracking as it may have been, the game created the very scenario Löw had set out to practice for in the first place. The question now becomes whether there is enough time to polish this tactical alternative ahead of the tournament. Aogo and Träsch were the weak spots from a functional point of view but neither would be first choice, Lahm being the left side solution and perhaps Müller or even Schürrle the right-sided equivalent.
Löw sought flexibility and a dimension of unpredictability and the 3-4-2-1 offers that, at least theoretically speaking. More players are involved in the build up and positions are not as fixed as they would be in the other alternatives. That creates an array of outlets in attack and it should improve the team’s ability to maintain possession, given that they all play closer together. That said, a balance needs to be struck between the offensive dimension of the formation and the risk of deploying just three at the back. If that can be done there is no reason to think that the 3-4-2-1 cannot be Löw’s Plan B.
Images courtesy of bundesliga.de and spox.com