How they got here
If their qualifying campaign is anything to go by, expectations of Germany will be mighty high come June 9th, if they weren’t so already. Joachim Löw’s side finished their campaign with an unprecedented 10 wins out of 10 matches and with the same panache that won them so many plaudits two years ago in South Africa. Adorned for the dynamism of their play and the youthful exuberance of their players, in just two years Germany have turned from media stereotype to international football darlings. And with good reason.
It was the first time since the expansion of the EURO qualifiers that Germany had won all their qualifying matches, topping the group with 13 points to spare, scoring an impressive 34 goals and conceding just 7. For the most part, Germany faced few problems on the road to the EUROs, disposing of the likes of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Belgium with relative ease, their biggest challenge coming against neighbours Austria in Vienna, a match they only won thanks to a last minute goal.
Having struggled in recent qualifying campaigns, the consistency with which they performed is the biggest plus going into the tournament. Löw called up several players for the first time and rotated significantly yet retained the same level of performance throughout the qualifying campaign. It allowed Löw to integrate a new wave of players and give the team something it was sorely lacking over the last couple of years, quality in depth. The depth that was built over the last two years has certainly become their biggest strength now.
Why they’ll win
International friendlies are more often than not dismissed in relevance and importance but for a team with a traditionally poor record in friendlies, if you can believe it, Germany managed some pretty impressive results outside their perfect qualifying campaign. Relevant or not, those results are indicative of the team’s strength and standing in international football at the moment and a good example of what to expect this summer.
A 3-2 win against Brazil last August and a dominant 3-0 win against World Cup runners up the Netherlands three months later may have been their best results and performances since the World Cup, in spite of their already impressive qualifying campaign. The win against Brazil was their first against the Selecao in over 18 years. In that match, Löw was without the influential Khedira and Özil and gave Götze his very first National Team start. Despite the changes, Germany dominated most of the match and put on the kind of display one would expect from their opponents.
Their performance against the Netherlands in November was even better. It was their biggest win over the Dutch since 1959 and arguably their best team performance since their famous wins against Argentina and England in South Africa. Even though it was just a friendly, the Dutch had not lost by such a big margin in nearly 20 years. The performance capped off a great year for Germany and was a prime example of the fluid combination and dynamic attacking style this young team is capable of. Whereas certain teams have one or two players who provide the creativity or moment of brilliance, Germany now have an entire squad of technically gifted players with natural playmaking abilities.
That aforementioned quality in depth should serve them well in a tournament setting for several reasons. Germany have had a history of injuries to key players ahead of major tournaments as well as a tendency to miss key players in key matches, whether it was Lothar Matthäus in 1992, Michael Ballack in the 2002 World Cup final or Thomas Müller in the World Cup semi-final in South Africa. Those absences could have all made the difference but with an array of talent at Löw’s disposal and their ability to slot in without a drop in performance should ease that worry this time around.
Why they won’t win
For all their attacking prowess and offensive ingenuity, Germany’s one achilles heel and biggest impediment in turning raw potential into actual international silverware is the inconsistency and ambiguity of their ever changing defence. If there was to be one undoing this summer it would be those ever changing defensive line ups, injuries to key players and a continuing fullback dilemma.
In all 13 matches played in 2011, Germany kept only 2 clean sheets, one in the above mentioned friendly against Netherlands and the other against Kazakhstan in qualifying. They conceded 17 goals in those 13 games, not exactly a tally befitting a potential title contender. Löw’s uncertainty about his backline was reflected in his line ups, using 9 different permutations of players in defence in 11 matches throughout 2011. While one could get away with that kind of experimentation and rotation offensively it is another matter entirely when it comes to a team’s backline. Consistency and familiarity breeds defensive stability and if there is one thing Germany have lacked in the last two years, it is that.
While Philipp Lahm has been a rock for Germany over the years, they have yet to find his equivalent on the other side. Lahm has been moved back and forth several times now for club and country. Prior to the World Cup Lahm had played on the left only to be switched to the right when Louis van Gaal took over at Bayern, prompting Löw to do the same. His successor, Jupp Heynckes, continued but moved him back to the left in the second half of the season and now the questions remain whether Löw will do the same. He has used several players on the right over the years including Jerome Boateng, Andreas Beck, Sascha Riether, Benedikt Höwedes and Christian Träsch to name a few, none of which have been totally convincing.
Doubts also still linger over the fitness of Per Mertesacker, who has just recently resumed training after missing nearly half of the season. Having been a starter for the past seven years, Löw may have to go into the tournament with the unfamiliar centre back partnership of Holger Badstuber and Mats Hummels who have only played a handful of matches together.
