Germany face some perennial questions on both ends of the pitch. “What on earth is the defense doing?” is a favorite. As is, “Who will be Germany’s striker?” As Miroslav Klose’s prodigious days draw to an aging end, the second question becomes more pressing than ever. Mario Gomez has been much maligned over the years, and now it seems the Bayern Munich man will face yet another set back, as Joachim Löw moves the German national team toward a striker-less future.
Löw’s False 9 Project
Joachim Löw’s squad list for Germany’s World Cup Qualifier against Kazakhstan raised a few eyebrows. With Miroslav Klose out through injury, Löw opted not to select a second striker to keep Mario Gomez company, but instead called upon an impressive list of attacking midfielders: from the world class Mesut Özil, to the Dortmund duo of Reus and Götze, to the teenager Julian Draxler.
Löw once again snubbed Germany’s most prolific goalscorer, Stefan Kiessling, whose last call up came in 2010. The Bayer Leverkusen man has been in fantastic form this season, with 16 goals and 6 assists to his name, but was excluded from the squad as “a matter of philosophy,” according to the German national team manager.
“It may be a thing of the future not to have the big, physical strikers but rather those who can move in very tight spaces,” said Löw, who cites as his inspiration (and aspiration) the Spanish side that won the European Championships using a fluid attacking formation without a designated front man.
“I have been thinking about it a lot, about dangerous players who can switch positions … If they play with variety you don’t have to have a centre forward. To have this flexibility and variety can surprise the opponents, either as an option to start like that or during the game.”
“This is a very intriguing idea, especially since [Löw] is in the fortunate position also to have the right players,” said Günter Netzer. Indeed, as Löw’s call-ups indicate, Germany are not lacking in players capable of playing the role of the “false 9”. Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil, Mario Götze, and Marco Reus are all players with the goalscoring instinct and ability to maneuver in tight spaces. The latter three have even been employed in the false 9 role in friendlies: Reus, in the Argentina friendly last August; Götze, in the 0-0 draw against the Netherlands; and Özil played as false 9 after Gomez was subbed off in the France friendly — which Germany came back to win 2-1, defeating France for the first time in 26 years.
Against Kazakhstan in Astana, Germany will be playing on artificial astro turf, a surface better suited to small, technically gifted players rather than the big center forwards like Mario Gomez. It is a surface that forces players to pass more accurately, which Loew believes will be an advantage to his side as they attempt to implement a striker-less formation.
Dortmund’s Leading Role in Germany’s Future
As Germany transition from the counter-attacking style of football they displayed at WC 2010, into a more possession-based style, the Barcelona comparisons are all but inevitable. But a more apt comparison might be a team closer to home — located, specifically, in Dortmund.
Löw’s vision of possession-based, striker-less football necessitates central midfielders possessed of acute vision and accurate passing. Germany need holding midfielders and playmakers of rare quality, and imbued with the style of football that Löw is leaning toward. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are Germany’s obvious stars in midfield, but for Germany’s evolving football philosophy, the best fit may indeed be Ilkay Gündogan.
Superb awareness, vision, and passing. At just 22 years old, Gündogan commands the pitch and is already one of Germany’s best holding midfielders. At Dortmund, Gündogan partners Sebastian Kehl in defensive midfield as the more forward of the two, and his playmaking ability shines. One could see Gündogan’s club level exploits alongside Marco Reus and Mario Götze transition to the international stage for Germany, should Löw play the three together.
Familiarity between players cannot be overvalued here, when there is necessarily limited training time allotted for national teams to gel. In the Gündogan-Reus-Götze trio, Löw has a pre-made attacking strategy. And speaking of “dangerous players who can switch positions,” Reus and Götze fit the bill perfectly: the young Dortmund duo have been compared to the legendary midfield pairing of Xavi and Iniesta, for their link-up play and interchangeable positioning the has caused headaches across the Bundesliga this season.
Between Dortmund and the perennial Bayern powerhouse, Löw has enough midfield talent to realize his vision. If he truly is to base the German national team around a possession-based, striker-less philosophy, Löw could do much worse than draw his key players from Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich — two teams that are masters of the possession game.
The False 9: Germany’s Best Bet?
Mario Gomez publicly criticized the national coach’s false 9 ambitions, however.
“People say it is true that Barca play without centre forward [but] Lionel Messi is a brutal centre forward,” said Mario Gomez. “Each team needs such a killer, whether that is small or large … The point is that there are few opportunities in top games. For this you need a striker who has the absolute will to achieve the goal.”
Former German internationals Günter Netzer and Fredi Bobic have also voiced their concern that Germany still need a Plan B should the false 9 strategy hit a roadblock. After all, even Spain kept strikers in their squad and called on them when needed. The difference between Spain and Germany, however, is that Spain have the luxury of strikers like Llorente, Torres, Villa, and Soldado. Germany have no such selection to choose from.
The relative dearth of striking ability makes Kiessling a more tempting option than ever, but Kiessling in and of himself is not a solution to Löw’s striker problems. There are few world class German strikers at the moment. Klose will be 36 before the Brazil World Cup arrives, Gomez has been benched for the most of the season at Bayern, and the reality is that most Bundesliga clubs rely on foreign strikers for their goal haul. Whereas goalkeepers and attacking midfielders are a homegrown specialty in today’s Germany, strikers are not. In light of this, a striker-less future could well be Germany’s best investment.
This German generation is fairly bursting with talent in attacking midfield, and the Bayern and Dortmund players listed above only begin to scratch the surface. There is, of course, Mesut Özil at Real Madrid. There is Andre Schürrle at Leverkusen, Lewis Holtby at Tottenham, and Julian Draxler at Schalke. Furthermore there is Patrick Herrman at Gladbach, whom Klopp has tipped to be Borussia’s next big star. And Lukas Podolski still has a few years left in him yet.
Everything is now down to Bundestrainer Joachim Löw and his ability to implement and refine this system in the coming months. With little over a year left before World Cup 2014, Germany have yet to employ the false 9 stratagem in a competitive match. Today’s qualifier against Kazakhstan will be Germany’s optimal starting point, as a competitive match against manageable opposition. And friendlies over the summer will provide a low-pressure environment for tweaking the system, before the remaining qualifying matches in the fall.
One way or another, the future of this young German side could be decided this year, and it begins tonight, in Astana.