Germany’s World Cup goes on, but their second phase encounter with Algeria would produce yet another dramatic chapter in what has so far been an incredible tournament – arguably the best for a long time, possibly since Mexico 1986. Expected to take things easy against the team known as Les Fennecs – the Desert Foxes – Nationaltrainer Joachim Löw would end up looking like another famous Desert Fox with the atmosphere in Porto Alegre’s Estádio Beira-Rio feeling like a footballing El Alamein.
After the heat of Salvador and Fortaleza and a wet humidity of Recife the almost European conditions in Porto Alegre would come as a welcome relief for the German team, but the lack of temperature in the slightly damp air would be more than made up by the heat generated by the tenacious North Africans. Ranked twenty-two in the world, the team coached by former Yugoslavia striker Vahid Halilhodžić would be a completely different proposition from the team that had been foolishly dismissed as no-hopers by Jupp Derwall’s team in Spain thirty-two years earlier – a tournament that would define the somewhat sour relationship between the two countries on the football pitch.
In a game that would ebb and flow right to the end of extra time, the German defence would be put to the sword by an energetic Algerian team – a team that would come into their first knockout fixture at the World Cup finals with nothing to lose. The Nationalelf woud emerge from the first half dazed and confused but thankfully unscathed, and while they would improve dramatically in the second half the number of chances that would go begging would be a major cause for concern. Only two of their shots on the goal ably tended by the excellent Raïs M’Bohli would find the back of the net, but in the end it would prove to be enough.
Well, just about enough. The first knockout test over, the Nationalmannschaft would maintain their record of reaching the last eight at every World Cup since 1954 – and set up an tasty encounter with neighbours and old rivals France in Rio’s famous Estádio Maracanã on Friday 4th July.
Facts and Stats
This would only be the third meeting between Germany and Algeria, with the first taking place in 1964 – the North African country’s first full international – and the second in 1982 during the World Cup in Spain. The first encounter – which would take place on a wet clay “pitch” on New Years’ Day in Algiers – would see the Algerians beat a weakened German side 2-0, but no such excuses could be made in Gijón in June 1982, when an experienced and much-fancied German side found themselves on the end of a shock 2-1 reverse. Subsequent events would lead to a souring of the relationship between the two countries in a football sense, which is covered here.
Having been denied a passage out of the group phase in 1982, the fact that Algeria would meet Germany in their first-ever knockout phase game would add extra spice to what was always going to be an interesting encounter.
The match would also see a couple of personal milestones as the current crop of centurions continue to climb up the all-time list. Bastian Schweinsteiger would take to the field in the Nationaltrikot for the 105th time to join former center-back Jürgen Kohler in joint sixth place, while Per Mertesacker would move onto 102 caps, one ahead of Thomas Häßler and just one behind Der Kaiser Franz Beckenbauer.
Before the game central defender Mats Hummels would withdraw with flu-related symptoms, and UC Sampdoria’s Shkodran Mustafi would make his first start as right-back with Jérôme Boateng moving into the centre. Elsewhere Mario Götze would return to the starting lineup instead of Lukas Podolski, but perhaps the biggest team selection story of the afternoon would be the retention of Bastian Schweinsteiger with Sami Khedira left on the bench.
Jogi’s Jungs would start the match strongly, but this would only last for the opening ten minutes as Algeria would seize the initiative. Breaking fast the Algerians would both both outrun and outflank a somewhat suspect German defensive line, taking advantage of the gaping spaces that would appear between the last man and ‘keeper Manuel Neuer.
While not actually threatening the German goal the Desert Foxes – dressed in a lurid all-green ensemble – would continue to pull the German defence out of shape, and usually trustworthy players would look uncharacteristically uncomfortable on the ball. Both new man Mustafi and Benedikt Höwedes on the left would be all at sea, while even reliable figures like Schweinsteiger would be making mistakes. The offensive midfield meanwhile would find themselves completely blunted by the energetic Algerians; Thomas Müller would be a lone figure with little service, Mesut Özil would look like a fly caught in a glass, and Mario Götze would deliver a forgettable display littered with errors.
Götze would have a sight of goal shortly before the break after Algerian ‘keeper Raïs saved well from Toni Kroos, but would hit it straight at the keeper. That effort would be Götze’s last action, and the start of the second half would see him replaced by André Schürrle.
If the first half had been defined by Germany’s wobbly defence, the key talking points of the second would be profligacy of the attack. Schürrle’s introduction would give the Mannschaft extra strength and pace going forward, and as the clock ticked by they would gradually start to assert themselves. Confidence would grow and the passes would be put together far better, but Algeria would continue to look dangerous on the break with the German defence continuing to hold a high line up the pitch. Time and again Neuer would come to the rescue of the outrun and outflanked centre-backs, performing the role of the traditional Libero.
