Germany have kick-started their World Cup qualification campaign exactly from where they’d ended the Euro qualification quest. That is to say, they have registered victories in both their games in their bid to qualify for WC 2014. A 3-0 victory at home against the Faroe Islands followed by a 2-1 triumph in a competitive condition away from home in Austria have given them the perfect start, albeit only in terms of the results.
A month back Germany played their first international match, a friendly against Argentina; their first international game since the ouster from the semifinal of the Euro ‘12. Germany lost the friendly contest 3-1 at home, a game where they had to play nearly an hour with ten men after care-taker goalie Ron-Robert Zieler was sent off.
Two successive defeats in internationals and Löw had had enough; he held a meeting with the players to search for a cure for the chronic malaise of drop in concentration. Soon, prior to the first of the qualifying games, Löw announced that he’ll be denouncing 4-2-3-1 infavor of a more attacking 4-1-4-1 against the European minnows, the Faroese. The world expected a rout and a notable football website even predicted an 8-0 score-line in favor of the hosts.
Well, 3-0 is hardly a rout in a game apparently dominated by the hosts. But what was alarming was the way the minnows forced Germany into committing hara-kiri on numerous occasions. Despite the impotence of the forward line of the visitors, they almost managed to impregnate the German defense every time they hit on counter-attacks.
On the other side of the pitch, the visitors’ custodian along with their hyper-motivated defenders did a commendable job to keep the German blitz in check. Only a classic solo effort from Götze in the first half and two counter-attacking finishes from Özil into the second half separated the two teams. Germany had to rely on counter-attacks to break the Faroe Islands defense; enough said!
Following a lackluster performance against the Faroese, Löw’s sidekick Hansi Flick voiced his opinion that the side needed improvement and Löw reacted quickly. Having seen the futility of 4-1-4-1 in terms of defending, Löw switched back to 4-2-3-1 against Marcel Koller’s well-oiled Austrian machine. A game between Germany and Austria has always been competitive since yesteryears and last night’s game was no different. In fact, early and late exchanges combined, Austrians created 14 goal-scoring opportunities to Germany’s 7.
Germany again needed a solo effort from another Borussian, Marco Reus, to break the deadlock just before the break, against the run of play. A stupid bit of play from Veli Kavlak earned Germany a penalty which Özil converted with aplomb at the start of the second half, giving Germany a 2-0 lead. But prior to the first goal and posterior to the second, it was all about how Austria ran the German defense ragged and squandered opportunities. Arnautovic, who provided the final ball for Junuzovic’s equalizer, failed to direct a low cross a meter away from Neuer’s goal late into the game.
What could Löw learn from these two games? Something, which he should have learnt by the end of their failed Euro ’12 campaign. Even though he has kvetched for the indifferent performances, it’s about time he understands that to win a championship the defense need to be sorted out. A team does not need to play defensive football to master the art of defending. Ask the Spanish counterparts who kept five clean sheets each in WC ‘2010(7 games) and Euro ‘2012(6 games) respectively. Did they play defensive football? Theirs is all about how you organize the defense to close down the opposition attacks. German closing down can be termed as kindergarten-esque at the most.
There is more to defensive woes than just petty closing down. The penchant for keeping a high defense line against minnows is understandable. High pressing in the other third to keep the pressure up, something that Germany has already implemented successfully against the Greeks in Euro. But it is for all to see that the high defense line leaves the German defense at the mercy of Neuer’s ability to thwart and opposition’s inability to convert, more often than not.
Instructing one of your center-halves to roam forward, occasionally, is understandable. In a high back-line, seeing both the center-halves grazing the opposition third, almost always, is not really heart-warming. Especially, if one of the defenders is as slow as Mertesacker (against Faroe Island) or if the pairing of Hummels and Badstuber does not complement each other at all (against Austria). Such has been the obsession of keeping a high backline, that at times Neuer was seen roaming around as an additional sweeper.
Against Austria, the verisimilitude of the Balotelli Goal recurred on a number of occasions with Lahm being the ‘last man loitering’ somewhat near his marker. The Austrian attackers’ apathy toward converting opportunities bailed out Lahm’s positional sense and Badstuber-Hummels’s combined defensive nonchalance. Bringing in Schmelzer to the discussion is beyond the scope of this missive. Instead, it can be said that Germany played with ten men for the entire 90 minutes against Austria.
When Germany played with 4-1-4-1 against the Faroese, Khedira was bestowed with the holding role, something in which he excels, apparently. When the defenders were seen spending more time on the wrong third of the field, should he not keep his sanity and stay rooted to safe-guard the defense? No, instead he plunged into the madness called je ne sais quoi.
In the 4-2-3-1 formation against Austria, it is a simple task to judge which one amongst the double pivot (Kroos and Khedira) did more justice to the role of shielding the defense. None of them! While Kroos’s case can still be understood as he was the deep-lying (when?) playmaker, Khedira’s one is a real curious case. Hence the reason behind the apparent obstinacy of the 4-2-3-1 to dynamically morph into something like a 1-0-8-1 remains unclear.
Another problem, which has nothing to do with the pseudo formations or with Schmelzer, the phantom left-back, is the lack of physicality of this German side. Except for ‘Neuer’, Hummels, Badstuber, Khedira and Klose to some extent, this side is not physically imposing enough. The likes of Özil, Reus, Götze, Kroos, Schürrle et al are all soft on the ball as well as in tackles. They yielded the ball when pressurized ever so lightly and hardly tracked back to win it back.
Müller was the only difference, who worked his socks off to overcome his lack of technical ability by tracking back, swapping positions, fighting for every ball, and holding onto it when in possession and yes, even winning penalties. If Löw does not include a few more physically imposing players in the side, a team as physical as Austria and with slightly better finishing would run riot against the FIFA World Number Two.
If the simulacrum double-pivots and center-halves are ignored, one positive is to see Prince Poldi in a more central attacking position. This ensures that Germany can actually do without his lack of creativity on the left flank. In both the games, Germany broke the deadlock through maneuvers down the left-flank. This was hardly the case during the Euro campaign where each of Germany’s 10 goals was a result of movements down the middle or the right flank. But there’s no reason to celebrate Podolski’s positional shift as yet. Celebrate if Podolski remains a center forward even after Mario Gomez joins the party.