Andrew Thompson writes about Germany at Euro 2016, and the path going forward for Die Manschaaft.
If you were to ask any number of supporters what their expectations were of Joachim Low’s Germany this summer, you’d get a very mixed bag of responses. Some will have put their foot down and claimed that nothing short of lifting the European Championship trophy in Paris as the only acceptable requirement, while others will have accepted a berth in the semi-finals as a very achievable with anything extra coming as a bonus. But the reality after their 2-0 defeat to hosts France in Marseille is one of disappointment and what could have, and probably should have been.
Few have the tournament pedigree that Die Mannschaft can boast, with six straight semi-final appearances at major international tournaments being the benchmark that others could only hope to reach. Despite their progression into the latter stages yet again, the truth is that Germany never genuinely impressed throughout. Regardless of the fact that the current World Cup holders boasted one of the most star studded and talent laden squads at this summer’s footballing showcase, the perennial heavyweight underwhelmed in every single outing during their Gallic vacation, leaving more questions after every ninety-minute stint while providing only a handful of answers.
Despite their inability to push on to the final, Germany will undoubtedly be one of the heavy favorites going into the 2018 World Cup in Russia – the question, or questions that remain, is what needs to change moving forward and where improvements can be made over the next two years in their qualification campaign as well as friendlies that will come about. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Addressing their tactical rigidity
For a few years now there has been a debate whether or not teams reliant on possession football can turn their dominance into success against sides who can defend well and hit you on the break with ruthless efficiency. Germany were quite dominant this tournament, boasting the highest possession rate (63.1%), the most total completed passes (3,408) and one of the highest percentages for accuracy (87.7%). In conjunction with those numbers up to and including the semi-final, the Central European powerhouse also had the third highest shots per match rate (18.8), and a total of 107 in six outings, 61 of which came from inside the penalty area. But for all the impressive numbers, Germany had been far from stellar.
Though their performance in the round of 16 in their 3-0 against Slovakia was notable indeed, it’s tough to look at any of the remaining five matches and state with confidence that they were glistening. Their 2-0 opening match win against the Ukraine raised many questions, while they largely failed to impress in the 0-0 draw against Poland and the 1-0 win against Northern Ireland. Italy had every chance to win in the 1-1 draw that ended in the Germans squeezing through on penalties, and their showing against the hosts was again disappointing. Dominant and controlling yes, but Germany never did enough overall with all the possession and control they afforded themselves.
Using their performance against France as an example, Germany could boast 67.9% possession, double that of the French (32.1%), well over double the amount of completed passes of their opposition (566 to 234), four times amount of completed passes in the final third (186 to 46), and five times the amount of completed passes into the penalty area (20 to 4) – but the one key factor that means the most, is the final product…and that is where Germany lacked against France and for the duration of the tournament.
Regardless of the lopsided nature of the balance of play against their neighbors, Germany not only failed to find the back of the net, but despite having the similar ratio between passes in the final third and passes penetrating the penalty area (9.3% compared to France’s 11.5%), France’s second goal from the run of play gave them a 25% conversion rate from passes into the penalty area, while Germany sat at 0%. While one statistic cannot paint an entire picture, it certainly can lend weight to the notion that the Germans well and truly struggled to do enough with what they created.
Further looking into the numbers show that their 107 total shots is the most in the tournament (though both France and Portugal sit at 106 and have eclipsed that after the Final), with 61 of those shots coming from inside the penalty area but only yielding 9 goals in 6 matches at the tournament (1.5 goals per match) – this is unquestionable a clear cut case of the right penetration but a lack of finishing, which we will come onto later.
The moral of the story, however, is simple. While Low is quite pleased to remain a team built around possession, the struggles shown against France and Italy in the match prior dictate a struggle to convert against better sides, which can be directly attributed to the notion that better teams capable of being more reliable at the back will be less threatened by a side who demand the control proceedings on the pitch – this is where the initiative falls on Low to change his tactical approach to address what was being placed in front of his attack. When teams sit back and are happy to defend and sit on the counter, rather than continuously play into their hands, switching your approach to the match to being more incisive and direct can offer a different challenge. Germany did not have many options in the team who are more direct, but we’re blessed with a mountain of creativity and players who prefer to be in control – this tactical imbalance meant that Germany was almost forced to remain tactically rigid, and even though the likes of Julian Draxler and Leroy Sane were in the side, Draxler’s direct approach was often times muted by the desire to retain possession, while young Sane was not called upon all tournament till the final five minutes against the hosts.
Moving forward, it would behoove Low to have a better squad balance of players who desire possession, but also players who are able to bring something different into a match off the bench, or even from the beginning. Unfortunately, tactics are not like Novocain, and a reliance on giving them time to yield results is not guaranteed to be successful (just ask Spain in their recent international tournament history). Perhaps it’s a bit telling that, bar Toni Kroos, Germany’s standout performers during the tournament were Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, along with Jonas Hector and breakout wunderkind Joshua Kimmich…all defenders. So if Germany is to retain their title as World Champions in two years’ time, an ability to bring something different to the table in addition to their ability to be so dominant would provide the right amount of balance…and a plan B that too many sides lack.