As Löw’s side started to find their rhythm up front the chances would start to come, but while Neuer would perform the role of the sweeper-keeper his opposite number Raïs would deny the Mannschaft using more orthodox methods. Perhaps the best chance would fall to Müller, who would get on the end of a looping cross from substitute Khedira – only to send an uncharacteristically firm header straight at the Algerian number one. (Had it been a typical Müller effort – hit into the ground, skimming off the side of his head – it would almost certainly have been 1-0).
Germany would by now have more than two-thirds of the possession, and two minutes into extra time the pressure would finally tell. The tireless Müller would provide the crucial cross, and Schürrle would supply the smartest of finishes to break the deadlock. Try as they might the North Africans would be unable to find their way past Neuer, and with a minute remaining in the game Özil – who had spend the previous 118 minutes chasing shadows and running into lurid green brick walls – would lash the ball home from four yards to deliver what was surely the final blow.
Not to be outdone the Algerians would from nowhere get themselves on the board as the German defence switched off, but there would be no dramatic equaliser from Halilhodžić’s side. Another five minutes might have seen the German defence slip into panic mode again, but mercifully Les Fennec’s goal would just be a well-deserved consolation.
Conclusion and Ratings
This current German team can be compared to a tin of Quality Street. You could dip your hand in one day and end up with a selection of delicious orange creams and a couple of those wonderful green triangles, while on another you will end up with a handful of hard and inedible toffees – the ones you always end up putting back until they are the only ones left in the tin. For a side so blessed with natural talent, they continue to have this capacity to surprise – both in a good and bad way – a trait unheard of in previous German teams who would know their own measure, walk out onto the pitch and just get the job done with minimum fuss.
It is this schizophrenic trait that makes the class of 2014 both wonderful and infuriating in equal measure. Naturally the coach must take his fair share – some would say all – of the blame for the tactical failures on the pitch, but once the players are out there it should be up to them to do what comes naturally. On a good day this can be an exceptional spectator’s delight, while on a bad day it can be truly terrible. In this game we would see every facet of this young German side over the course of 120 fraught and at times painful minutes.
In the end, the statistics would tell the story. For all their attacking threat Algeria would only get four shots on target, and while Neuer would end up looking like Klaus Augenthaler with over fifty touches of the ball including more than twenty outside his own penalty area, he would not have a save of note to make. This would be in stark contrast to Raïs at the other end, who would pull off a string of fine saves as the Germans launched over twenty shots on target.
After-match discussions often produce a battery of ifs and buts, and there are plenty of these to play with here. If Löw’s side had managed to make more of their chances in front of goal, there is no way the game would have gone to extra time. Indeed, it would have been over midway through the second half. On the other hand if Algeria had better finishers, they might have made a lot more of the fewer chances they would make. Ahead of the quarter-final against France on Friday, one has to wonder if the likes of Benzema, Giroud or Griezmann will be as charitable as Messrs. Slimani, Feghouli and Soudani. I doubt it.
Two of the three substitutions made by the coach would prove to be crucial. After the painful first half and a error-filled horror show from Götze, the introduction of Schürrle would tip the balance in Germany’s favour. The Chelsea man’s attacking verve would be self-evident right from his first action on the pitch, and while he will be remembered for the well-taken opening goal the less obvious part of his game would be his willingness to work back down the line and and help out his team mates – a trait that Götze, talented as he is, sorely lacks. In the first half the German defence would be terrorised by Algerian left wing-back Faouzi Ghoulam, but with the more energetic Schürrle on the pitch this threat would slowly fizzle out. In fact, things would be flipped over completely as the Chelsea winger quickly gained the upper hand.
As for the goal, it would be a moment of class amidst the chaos.
The second change would be more fortuitous, with Khedira coming for the the injured Mustafi – who would subsequently be ruled out of the tournament with a torn thigh muscle. The tall box-to-box midfielder’s commanding presence would add much needed steel to Germany’s play in the middle of the park, and there would be the added bonus of Philipp Lahm moving back to his familiar pre-2014 position at right-back. Khedira’s presence would bring a sense of familiarity back to the defensive midfield, but as enjoyable as it was to see him and Schweinsteiger playing that good old-fashioned Doppelsechs we all know that it is something that can’t and won’t last. One additional positive was Christoph Kramer, who after replacing the tiring Schweinsteiger slotted into his role perfectly.
The biggest question that now faces the coach – and one that has obsessed Germany fans in the buildup to this World Cup – is the matter of the back four, or Viererkette. Against the pacy Algerian counterattacks the risky defensive high line would be exposed time and again, and the team cannot rely on Neuer to keep bailing them out. Against Algeria Neuer would be the ultimate hero, but all it takes it one mistimed challenge to change the complexion completely. It has become perfectly clear that for all his tactical nous and positional expertise Mertesacker is continually found wanting when having to chase back against defenders half his height and twice his pace, and makeshift left-back Höwedes has looked like a disaster waiting to happen.
