After their prolific performance at the 2010 World Cup Joachim Löw’s Germany became synonymous with attacking football. The quickness of their counter attacks, the technique of the assembly line of talent coming through and dominant performances against some of the biggest names in international football made them one of the most exciting teams in world football but following atypical performances in the group stage of the EUROs one has to reconsider whether Löw deliberately decided to take a different approach. Considering his use of the fullbacks, the wide players and the pattern of his substitutions so far the answer has to be a resounding yes.
Lahm is known for his darting runs and is almost always the player with most touches on the ball in a game for Germany. Yet he has been unusually quiet so far at the EUROs. A dip in form? Hardly. Lahm is clearly playing a more defensive role than he has in the past and the same can be said for the right back, Jerome Boateng. In fact, both fullbacks are more cautious and venture forward with less frequency than before. There has been a conscious effort on Löw’s part to instill a more balanced approach compared to the gung ho style played two years ago.
Part of it had to do with Germany’s opponents in the so called ‘Group of Death’. The Netherlands and Portugal field some of the game’s most dangerous wingers and venturing forward comes at a great cost for the fullbacks when up against some of the fastest players in world football. It is only fitting then that one remains more alert and conservative. Ahead of the Portugal match, Löw was adamant about not allowing Ronaldo and Nani the space to get in behind the defense because one on one they would struggle to keep up with the Portuguese pair.
What followed was one of the most conservative performances by a German defense under Löw. Lahm and Boateng rarely passed the halfway line and stayed within at least five meters of their markers at all times. Conservative yet effective. Ronaldo and Nani, bar a few counter attacks, were neutralized. Like Löw wanted, they gave up very little space and cut out the channels Moutinho normally plays his passes into. Germany’s wing play suffered as a result but it was the kind of game that a few years ago could well have gone the other way.
The same pattern followed against the Netherlands. It was one of the few matches under Löw in which the opponent had the majority of the possession. Again though, Lahm and Boateng succeeded at taking out the Dutch wingers. Robben in particular had a frustrating match against his Bayern Munich teammate, Lahm denying him the space to cut inside or use his speed to beat him on the flank. The entire Dutch attack faced a German wall and it took an individual effort from outside the box by Robin van Persie to get on the scoresheet.
The wingers – defend first, attack later
Löw applauded Podolski and Müller’s defensive work after the Netherlands game. A few days later before the Denmark game he reiterated his satisfaction with his and Müller’s performances up to that point despite them not getting on the scoresheet. The message was clear, the focus lay more on defensive work rather than going forward. Sure enough, Podolski confirmed after the opening two matches that he was instructed to help Lahm first and foremost and attack later.
What stuck out was how wide both played throughout the group phase. Both are so accustomed to cutting in and letting their fullbacks overlap but with a more discreet set up needed to act as a first line of defense in midfield instead. It has to be said that it worked out very well against Portugal and the Netherlands. Coentrao’s path to Ronaldo was cut off by Müller and so was the good chemistry the two have on the pitch. As anonymous as Podolski was offensively against the Netherlands, he had one of his best defensive performances yet for the national team.
Defensive substitution patterns
Löw’s substitutions, although highly circumstantial, also hint at a more defensive approach. In the Portugal game, Löw brought on Kroos and Bender in the final stages, not to add another goal, but to keep the ball and therefore the result. He did the same against the Netherlands. Kroos is Löw’s third choice central midfielder and with him on, Germany played with three in midfield, turning the focus from partial to all out possession.
When this past season’s best Bundesliga player, one of the players with the best goals to minutes ratios and a talent considered greater than Mesut Özil are all sitting on the bench with it speaks clearly of a departure in styles. Schürrle did make a cameo in the Denmark game but that also had to do with a visibly fatigued Podolski and the latter had also been favored for the past two years despite being outperformed by several other players on the squad.
Löw’s continued use of Podolski might be indicative of a preference for a more direct and one dimensional tactical option than the more erratic mobile alternative, which also lines up more directly with the defensive approach discussed here.
Although this approach is more prudent considering the nature of international football and a knockout competition it comes with a few risks. For one, the compromise does affect and to a degree detracts from Germany’s primary strength, their attack. Löw noted the room for improvement going forward following the Denmark game and still expects players like Podolski and Müller to get better. Müller himself said that the team still aren’t playing at their best.
Most notably, it makes breaking down an opponent’s defense that much more difficult. Naturally the more options you have around you the likelier you are to get around a team’s defense. Özil remarked after the Portugal game that it was difficult for Germany to get past a team that was defending with eight or nine players behind the ball. With their own backline playing further back Germany were limited in their numbers and were fortunate that Mario Gomez made the difference in the end. With Müller and Podolski hugging the flanks, Özil was also depleted of options in the attacking third, often struggling to find a runner into the box other than Gomez.
Germany are out of the group stage now though and will face a very defensive Greece side in the quarterfinals. Wolfsburg coach Felix Magath recently suggested Löw depart from the lineup he used so far and takes more risks. He called for the inclusion of more creative attacking players and even the removal of one of Germany’s central midfielders. Whether Löw will heed that advice remains to be seen and how he lines up against Greece will decide whether the defensive adjustment was geared towards their group stage match or is indeed the next step in their development as a team.
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