It was not Germany’s most memorable European Championship campaign — as Die Mannschaft lost to both Poland and Ireland — yet in the end a rather disappointing 2-1 victory not only secured Germany a spot in next year’s European Championships in France, but also meant that the World Champions had finished Group D in first place.
Germany’s poor form at the qualifiers can be attributed to the hangover of winning the World Cup in 2014, as the tournament in Brazil was considered one of the toughest to win — given climate and distances to travel — and it was clear that many German players were struggling with fatigue in the following 2014-15 season. Furthermore, several key players — Miroslav Klose, Per Mertesacker, and Philipp Lahm — retired from the national team following the victory over Argentina in Rio de Janeiro.
The retirement of former national team captain Philipp Lahm in particular left a gaping hole in Germany’s game. Lahm is a rare breed in German football as he can play both as a right back and a left back. Yet Germany’s national team coach Joachim Löw had previously struggled to find capable players for both the right and left defensive positions even with Lahm in the line-up.
Leading up to the World Cup, Bayern’s coach Pep Guaridola moved Lahm into centre, playing him as a defensive midfielder. As a result Löw also moved Lahm into the centre midfield, and therefore ended up fielding four centre backs in the World Cup until the quarter final against France—Schalke’s Benedikt Höwedes played as a left back, and Shkodran Mustafi (now with Valencia) as right back — when an injury to Mustafi forced Löw to move Lahm to the right back position to replace Mustafi.
But with Lahm’s retirement, Löw no longer had this option. As a result it appeared that the German game lacked defensive wingers who could also contribute offensively. The recent emergence of left back Jonas Hector, who plays for 1. FC Köln, has given Löw a fantastic option. On the other wing, Borussia Dortmund’s Matthias Ginter has also impressed this season — he has accumulated two goals and four assists in ten Bundesliga games.
Yet Löw has criticized that neither Ginter nor Hector provide an attacking element in Germany’s game — despite both players having contributed significantly to the attacking game with their respective clubs. In the past the national team coach has been equally critical of other defensive backs, in particular Dortmund’s Marcel Schmelzer, who Löw criticised after Schmelzer made a mistake in a World Cup qualifier against Austria in October 2012 by remarking that “I can’t carve myself a better left back…” (a German expression implying that if he could have carved himself a better left back, he would have done so).
Yet Schmelzer performed well for Borussia Dortmund, which stormed all the way to the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in that season, showing consistency against opponents far stronger than what Germany faced in qualification matches. Löw’s recent round of criticism against Hector, whose current form has made Fox Sport’s Bundesliga specialist Eric Wynalda suggest that Hector should be a logical candidate for a transfer to Bayern Munich, has led to suggestions in the German press that perhaps the failure is not in the lack of good wing back but rather in Joachim Löw’s tactical system.
Speaking to Germany’s Kicker Magazine, Ginter recently stated that: “at Dortmund, teamwork is everything, whereas Germany’s game has a larger tendency to trust individuality.” In other words defensive players can’t operate offensively in Germany’s game under Löw as they often must focus on defense. Players such as Lukas Podolski, Mesut Özil, or even Thomas Müller in Germany’s 3-1 win against Poland; have the tendency not to backtrack when playing in Löw’s system.
The offensive contribution of both Hector and Ginter at the club level, and the fact that already established left backs such as Marcel Schmelzer have shown that they can perform at the highest level when playing for their clubs, highlight that Germany doesn’t have a wing back problem, but rather Löw has to make tactical adjustments to his system that would allow more offensive contributions from the back without threatening the defensive line. In the past Löw has been very good at making the necessary adjustments before major tournaments, and as Germany gets ready for France 2016, Löw will have to show once again that he can find tactical solutions with the players at hand.
About the author – Manuel Veth