Change needs to take place, and it is up to the coach to react to these issues and if necessary adapt his tactical master plan. However, like a strongly-jawed dog gripping a rubber quoit, he may just decided to stick to his guns and run the risk of further pillory from his critics. While many – and I would count myself among them – have suggested that the current back four is too weak without Lahm, the coach at the very least has to shore things up at the back by bringing the specialist defenders that have been so far kicking air on the bench. If Lahm is to remain in the defensive midfield, then Erik Durm has to come in for Höwedes on the left.
Then there is the matter of Mertesacker, who will always be a lumbering liability while the coach continues to push for a high defensive line. Unlike some I have no issue with Merte’s place in the side per se, but he has to be allowed to play in a system where he feels comfortable without having to shift his 6’6″ frame in vain pursuit of whippet-like opposition midfielders. The message to Löw is simple: if you are going to play the high line and still want to keep Lahm in midfield, we need to have a fast central duo – Boateng and Hummels – flanked by the Borussia Dortmund duo of Durm on the left and the versatile Jack-of-all-trades Kevin Großkreutz on the right.
Of course, Lahm – arguably the best right-back in the world – in that crucial slot would be even better.
The Lahm or no Lahm question naturally impacts on the defensive midfield, an issue compounded by the forced rotation of Khedira and Schweinsteiger. I have seen a number of commentators on other blogs calling for both Khedira and Schweinsteiger to start, but they keep forgetting the major problem – namely, that both players are always going to be high-risk inclusions on account of their fitness. Can we really expect the two of them to last ninety minutes or more in the afternoon Rio sunshine? If one has to go off – as has been the case in every match bar the opener against Portugal when Khedira was able to see things out to the end – this can be incorporated into a “second wave” substitution strategy. If both cannot last the distance, it leaves the coach limited options in being able to make tactical changes elsewhere.
The net result is that only one of Khedira or Schweinsteiger can start alongside Kroos and Lahm, with Kramer coming in for Lahm should the skipper move back into the back four. In terms of reserve options, the as yet unused Matthias Ginter is as versatile as any in that he is capable of playing in the centre of the defence or as a defensive midfielder.
The top three also face similar problems. Only Müller is a definite shoo-in, with Schürrle my preferred to get the nod ahead of the disappointing Götze. Despite not being at his best Özil has to be there to provide that touch of creative flair, but so long as the coach sticks to the 4-3-3 the mercurial playmaker will always struggle to know where he needs to be. With Müller the designated target man Özil has found himself out on the left wing, a position he is clearly unhappy with. The Özil conundrum brings the absence of the injured Marco Reus into sharp relief: had the Borussia Dortmund winger not suffered that crippling blow in the final pre-tournament friendly with Armenia, it is highly likely that Özil would be finding himself on the bench.
Not all of the blame lies with Özil of course. It is a pretty established fact that he is at his best sitting behind a central striker – summed up by his almost symbiotic relationship with Miroslav Klose. While the coach is unlikely to revert back to a traditional 4-2-3-1, it could possibly be used as a tactical alternative with both Özil and Klose on the pitch. With the veteran set to retire after the tournament he will be keener than most, and with a purposeful Özil in support we could just see that magical spark again.
Am I suggesting a return to a 4-2-3-1? I’ll keep that one to myself right now, but in all seriousness it’s probably a little too late in the day – at least far as this tournament is concerned – to start tinkering with things. There is also no guarantee that putting Özil back into his comfort zone will automatically garner results, given his ordinary form since moving to England.
However, just to throw out another left-field thought, there is actually one man sitting on the bench who might prove to be an option. A bit of a surprise squad selection given his poor domestic form and likely to leave Brazil having served as a qualified bench-warmer, this is a player who is happy to assume a role out on the left while being able to move into a more orthodox central playmaker’s role. Have you remembered him yet? Clue: he plays for Schalke 04 and has a passing resemblance to a very young Hugh Hefner.
— Der Chef #GER (@fussballchef) September 4, 2013
Given Özil’s indifferent form, there might be nothing to lose in playing Julian Draxler out on the left. After all, he can hardly do any worse. From all the reports I have read he is fit and clearly hungry to play a part in this Brazilian adventure.
To finish this extra long section, I thought I’d leave the best ’til last: Manuel Neuer.
