Loew still searching for new highs

At the World Cup, Germany scored 13 goals in six games and were widely hailed as a great attacking side – or rather they were a great counter-attacking side.

Their football was reactive: they sat back, absorbed pressure and struck on the break. Twelve of their goals came in three games – against Australia, England and Argentina. All three sides conceded in the first 10 minutes, all then panicked and left space for Germany to exploit.

The front four of Miroslav Klose at centre-forward, Mesut Ozil just behind him, Thomas Muller to the right and Lukas Podolski to the left worked superbly well together, their movement exemplary and clinical.

But goals can be the great betrayers: 12 of their 13 goals came in three games. In the other three, when they didn’t get an early goal and didn’t play opposition that defended like idiots against them, they scored just once. They couldn’t get the ball off Spain in the semi-final while against Serbia and Ghana they struggled to break down defences happy to sit deep against them – hampered against Serbia, admittedly, by the dismissal of Klose. They were reactive; when there was no space behind opponents they found it difficult to create chances.

In the two years since, Germany have evolved. Mario Gomez has taken over from Klose and Germany seem to have made an effort to become more proactive. It’s hard to criticise a team that was won all three of its games in what was probably the toughest group, following on from winning 10 out of 10 in qualifying, but it’s not a move that has been totally successful. The problem, essentially, is Podolski and Muller.

Podolski is a great chugger in straight lines and Muller has an uncanny instinct for arriving in the right place when needed, both move into space well and both seem good at reading the intentions of Ozil. Neither Muller nor Podolski are great unlockers of tight defences and there have been occasions when Muller’s lack of technical ability has been exposed. In that regard it’s a little baffling that Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and, particularly, Toni Kroos haven’t been given more of a chance.

When Portugal defended deep against them, Germany looked a little toothless. The advantage they have, though, is that Gomez is a fine header of the ball – which is what is keeping him in the side ahead of the ageing Klose who probably works better with the creative trident. Where teams can effectively sit as deep as they want against Spain, knowing that no Spanish player is likely to trouble them in the air, they really can’t afford to drop too far back with Gomez waiting to get his head on crosses; and that in turn can mean they leave space behind them. In every game Germany have ended up doing enough, but it has never been entirely easy. Against the Dutch it took some staggeringly bad defending to Bastian Schweinsteiger the space to tee up both goals. Even against Denmark there was a little nervous spell before Lars Bender’s winner.

““We have backed up our billing for the group stage and confirmed what we’ve been working on in recent years,” said captain Philipp Lahm.

Jogi Loew saw Bender’s goal as evidence of the progress Germany have made. “Three or four years ago, we wouldn’t have won this,” he said. “But on 60, 70 minutes, all those technical players we have who can take control of the ball stepped up.”

Well, maybe. But Germany’s most impressive player so far has been Mats Hummels, the centre-back. Commanding defensively, he is adept at stepping up from the back to create an extra man in midfield, varying the passing options. Certainly there is a greater fluidity to Germany’s midfield than at the World Cup. It’s no longer a simple case of Sami Khedira defending and Schweinsteiger pushing on; Khedira has developed at Real Madrid and they take it in turns now. That can be hugely advantageous – and was a contributory factor to the collapse of the Dutch midfield in the first half of their meeting in Lviv – but when both go forward it can leave the German back four unprotected; it was that space Robin van Persie zipped through in scoring the Dutch goal. Schweinsteiger is still feeling his way back from injury and, although he played well against Portugal and the Netherlands, he was worryingly off-colour against the Danes.

So while Germany have probably been the most impressive side – no other team has won or can win all three group games – but there are caveats. Even Greece might think they could frustrate Germany in the quarter-final and then, as Denmark did, perhaps strike from a set play. Germany been good, but they’re not invincible.

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Saturday, January 23, 2021

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