Five days after returning from the Kazakh capital Astana, Joachim Löw’s side would line up against the same opposition in the more familiar environs of Nürnberg’s Frankenstadion, albeit with the weather being more like Siberia as opposed to Franconia at the end of March.
The ninety minutes of football would provide the desired result and would answer a number of questions about the new strikerless system – described by many commentators as the “false nine” – but would also create some new ones. Can the team keep their foot on the pedal for the entire ninety minutes? Would the system be as effective against opposition ranked far higher than 139th in the world? Has goalkeeper Manuel Neuer become complacent? I am sure there are many more.
As I said in the conclusion to my “live” report, the game was one that could best be described as schizophrenic. There were some truly magical moments such as the ten-minute purple patch that saw the three first-half goals, some truly awful moments summed up by the complete mess that resulted in Kazkahstan’s goal, and moments of frustration that may have had more to do with just bad luck on the night.
Perhaps it’s best not to be too harsh. Yes, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer served up a howler. Yes, it could and perhaps should have been 10-0 rather than 4-1. The most important thing however is that the three points were collected as expected, and Germany now sit pretty comfortably at the top of their qualifying group with their place in next year’s finals in Brazil more or less secured.
Facts and Stats
You’d probably be able to work this all out from the last report, but for the record Germany came into this match with three wins out of three against this opposition, with a goal record of ten goals for and none against.
The previous meeting between the two sides on German soil had been exactly two years earlier in Kaiserslautern’s Fritz-Walter-Stadion, a 4-0 win for the Nationalmannschaft with the goals being shared by Thomas Müller and the absent Miroslav Klose.
The Team and Tactics
The team would have essentially the same shape as the eleven that had started in Astana, with just the three enforced changes. Jérôme Boateng for Benedikt Höwedes (thigh strain), Marco Reus for Julian Draxler (concussion), and İlkay Gündoğan for Bastian Schweinsteiger (suspended). The formation would be the same, the approach would be the same, and even the colours sported by both sides would be the same.
As had been the case in the previous encounter five days earlier, Germany would establish an immediate hold on the match and boss the possession. The first twenty-five minutes would see the ball take up almost permanent residence in the Kazakhstan half, with Neuer – looking like a lonely Guantanamo inmate in his bright orange attire – being the only man standing in the German half.
This opening period would be the cause of much frustration both on the German bench and in the stands, as for all the possession and smart passing moves no killer ball could be found. The woodwork would come to the visitors’ rescue twice in the space of as many minutes as both Gündoğan and Mario Götze were denied, but when the first goal finally game it sparked one of the best spells of football seen for a while by German fans.
All three goals would showcase what was best about this current side, and showed that a goal could come from anywhere on the pitch. Reus and Mesut Özil would take it upon themselves to create some magic down the left flank and deliver the opening strike, a typically bold and bustling Philipp Lahm run down the right would carve open the Kazakh defence for Mario Götze to deliver a finish worthy of any front-line striker, and a patient build-up that saw the ball being passed over fifty times with the opposition not even getting a touch of the ball for well over two minutes would lead to Gündoğan opening his international account.
At this moment, it wouldn’t have really mattered who the opposition were. With football like this, one could have said that most opposition would have found it difficult to cope. When the half-time whistle blew and the Nationalelf went in three goals to the good, everyone was expecting a gala in the second half. Six, seven, more? Nobody would have bet against it.
Instead, we saw something that summed up the very worst of this current team. One can call it complacency, laziness or even over-confidence, but the complete dog’s dinner served up by Per Mertesacker and Neuer less than minute after the restart has to go down as one more of those uncomfortable comedy moments. Cringeworthy, even – just imagine Ricky Gervais as David Brent in a bright orange outfit being given a back-pass by the gangly McKenzie Crook. Rather than smash the ball up the pitch, Mertesacker played what was at best an ordinary ball back to the ‘keeper, but rather than doing the smart thing and hoofing the ball away himself, Neuer – probably bored at having nothing to do for the first forty-five minutes, tried to emulate the legendary Colombian sweeper-keeper René Higuita.
