How Joachim Low's tinkering can be both Germany's greatest strength and biggest hinderance
Germany's Euro 2020 campaign hasn't got off to the best of starts having lost 1-0 to France. Despite seeing much of the ball against the reigning World Champions, Joachim Low's side really looked like the force their talent suggests they should be. Grace Robertson takes a look at the system they played and why it isn't bringing them much joy.
Joachim Low needs to figure out how to get Germany firing once again
It’s a huge showpiece clash in a premier European competition. Ilkay Gundogan, famed for his ability to get forward and score goals this season, starts as a sitting midfielder in a side that forgoes a physical presence in the middle of the park. The opponents start N’Golo Kante, the world’s most defensively dominant midfielder, in that same area. The opponents are able to break through the middle of the pitch when they want because a midfield of Gundogan at the base just can’t deal with those fast counter attacks.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
There’s no question Germany’s starting lineup against France boasted an incredible array of talent and know-how. Between them, those eleven players have five World Cup winning medals, 12 Champions League medals, 37 (yes, thirty seven) Bundesliga medals along with three from Premier League and two of La Liga for good measure. The players had an average age of 28. This team should be perfectly equipped to seriously compete at Euro 2020.
And yet this isn’t where we are. Jogi Low played a 3-4-3 system that doesn’t gel naturally with anyone especially well. In fact, it’s hard to find many players who really suit it. By my count only Antonio Rudiger, Robin Gosens and Kai Havertz could say that, yes, they were playing the same position they usually feature in at club level.
The other two centre backs, Mats Hummels and Matthias Ginter, more often play in a back four. The central midfield duo of Toni Kroos and Ilkay Gundogan usually start in front of a more natural holding player. Germany have one of the best natural holding players in the world in Joshua Kimmich, who found himself stationed at right wing-back. I’m not even sure what positions those attackers were supposed to be playing.
While Low has always had a tactically experimental streak, he didn’t always overcomplicate it like this. Back in the 2010 World Cup, he demolished England 4-1 with a pretty straightforward 4-2-3-1 shape that looked more like 4-4-2 without the ball.
For all they thrilled at times, it was a pretty conventional two banks of four at times that any player would understand. Almost everyone in that team played their “best” position, and no one was doing anything especially tactically complex.
Four years on, his instincts were to complicate it with a strikerless system and Philipp Lahm in midfield, but his great triumph in Brazil came by reverting to a more conventional approach. Klose came back in up front. Bastian Schweinsteiger moved to the base of midfield with Lahm back in his natural right back role. He tried to overengineer a solution to Germany’s limitations and realised he was best off simplifying things.
Euro 2016 was a slightly different story. Low’s men made it through the group stages playing decent if not spectacular football. Again, they went without a striker for the first two games and Low was forced to parachute in Mario Gomez. This helped them flatten Slovakia 3-0 in the round of 16.
Then Low tinkered. Against Italy in the quarter-finals, he switched to a 3-4-3 system that again didn’t suit anyone too much. It totally stunted their attacking patterns and, in the end, Germany only just snuck through on penalties.
Serge Gnabry - Germany
Image credit: Getty Images
The 2018 World Cup seemed to be the moment the dam broke for Low. Centre forward was again a story. Timo Werner led the line and never looked comfortable doing it. Werner might technically be a “striker”, but he wants to run in behind. He’s not someone who’s going to hold up the ball with his back to goal, which is what Germany’s band of attacking midfielders seem to crave.
Midfield was an even bigger problem. Kroos at this point needed an energetic holding player next to him, and what he got was an ageing Sami Khedira. He actually fixed the midfield for the win over Sweden, bringing in Sebastian Rudy, but reverted to the flimsy midfield against South Korea and Germany got badly punished for it.
Since then, he’s been trying to engineer solutions to Germany’s tactical problems. He’s attempted fluid frontlines and all sorts of defensive shapes. After a lot of experimenting, he settled on what we have now: a mishmash of a back three supposed to give more defensive solidity and a forward line supposed to mask the lack of a classic number nine. It’s hard to say Germany are totally succeeding at either task.
The modern Germany overseen by Low has been driven by a new wave of academy-developed talent. Gone are the ideas of stodgy but efficient football. The old tactical style of a deep back three with a libero has been thrown out of the window in favour of high tempo gegenpressing. It’s all been built on a new kind of German footballer, more technically adept than ever before and comfortable in a variety of different positions.
Image credit: Getty Images
But there are certain things this new approach doesn’t have. And in those cases, the best times have come when Low leaned on solid pros who can do a job. No one could really claim Klose is in the same bracket, ability-wise, as Mario Gotze. But Klose did a job that the new wave of world class German talent couldn’t do themselves, so he was in.
Similarly, no one really felt Benedikt Howedes was among the eleven most gifted German players in 2016, but someone needed to do a reliable job at right back.
The worst moments happen when Low tries to find a way around using these players, and he’s doing it right now. He has the solutions here in his squad. Perhaps Emre Can comes in to add a more physical presence in central midfield. Maybe Kevin Volland can play upfront and offer something different. It’s understandable why Low wants to avoid this, but these are adequate pros who can do the dirty jobs and let the star names fly.
Imagine, if you will, a compromise. Low reverts to a back four, puts Can in midfield next to Gundogan, and plays Volland as the central striker in front of Thomas Muller, Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane. No one would claim it’s an improvement in terms of the individuals involved, but it would make straightforward sense. It’s something the players would get immediately, and it’d have the balance to cause any opponent real problems.
International football is by nature a simpler game than the club variety. Coaching time is short. The players aren’t automatically ideal fits for each other. That often means going back to basics. There isn’t always time to perfectly execute a complex system, so you have to get onto terms the players can understand quickly.
When Germany have succeeded in recent years, Low put this logic ahead of his own tactical ideas to great effect. When things have gone wrong, it’s often been when he’s devised complex solutions to simple problems.
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Germany have the talent and experience to go all the way in this tournament. Of that there is little doubt. What’s holding them back is this rube goldberg machine of a system.
There’s nothing wrong with having complexity in the right places, but it has to be backed up by a robust showing of the basics. Low’s team don’t have that right now, but there’s still time. He’s shown a good track record of adapting as the tournament goes on, so don’t for one second think he can’t do the same here.
To repeat the old cliche, you can never count out the Germans in a major tournament. They just have a few things to work on in order to pull it off.