What can you say about the gift that just keeps on giving? Not content to be Germany’s best shot-stopper and occasional penalty taker, Neuer’s desire to be a Libero would be made manifest with an astonishing display of defensive prowess and tacking that would leave an experienced centre-back looking on with awe. Traditional tactical formations assume that the goalkeeper will simply do his job and stay between the sticks, but after Neuer’s excellent outfield heroics there is clear evidence to suggest that Germany are playing a 1-4-3-3.
A memorable display from the FC Bayern München ‘keeper, who would enhance his reputation as the world’s leading sweeper-keeper – like the legendary Colombian Rene Higuita but with less hair and considerably less insane. With the defence playing such a high line Neuer would be continually called into action, and would show off his extensive repertoire of timely interceptions, sliding tackles and headed clearances.
A night to forget for the youngster, who would start his first World Cup match with much expectation and finish it after seventy torrid minutes with a tournament-ending injury. Wouldn’t react well to the pressure from his opponents, and would be forced into making a number of mistakes. Thankfully, none of them would be fatal. Replaced by Sami Khedira.
Solid enough when on the ball, but would be reduced to the role of a lumbering mass when having to chase smaller and more nimble opponents. At times the Arsenal man would look as it he was moving in slow motion with his feet deep in mud, and would be saved by ‘keeper Neuer on more than one occasion.
Moving into the centre of the defence following the withdrawal of Hummels, Boateng would be the most reliable of the German back four. It wouldn’t be a perfect night for the FC Bayern man, but it would be a solid enough display capped off by a fine tackle right at the end with the score still at 1-0.
Continues to be a weak link at left back, and was continually put under pressure. Although technically astute, the Schalke 04 skipper has suffered in almost every game so far against faster and more mobile opponents, and his distinct lack of athleticism has proved to be his biggest problem – in addition to his playing out of position at left-back.
A solid if unspectacular game for the German skipper, who would switch from his midfield role back to right-back following the replacement of Mustafi. Having changed position would get forward during the latter part of the game with some of those famous runs and well-delivered crosses, but on the downside would find himself out of position for Algeria’s late consolation.
After a slightly nervous first half Schweinsteiger would slowly start to exercise more influence on the game, and his confidence would step up a further notch with the introduction of Khedira in the second half. Would have a chance to score with a header that was directed straight at the ‘keeper, and was replaced by Christoph Kramer with eleven minutes remaining after suffering from cramp.
A fairly quiet game from Kroos, but once again he would be one of the more consistent performers in what was overall a fairly ordinary performance in the middle of the park. Like everyone around him there would be a few jitters in the first half, but would settle down nicely and assume his role as the heartbeat in midfield.
The 4-3-3 system continues to play havoc with Özil’s style and approach, and he would continue to look lost for large spells of the game. While the Özil of old would confidently skip past an opponent or execute the most delicate of finishes with that cultured left foot, this current incarnation looks woefully short of ideas. Was clearly ecstatic at lashing home the second goal right at the death.
A curious game from Müller, who ran himself into the ground over the course of the entire two hours while looking a little out of sorts in front of goal. Provided the cross for Schürrle’s opener and could have done better with his header that was directed straight at the Algerian ‘keeper, but Müller’s most memorable moment by far would have to be the comedic stumbling free-kick routine three minutes from the end of the ninety.
A truly dreadful outing for the talented but arguably flaky FC Bayern starlet, whose error-ridden display would end at half-time and his replacement by André Schürrle. Listless, clueless, useless.
Come on for the disappointing Götze at the start of the second half, and would make an immediate impact with his additional energy and pace. Looked increasingly dangerous down the right flank during the second half, and would crown an excellent display with his well-taken goal to give the Mannschaft the lead two minutes into extra time.
Replaced the injured Shkodran Mustafi with twenty minutes remaining, and introduced some additional solidity in front of the troubled back four. Would briefly renew his established partnership with Bastian Schweinsteiger as the Germans finally established a grip on the game.
A short cameo for the Borussia Mönchengladbach youngster, replacing Schweinsteiger with eleven minutes remaining. Slotted right in, and looked more than comfortable on the big stage.
Neuer (1*), Mustafi (6), Mertesacker (4), Boateng (5), Höwedes (6), Lahm (5), Schweinsteiger (4), Kroos (5), Özil (5), Götze (5), Müller (3). Substitutes (until 90 mins): Schürrle (1), Khedira (4).
Neuer (1.5), Mustafi (4.5), Mertesacker (2.5), Boateng (2.5), Höwedes (4), Lahm (3.5), Schweinsteiger (4.5), Kroos (4.5), Özil (3), Götze (5), Müller (3). Substitutes: Schürrle (2), Khedira (3).
Neuer (1), Mustafi (6), Mertesacker (4), Boateng (3), Höwedes (5), Lahm (4), Schweinsteiger (3), Kroos (3), Özil (5), Götze (6), Müller (2.5). Substitutes: Schürrle (1.5), Khedira (3).