Of course, like Higuita Neuer would get himself into a complete tangle, with the ball ending up for no good reason in the back of the German net. What perhaps made the moment funnier was that the goal – the first for Kazakhstan at senior level against Germany – would be scored by Heinrich Schmidtgal, an ethnic German who plies his trade in the Bundesliga for 1. FC Nürnberg’s local rivals SpVgg Greuther Fürth. Der Club’s hardcore in the crowd must have loved that. As punishment, Neuer should be made to watch this goal again, as well as Higuita’s humiliation by Roger Milla. Not that Schmidtgal is anywhere as talented as the legendary Cameroon striker.
Thereafter followed another forty plus minutes of frustration and the sound of leather bouncing off Metall. The approach play continued to be good, but more often than not things would break down in the final third and someone would just try to do too much: looking for the gap that wasn’t there, the pass that simply wasn’t on, taking one step on the ball too many.
When things did click, there would be the suddenly immovable object in the form of Kazakhstan ‘keeper Andrei Sidelnikov – who from nowhere produced a string of high-quality saves – and the frame of the goal, which must have suffered permanent damage on account of it being struck so many times. In fact I cannot recall the last time a German side was denied by the woodwork on so many occasions. There were at least half a dozen moments, with the period around the seventy-second minute in particular providing some pure comedy gold: Sidelnikov, Sidelnikov, left post, Sidelnikov… Onto the right post.
Then there were the moments of laziness, like when the moment it could very easily have been 3-2 were it not for Lahm having to carry out what was probably his only defensive manoeuvre of the match. So long as this fault line in the defence remains, things will never be easy against teams more talented than Kazakhstan.
When the fourth goal – Reus’ second, taking him to a total of seven goals in fifteen internationals – finally came it was clearly deserved, but one had to feel slightly sorry for Sidelnikov, who probably deserved to emerge from the second half unscathed.
Conclusion and Ratings
Once again, the most important thing would be the three points – and the match overall would provide plenty of support to the idea that the strikerless system works pretty well. Though as before, I would withhold proper judgement until it has been seen in action against more testing opposition. The Nationalelf’s next two matches on their tour of the United States – which is likely to feature a second-choice squad on account of these matches being hot on the tail of the Champions’ League final – will not provide much of a chance to perfect the system, while a friendly against Paraguay – a team unlikely to make the World Cup finals on current form – is also unlikely to provide the sort of test really needed.
The World Cup qualifiers resume in September against Austria in Munich, and while the Ösis may not be world-beaters there is enough talent and ability in their side to provide some testing moments: a competitive game with just a little needle in it may be the perfect opportunity for Löw to see if this system really works. Will he chance his arm and go strikerless, or will he go back to picking a conventional number nine? He has been rather coy with the detail, so the proof will surely come when we see that team sheet.
In keeping with there being sparks of brilliance tempered with moments of madness, some players would stand out while others would blot their copybook. Neuer may just be having it too easy at the moment – the perfect recipe for complacency – while Mertesacker’s days in the Nationaltrikot must surely be numbered. Yes, there have been injuries to the defensive unit but I am certain that there are better alternatives around. For a start, there is Heiko Westermann who spent what he many may see as three pointless hours warming the bench. Maybe unbeknownst to us he is the best Karaoke singer on the team bus.
Moving to the positives, Reus would stand out with a solid overall performance and two good goals, while Götze’s goal would show that he is as good a finisher as any regular number nine. Lahm would have a good offensive game and answer the call when needed at the back, and Boateng also deserves a mention for a solid comeback performance that could give him the edge over Höwedes.
The man of the match for me however was Gündoğan, who showed great skill, commitment and more crucially the ability to seamlessly slot into the system like the proverbial duck to water. There were moments where it seemed that he was all over the pitch – mopping up, providing that glue in the middle of the park, and creating opportunities going forward. He scored one, made another, and on another evening could very easily have bagged a hat-trick.
Thus we have the conundrum: only two can be taken from Gündoğan, Khedira and Schweinsteiger. Some may think and believe otherwise, but for me Khedira is a must-have in the starting eleven. He has honed his game in Madrid, and offers that combination of muscle and general footballing nouse. He has a presence about him, is one of those players who gets on with his job, and is often conspicuous by his absence. Schweinsteiger is of course Schweinsteiger. Then we have the new kid Gündoğan, who arguably offers a lot more that either of the other two in terms of raw natural talent and creativity.
