Germany snuck through an unexpectedly tight match with Algeria on Monday night thanks to extra time goals from Andre Schürrle and Mesut Özil, but in truth they could easily have become the biggest casualty yet of this unpredictable World Cup.
Germany won their group but went completely untested against Portugal, and were very unconvincing against Ghana before an encouraging midfield performance against USA. While the midfield looked to be back on track against the Americans, the weaknesses were laid bare again in Porto Alegre.
The biggest issue for Joachim Loew’s side is that their matches have been remarkably open and they have looked extremely vulnerable to the counter attack. In most teams the primary role of the holding midfielder is to remain disciplined and never vacate the area in front of the defenders. In many ways their job is to prevent counter-attacks. At the moment Philipp Lahm is being selected as a defensive midfielder but he is frequently ahead of the play when Germany lose the ball.
Germany are playing an extremely fluid midfield with the three central players rotating at will between the deep and more advanced positions. While this can be an advantage in possession it often means that when Germany lose possession there is nobody in the holding role.
Germany began playing this way in the Italy friendly in November and while that might be a reasonable amount of time to adapt to the tactic at club level, at international level it amounts to just six games with a variety of personnel. Simply not enough time.
This lack of protection in midfield leaves the centre backs exposed which requires them to be reasonably quick and strong one-on-one defenders. Mats Hummels is. Per Mertesacker is not.
The Arsenal man was hung out to dry by Arsenal’s high line in his first year in the Premier League before they adjusted to accommodate his talents, defended deeper and he became the cornerstone of their defence. Playing in the current set up the 6’5″ beanpole is practically a liability. But for the sweeping ability of Neuer behind him, Germany would have gone home last night.
Beyond the midfield rotation, there is the decision to play Lahm in midfield. Lahm was selected by Guardiola in that role for Bayern this year as the Spaniard attempted to bring tiki-taka to the treble champions. He played the role with much success, prompting Guardiola to call him the best player he’s ever worked with but anyone who thinks Lahm is a better midfielder than fullback is kidding themselves. Lahm has been playing fullback for over ten years, winning over 100 caps and establishing himself as the best in the world in the position in the process.
What makes the decision all the more baffling is that Lahm is the only full back of any quality or experience in the German squad. His switch has forced them to play Benedikt Höwedes and Jerome Boateng as fullbacks, both of whom are more comfortable at centre back. Neither are a threat on the front foot and fail to offer width to a side which plays without wingers. Höwedes in particular is horribly short of pace and attacking intent to play left back. Jansen and Schmelzer are badly missed.
On top of the fact that Lahm is desperately needed at full back, he is keeping international class midfielders out of the team. Bastian Schweinsteiger, the heartbeat of this team since he was just about the player of the tournament four years ago in South Africa, was on the bench for the first two games before his impact against Ghana saw him restored to the team.
Against Algeria, Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira was left out. Granted both of these players had injury disrupted seasons and Löw may have been reluctant to rely on them as a result. In fact injury is the only justification for the move from their usual system. The Bender brothers were also ruled out of the competition leaving Germany a bit short on options in central positions but Lahm should surely be just a temporary solution.
The other possible factor is the poor form of Özil. The silky playmaker was the top scorer in qualifying and has been literally central to Germany’s performances since he exploded onto the scene in South Africa. However, his form tailed off after injury and fatigue in the second half of the season for Arsenal and hasn’t really improved with the national team. Perhaps Löw wanted to reduce their reliance on him by pushing him wide and bringing in another central midfielder. The downside of that however is that Özil drifts inside all the time leaving the side short on width especially in the absence of attacking full backs. The former Madrid man also has little interest in tracking back which was such a feature of Podolski and Muller’s play in the wide roles in 2010.
Perhaps on a wider scale Germany’s failure to get over the final hurdle in recent tournaments has led Löw to think they must alter their style. Löw, along with many of the players, has suffered two semi-final defeats and one final defeat in the last three major tournaments and he might have felt a change was necessary to win in Brazil. However, he can’t have forgotten that he made changes to a successful set up in the European Championship semi final against Italy and paid the price.
As it happens injuries may have forced Löw’s hand and resolved the dilemma, as Lahm was forced to move to right back after Shkodran Mustafi’s injury against Algeria with Khedira slotting in alongside Schweinsteiger. Almost instantly Germany looked more balanced in attack as they had an outlet out wide through Lahm and Schürrle. They continued with the midfield rotation and remained vulnerable in front of the back four but it was certainly an improvement. Löw’s selection for the quarter final against France will be interesting and what he does with Lahm will go a long way towards deciding the outcome.
Simon Bracken, Pundit Arena.