By Cristian Nyari
Sweden’s incredible and historic comeback against Germany on Tuesday will no doubt add fuel to an already fiery debate about the National Team’s supposed mental frailty and Joachim Löw’s ability to truly reach their potential.
Images of despair and disbelief have become commonplace in German football over the years, whether it was Bayern’s dramatic and unexpected loss in the Champions League final against Chelsea, Germany’s capitulation against Italy at the EUROs or the seeming inevitability of a loss whenever Germany is faced with Spain. German clubs’ failure in European competition only enhances a growing reputation of shortcomings and underachievement.
With a budding generation of talent though hopes and expectations remain high and perhaps none more so than for the National Team. The “new” Germany announced its arrival on the international stage with a bang at South Africa in 2010 and continued on to EURO 2012 in record breaking fashion yet there remain doubts about the team’s overall development and progress and whether they will ever truly reach their potential. While it is impossible to even consider the answer to that question at this point in time results and performances during Löw’s tenure may indicate a pattern that paints a clearer picture of where the team stands (or falls) and where it may go.
Perhaps the beginning and the most symbolic juncture of this debate was the semi final against Spain in South Africa over two years ago. Although Germany had the youngest side at the tournament the encounter with Spain became emblematic of future and recurring patterns in the team. As Spain comfortably and characteristically dominated, Germany struggled to keep up and always looked second rate. They never adapted, always chased and were taken completely out of their comfort zone by a visibly superior opponent. Contrary to Spain, Germany had difficulties retaining the ball and ran out of ideas once they passed the halfway line. Although a noble attempt against a more seasoned and trained side, the match always had the feel of men versus boys at times.
Postmatch comments included expressions of too much respect for the opponent and players being in awe of their idolized opponents, neither of which sounds like the desired formula for a World Cup semi-final. Germany had a great tournament despite that loss though and finished 2011 in impressive fashion but their uneasiness when faced with increased pressure (on and off the pitch) would continue to rear its ugly head in the months to come.
In hindsight Germany’s friendly against the Ukraine in November last year will probably be forever remembered as Löw’s failed experimentation with a three man backline and maybe even forgotten but underneath that unsuccessful tactical venture and ultimately meaningless friendly was another example of Germany being taken out of their comfort zone and failing to adjust. More importantly, it symbolized Germany’s continuous vulnerability on the break. Whether it was the lack of match practice with the formation or another case of nerves getting the best of them, Germany were continuously exposed by the Ukraine’s quick and ruthless counter attacks and were lucky to leave the Ukraine with a draw after conceding three seemingly unnecessary goals.
There was a distinct lack of defensive organization and no visible communication between midfield and defense as every Ukrainian attack could have turned into a goal. In spite of this apparent structural weakness, Löw remained steadfast in his formation and Germany persisted to attack, continuing to leave holes at the back, particularly on German set pieces. Lest anyone thinks this was strictly an issue with their formation, two months earlier Germany faced the same problems against Poland who took advantage of Träsch’s eager forward runs and Mertesacker’s slow pace. It took a late Cacau goal to avoid a defeat in what was another risky performance by Löw’s men. The same had been the case against Austria and Brazil earlier in the year and throughout all of 2012, be it the embarrassing loss against Switzerland (their first loss to the Swiss in over fifty-six years), Denmark at the EUROs or Austria last month.
Tactical Russian Roulette and Desperate Defending
The team’s seeming inability to alter its direct style of play or retain the ball against teams that press intensely is just as big of an indictment, if not more, than criticism of mental frailty. Hand in hand with that is the brave yet stubborn conviction of Löw’s offensive approach which has often prohibited or disabled him from adjusting to his opponents when necessary. The failure to react to Zlatan Ibrahimovic dropping deeper to pick up the ball and disrupt Germany in midfield in the second half for example was as detrimental as Germany’s mental uneasiness.
More glaring are the team’s continued and colossal defensive problems. Löw’s constant rotation in the backline never lent itself to stability and four years after switching to the 4-2-3-1 Germany are still struggling with the execution of their high backline. In fact, Germany have kept only five clean sheets in their twenty-six matches in the last two years. A byproduct of playing attacking football is that you inevitably leave yourself exposed on the counter but Germany’s inability to effectively cope on the counter, as we have seen, has been a big part of their defensive problems.
It also raises questions about where the focus lies and whether it lies exclusively in one area over another. Their defensive record certainly suggests a greater emphasis on attack and given Germany’s plethora of talented attacking players it is logical to build on one’s strengths but never at the complete expense of other fundamentals. The evident imbalance between attack and defense remains one of the most unsettling aspects of Löw’s side and one in which the most work needs to be done.
Fewer games represent Germany’s nerves, or lack thereof, better than their encounters with Italy. Their friendly against the Italians early in 2011 was one of their best showings against their bogey team in recent memory until another lapse in concentration late in the game allowed them to squeeze out a draw. Germany’s grip on the game loosened the more pressure Italy applied until the dam burst. Funnily enough, Germany would have been in the role of coming from behind and salvaging results when it looked least likely.
Although a tactical misjudgment was largely responsible for the final outcome against Italy in Poland and the Ukraine this summer, the extent to which the players were unable to deal with and adapt to their opponent and their level of play only adds to the criticism. Two years after South Africa the “new” Germany looked just as phased, inexperienced and out of their element as they had against Spain in Durban. Unsure of themselves and their roles, individual errors were supplemented by collective confusion and more clumsy defending. Prior to the match, players and coach dismissed the idea that their poor record against the Italians would have any impact on the fixture but it is difficult to completely rule it out in hindsight.
Similarly, the point of contention from the Sweden game may not be the fact that they scored their first or second. Teams getting consolation goals after being down significantly is a common occurrence in football. The real issue was to what extent Germany lost control of the game after the first two goals and never got it back and how easily Germany were thrown off their game with such a commanding lead. Bastian Schweinsteiger commented after the game how a sense of complacency befell the team after their big lead and even Löw admitted that it all started in the players’ heads. Nevermind the fact that Germany had never, in their 112-year history, blown a four goal lead, the final 20 minutes were a domino effect of self perpetuating and self inflicted devastation.
Of course you can argue that this is all a result of youth and inexperience and therefore part of the process and that over time it is inevitably going to come together. More often than not though, youth is an advantage rather than a disability, especially with the increased tempo and fitness demands of the modern game. Experience counts and can be invaluable, especially at the international level, but this generation of German players is as technically gifted as any in the last 40 years. And given Germany’s high standards and ambitions it stands to reason that certain things could have been done better up to this point.
Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. You can check out Cristian’s articles on the excellent Bundesliga Fanatic, or can follow him on Twitter @Cnyari