We’ve seen before
Germany’s most familiar faces will again be Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm who will all participate in their third European Championship, all making their debuts in 2004 at the tender ages of 19 and 20 respectively. That seemed long ago now and all three are firmly established in the squad. So much so in fact that they are edging closer and closer into German football’s record books. All three are nearing their 100th cap while Podolski is seventh in Germany’s all time goalscorer list, just five away from surpassing Jürgen Klinsmann in fourth. It is not beyond doubt that these three can surpass Lothar Matthäus’s record 150 caps or that Lukas Podolski could realistically catch Gerd Müller’s incredible record of 68 goals.
Speaking of Müller’s record, the other big name, and Germany’s eternal flame, is Miroslav Klose. Klose is just six goals away from breaking Müller’s record and will likely participate in his last international tournament. The striker will turn 34 in Germany’s opening group stage game against Portugal. After suffering several small injuries this season it is definitely his last chance to win an international trophy with Germany. Klose, Lahm and Schweinstieger in particular will be important in leading what will probably be the youngest team at the tournament, providing the much needed leadership and experience often required to go all the way in competitions like the EUROs.
Take your pick. Germany’s defining feature over the last two years has been the never ending assembly line of new young talent. Struggling from a talent drought less than a decade ago, German football is now flooded with fleet footed, quick minded and highlight reel ready players. Not a month seems to go by without another discovery being made in the Bundesliga, another young player emerging from one of the many academies around the countries. The most impressive thing about Germany’s talent resurgence is the rate at which they are coming through the ranks and integrate into first team football. Köln for example had their youngest ever Bundesliga debutant this season and the average age of a Bundesliga player is just above 25 years of age, the youngest in almost 40 years. In fact, Germany’s oldest team this season (Augsburg) would have been the third youngest ten years ago.
In the last year and a half players like Marco Reus, Andre Schürrle, Ilkay Gündogan, Sven Bender, Lars Bender, Marcel Schmelzer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Mario Götze and Julian Draxler have all risen from up and comers to being some of the best players in the league. Reus had a breakthrough season this year and has been arguably the league’s best player while ter Stegen, just recently turned 20, is already touted as Manuel Neuer’s long term competition. Ter Stegen played in a U-17 EURO final a little over two years ago. The biggest talent of all could very well be Götze, the player at the heart of Dortmund’s consecutive Bundesliga titles and a player who many believe to be even more talented than Germany’s playmaking ace Mesut Özil. All of them were included in Löw’s provisional team for the EUROs and most are expected to make the final squad.
How they will play
For the most part, Joachim Löw has been rather consistent with his formation, the stability of which has been a large part of his success. It has also allowed him to quickly and seamlessly integrate the many new faces without any headaches. As most coaches in international football nowadays, Löw uses a 4-2-3-1 formation, albeit one that is a bit more attack minded than others. Whereas many would define the 4-2-3-1 as a more defensive minded formation, Löw’s emphasis on quick transitions, close combination play and high tempo attacking, makes it a very offensive formation.
The components remain the same; a back line of four with two fullbacks encouraged to push up and support their wingers, a double pivot in midfield responsible for both defensive and offensive duties, two wing forwards who act as auxiliary strikers and central playmaker free to roam. Manuel Neuer will most likely marshal a backline of Philipp Lahm on the left, Holger Badstuber and Mats Hummels in the centre and Jerome Boateng on the right. The central midfield pairing will again be Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger with Mesut Özil playing ahead of them. Out wide will be Lukas Podolski on the left and Thomas Müller on the right and up the ever reliable Miroslav Klose.
Löw briefly experimented with a three man backline against the Ukraine last year but quickly concluded that they lacked the necessary wide players for such a formation. The other, more realistic alternative to the 4-2-3-1, is the 4-1-4-1. It is a slight albeit significant adjustments to the 4-2-3-1, namely, it allows Löw to play with dual central playmakers. Where the 4-2-3-1 could not accommodate all of Kroos, Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Özil, the 4-1-4-1 utilizes one anchor (either Schweinsteiger or Khedira) and lets Kroos play further up alongside Özil. Germany used this to great effect against Brazil and various other times throughout qualifying. Ideally it improves Germany’s retention game and increases the number of creative options up front. It also allows the two wing forwards to play closer to the lone striker. The 4-1-4-1 could well be Löw’s answer to opponents like Spain, France or Italy who will be very difficult to break down.
The slick looking Germany kit, including the stunning green away version, by adidas is available at Kitbag.
Cristian is site editor for the very highly recommended Bundesliga Fanatic.