The need for a new Center Forward
Though the abolishment of the false-nine project featuring Mario Götze was rightfully enacted, and the success of Mario Gomez at center forward proving the way forward for a nation who throughout its footballing history boasted some of the most brilliant players at that position in Europe at the very least, his absence in the final also proved that Thomas Muller, while brilliant, cannot be deployed there effectively enough and that the need to find a new long term option in the number 9 slot should be a top priority.
The reality of the pool of center forwards available is twofold: filled with bright young players, but all of whom are very untested at the highest levels of competition in Europe (meaning Champions League) – still and yet, the options are gifted and able to be nurtured before Russia 2018. Kevin Volland, who made Low’s provisional squad, has swapped Hoffenheim for Bayer Leverkusen and even though it’s unclear if he will slot centrally alongside Javier Hernandez or on the right side of the attack, his development at a club who routinely get European football is important to monitor. Other options at the position come by way of 21-year old Davie Selke, formerly of Werder Bremen and now leading the line for newly promoted and ambition RasenBallsport Leipzig – his 10 goals for Die roten Bullen last campaign were crucial and a successful transition back to life in the Bundesliga provides another potential long term center forward.
Additional considerations at the position could potentially be found in another RB Leipzig forward and summer addition from VfB Stuttgart Timo Werner (usually deployed on the left but able to play through the middle), as well as Hamburg’s Pierre-Michel Lasogga. All four of these options are 24-years old or younger (Lasogga being the 24-year old), and able to bed into the national set-up over the next four to six years. By the time Euro 2020 comes around, Lasogga will only be 28, Volland 27, Selke 25 and Werner 24, all prime age and younger for a player of that position. But perhaps the most important factor of all, is that these players fit into a system that requires the center forward to still bring others into play in the final third as well as being options for direct chances being created for them – balance in all things must be applied, and in this situation it is no different.
If the prolific nature of Selke and Werner throughout every German youth rank is anything to go by, as well as the upward progression of Volland, Germany could soon be in a much more stable position centrally to continue the traditions laid down by the likes of Uwe Seeler, Gerd Muller, Rudi Voller and Miroslav Klose.
Continued reliance on the youth pipeline
If you were to make a German XI of young players, many of whom barely (if at all) featured for Germany this summer or weren’t considered in the run up to the tournament, it would look something like this: Karius; Da Costa; Ginter, Tah, Kimmich; Weigl, Geis; Brandt, Stendera, Sane; Volland. No player in the aforementioned list is above the age of 23, and despite the youthful nature of it, it’s an XI that is quite impressive – the point being, is that Germany, probably more so than any other nation in the world bar Spain and arguably France, are blessed with such a deep pool of young players playing at a very high level that it is imperative that they continue to tap into such an abundant resource for the national team.
The successes of Julian Weigl and Joshua Kimmich at Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich this season were justly rewarded with a place in Low’s final squad for the tournament, and the impressive performances put in my Kimmich when he was called upon drew comparisons with the great Philipp Lahm, who was thought to be irreplaceable. But it’s this impressive display by the Bavarian-based youngster that should prove to Low and his eventual predecessor that youth should continue to be celebrated and rewarded.
Though the Germans are by no means struggling to find talent who are in their prime footballing years in their career, a blend of youth should still be considered in the upcoming friendlies and the World Cup qualification campaign. Low certainly understands this, given the players he took to the tournament and who was invited into his provisional squad, but he also should not be afraid to tap into those options rather than just including them in the side. It was likely the right call to include Bastian Schweinsteiger against France given his wealth of tournament experience and leadership ability, but many made a case for Weigl to be introduced into the XI, given his ability to control play, read passing lanes and possessing a greater mobility than the German captain, especially against a highly mobile French attack and midfield. His faith shown in Kimmich should be laid as additional framework that should continue to be built upon – if they are good enough, they should be trusted, despite their age. While I am not criticizing Low outright, this is an adage that deserves its due diligence and subsequent reliance moving forward in the run up to Russia 2018 and beyond.
The future is truly bright
For a nation so steeped in footballing tradition and international lore, bowing out to the hosts in a tournament that is arguably more difficult than the World Cup should both be viewed as a success and a failure. Moving forward, however, Germany hardly has much to worry about.
Boasting a youth system that continues to produce brilliant young footballers, a domestic league that is one of the best in the world, and a footballing identity that few can ever hope to accomplish, Germany will always be a perennial footballing juggernaut. However, if they are to hope to lift another trophy in the coming years, adjustments can and must be made – after all, even the most gifted artists have to rely on that final brush stroke, chord or word to close out what they hope to be a…Meisterwerk.
Written by Andrew Thompson
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