It’s a tough one, and in all honesty if I were in the coach’s position I have no idea what combination to pick. Should Löw adopt a policy of rotation? Should he pick the combination based on the opposition? These are arguably great problems to have – one cannot complain when there is so much talent at a coach’s disposal – but problems all the same. One thing is certain: Toni Kroos, for long seen as the potential backup in the defensive midfield, may have trouble reestablishing himself as a viable candidate. More so because there are other decent alternatives such as Lars Bender.
Oh to be Jogi right now, who probably wishes that he had more defenders to choose from.
Had nothing to do all game, but when called into action would make a complete hash of it. The German ‘keeper has had way too many brain-fart moments of late, and with the the in-form René Adler lurking in his shadow will have to try and settle down a little. Was treated a bit harshly by the crowd, something that was touched on afterwards by Jogi Löw.
Was quiet on Friday, but played a blinder in this second match. Was sharp going forward and illustrated with a brilliant jinking run to set up the second goal, and covered himself well at the back with a fine clearance that stopped Kazakhstan from pulling to score back to what would have been a scarcely believable 3-2.
Had little to do all evening, and at times was able to venture forward. Had one lax moment when he played a poor back-pass, and unfortunately for him it would result in a goal for the opposition.
Back into the side for the injured Höwedes, the FC Bayern man delivered a solid performance and was a rock at the back. Was involved in the build up to the third goal, showed plenty of pace going forward, and was not shy to have a crack from distance. He will score his first international goal one day, and when it comes it will probably be a belter.
Had a decent game, and clearly looks impressive when he doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of manning the flank all by himself. I have never really rated Schmelzer in the Nationaltrikot, but he does look good when he has club team mate Marco Reus ahead of him.
The “ghost” marshalling that difficult area in front of the defence – and another on the mark performance. Wasn’t really tested defensively, but was active in getting forward and unlucky not to add to his international goal tally when he was denied by the post.
One word: outstanding. Gündoğan was here, there and everywhere, and controlled his part of the field with an almost calm aplomb. Hit the woodwork twice, finished off a fantastic fifty-pass move with his first international goal, and capped things off with the perfect slide-rule pass to set up Reus for Germany’s fourth.
A quiet game for the FC Bayern winger. Had one shot turned onto the crossbar and was his usual energetic self, but there was something missing. Perhaps this was because with Reus in the side there was far more work being done out on the left than had been the case in the earlier match in Astana.
Like any great playmaker, Özil made his presence felt all around the pitch, and while not out of this world had a far better game here than he did in Astana on Friday. Worked brilliantly with Reus to craft the first goal coming in from the left, and was the provider for Gündoğan and Germany’s third from the right.
Back in the side after a one-match ban, and what a difference he made. Worked well with everyone around him, and scored two fantastic goals. Reus is one of the many special players in this current German side, and offers that heady mix of skill on the ball, versatility and a predatory nose for goal. Was replaced by Marcell Jansen immediately after scoring his second.
Revelled once again in the “false nine” role, and made plenty of his new-found licence to roam. The little man was a constant danger for the opposition defenders, combined excellently with providers on both flanks, and scored his goal with a finish that would have been worth of Der Bomber.
Back in the side after more than two years, the HSV man would be given a short run on, run straight off moment when he came on for Reus as the clock ticked into injury time. Does this mean that he is back in the international fold again, or was this nothing more than a short and sweet swansong?
Neuer (5), Lahm (2), Mertesacker (3), Boateng (3), Schmelzer (3), Khedira (2), Gündoğan (2), Müller (4), Özil (3), Reus (2), Götze (2).
Neuer (5), Lahm (2), Mertesacker (3), Boateng (2.5), Schmelzer (3.5), Khedira (3), Gündoğan (2), Müller (3.5), Özil (2), Reus (2), Götze (2.5).
Neuer (5), Lahm (2), Mertesacker (4), Boateng (2), Schmelzer (3), Khedira (2), Gündoğan (1), Müller (3.5), Özil (2.5), Reus (1.5), Götze (2).