Euro 2016 group C favorites Germany and Poland played out an entertaining 0-0 draw in Saint-Denis last night, a result that leaves the fate of 3 out of 4 Group C teams undecided heading into the final group stage matches. Poland were the brighter side in a contest that will no doubt have frustrated German manager Joachim Löw, as his side never really looked like winning it. Part of this was due to a determined Polish performance, but another key contributor to Germany’s impotence in attack was down to the team selection.
For the second consecutive game in the tournament, Löw went with a false nine in Mario Götze while leaving out-and-out striker Mario Gomez on the bench. The result was another disappointing attacking performance for a side that came into the tournament as one of the favorites to lift the trophy. Löw isn’t unfamiliar with odd line-up strategies; his insistence on fielding centre-backs at fullback and former captain Phillip Lahm in midfield almost cost the Germans their run to the 2014 World Cup trophy.
Only after restoring Lahm to his position at right back did the squad look to have turned a corner. Interestingly enough, Löw also chose to tinker with his attack and start a false nine during that tournament. Record-scorer Miroslav Klose was second choice to Thomas Muller up front; though at least the Bayern man was more suited to the role than Götze currently is. Again, Löw abandoned this strategy for the later rounds, starting Klose in both the 7-1 mauling of Brazil (in which he broke the WC scorer’s record) and the tense final against Argentina. The result in both of those matches was a more focused and dangerous attack than the one currently stumbling its way through the Euro group stage.
Historically, Germany has always been a team whose attack is built on a strong centre-forward who could finish on the deck and in the air. Klose spearheaded the attack for a decade, and was perhaps the best header of a ball and one-time finisher of his generation. But Gomez had his moments as well, and former players like Ballack and Lahm were also huge contributors to the crossing-oriented style. The newest crop of players, however, have moved away from this approach. Players like Götze, Özil, Reus, Schürrle, Draxler, and Müller are not particularly good in the air, and so look to create chances on the ground in central positions.
This proves effective in some matches; after all, the players listed above are incredibly talented and creative footballers. However, this style can run into problems against opponents who are disciplined enough to remain compact in defense, and that’s exactly how Poland played yesterday. With how effective it proved, I’d wager it’s how any team outside the most elite will attempt to tackle this German team moving forward in the tournament.
The issue with Germany’s approach yesterday was two-fold. First, they tried to play centrally for most of their attacking moves. If the ball was played out wide, it was quickly shifted back inside, as the two German “wingers” Draxler and Muller are not true wide players. Their preference is to come inside and look for one-twos and shooting opportunities, not maintain their width to provide service to a centre-forward. Poland realized this early on and were happy to allow cross-field balls to find the feet of German wingers and advancing fullbacks, knowing full well that the ball would likely come back inside anyway. The Germans had space outside and refused to exploit it, rarely playing dangerous balls into the Polish penalty area.
This reluctance to cross was, of course, created by issue #2: the lack of a true centre-forward. Mario Götze is a skilled attacker, but not in the lone striker role. He’s better running at players on the dribble, or sitting in the no. 10 role behind a striker (occupied yesterday by Özil). He’s not a natural header of the ball, he doesn’t take up instinctive positions inside the penalty area, and he’s almost never going to win a physical or aerial duel. A single cross found his head during yesterday’s match, and he put it high and wide over the net. Gomez, or certainly Klose, would have at least worked the keeper. Without Gomez up front, the Germans had no target man. Without a target man, they couldn’t exploit the wide spaces Poland were happy to give them. By not exploiting the wide spaces, they were forced to play through the middle in a very predictable fashion. Throw in the resistance of a very organized Polish back-line, and it’s little wonder Germany created virtually no dangerous chances over the course of 90 minutes.
Even more worrying than the lack of punch in attack is how often the defence is compromised when players are used out of position. As aforementioned, the wide German players yesterday are not true wingers, but rather central attacking midfielders playing out of position. As a result of this, they don’t drop back as often as they need to in order to help fullbacks defend. Whenever Germany lost possession, the Poles were able to attack with close to equal odds because most of the midfield didn’t bother to recover on defence. Compounding this issue was the willingness of the German fullbacks, particularly Hector, to get forward on the overlap, leaving an even bigger gap for Poland to exploit. Hummels and Boateng were both dragged out of the center on numerous occasions by Lewandowski and Milik, leaving huge gaps in the middle for late runners to exploit. Poland could and should have scored multiple times on chances where they managed to shift the German center backs around and deliver dangerous balls into the penalty box (looking at you, Milik).
If Löw and the Germans are to be successful against compact, disciplined teams moving forward, the team selection has to improve. Götze, harsh on him though it may be, needs to be dropped for either Müller or Gomez. The former is more suited to a central role than Götze and being wasted in his current role on the wing, while the latter is the only true centre-forward available to Löw and coming off a hugely prolific season with his club. Schürrle needs to be starting in a wide role on the right; he keeps width much better than Müller and provides a threat with his pace the Bayern man doesn’t have. Özil should be shifted out left, where he can still function as a dangerous creator capable of a deadly final ball. It’s no coincidence that Germany’s best attacking moment of the tournament thus far came in game 1 against Ukraine, when Özil took up a wide position on a counter attack and played a killer ball to Schweinsteiger to score. Götze or Draxler can operate centrally instead of Özil, a position they are both more suited to than where they are currently being employed.
These tweaks should result in a more balanced, cohesive German attack that can threaten both through the middle and from wide areas, a necessary improvement if they are going to make a deep run in this tournament.