'False nine' defying German convention
The revolution was being televised, but not many people were watching. The date: Nov. 14, 2012. The location: Amsterdam Arena, Netherlands. Germany were playing their last game of the year, a year that had begun with optimism bordering on entitlement but that brought only a sense of abject failure when Italy exposed the tactical and mental frailty of Joachim Low's side in the Euro semifinal in Warsaw.
A 4-4 draw with Sweden in October had ramped up the pressure further on the national manager, and he was forced to contest the prestige friendly against Germany's keen rivals in the Dutch capital without Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose, who were both injured. Calling up Stefan Kiessling, the dependable centre-forward from Bayer Leverkusen, was not an option. He hadn't been in Low's plans since the World Cup, and the coach wasn't going to change his mind now. Instead, he used the opportunity to break with 104 years of football tradition. For the first time in the history of the German national team, they played without a recognised striker.
Low had been toying with the idea for a while. "Spain are our role models," the coach had openly admitted after Vicente del Bosque's Euro triumph in Kiev. In a controversial move, hotly debated by the domestic and international media, the Spanish national manager had opted for Cesc Fabregas as a "false nine" in the tournament. German media were jokingly wondering if and when Low would copy Spain's system for a few months after.
In November, the time had come. To say that Mario Gotze, Germany's first ever "false nine," was a resounding success against Oranje would be a little disingenuous. In truth, the evening passed off with a minimum of goalmouth incidents on either side. The result: 0-0. The "Gahn-Gipfel" (summit of yawn), as tabloid Bild called it, was so boring and inconsequential that nobody cared about Low's experiment afterwards.
The seeds were now sown, however. Low again played without an orthodox striker in the last 23 minutes in a friendly versus France in February 2013. This time, the change worked. Mesut Ozil played a killer ball to his then-Real Madrid teammate Sami Khedira, who burst through into the vacated space behind France's back four to score the decisive goal in the 2-1 win.
Encouraged by the performance, Low fielded Gotze as a "false nine" in the World Cup qualifier in Kazakhstan. Germany won 3-0. Klose led the line in only two of the remaining five qualifiers as Low kept on shuffling the pack. Max Kruse of Borussia Monchengladbach, a classic "second" striker, briefly held down a place as the central attacker but there was little surprise when Low only chose two nominal strikers for his provisional World Cup squad -- Klose and Kevin Volland -- and then took only the former to Brazil.
Low isn't just copying Spain; his change has come as a reaction to an increasingly negative opposition approach. The deeper they line up, the greater Germany's need to play small, inventive players to sneak through. The German staff have analysed that the U.S., Ghana and Portugal are more vulnerable to pace and creativity than the brute force of the big target man.
Urs Siegenthaler, the German FA's chief scout, explained that smaller, trickier players would find it easier to discover openings in congested space. "Would you rather take a Smart [car] or a van to look for a parking space in town?" the 66-year-old Swiss asked. "It's not necessary to have the big, bulky striker up front anymore," Low insisted. Amazingly, there has been almost no backlash against the national manager's radical approach. Maybe the successful qualifying campaign with Ozil as the main goal scorer (eight) has won the critics over, or it could just be a case of the German public being both familiar and happy with the setup after seeing Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola and his Borussia Dortmund counterpart Jurgen Klopp following the same route in the Bundesliga (at times).
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have done much to make the system acceptable, too. Tabloid paper Bild did try to stir up a bit of controversy by asking a number of former Germany strikers whether they agreed with Low's decision to take only Klose -- most of them didn't -- but there wasn't much negative reaction. Germans, by and large, seem to have bought into Low's idea. There aren't many real alternatives, for starters, and secondly, Low has pre-empted the debate by denying its relevance. "'False nine,' 'real nine,' these things have little meaning to me," he said. "[Thomas] Muller, Klose, Gotze, [Andre] Schurrle, [Lukas] Podolski, Ozil -- these are all strikers for me, offensive players". The question, he's saying, is not really one of playing with or without a striker but picking the right kind of forward for the task at hand.
“Low must be aware that fielding no recognised centre-forwards will open him up to criticism.”
Against Portugal, Muller will play a key role up front. But the goal-scoring load is expected to be shared with two more players from the trio of Schurrle, Ozil and Podolski. One could argue that Germany will have three strikers on the pitch in Salvador on Monday night, even if none of them are regularly asked to be the main goal scorer in their clubs. For a country that used to love its centre-forwards, its Gerd Mullers and Rudi Vollers, this is quite a drastic departure from convention. Yet one has to look hard to find any real dissent. TV expert Mehmet Scholl opined that Germany would have more "punch" with a "real" centre-forward, and unsurprisingly, the former strikers all expressed unease of varying degrees. Stefan Kuntz, the Euro 1996 winner, felt that midfielders were "lacking a real goal scorer's instinct in the box."
Low must be aware that fielding no recognised centre-forwards will open him up to criticism in case things don't work out. "If there are no goals [in Brazil] people will look at that," predicted Klaus Allofs, winner of the European championship in 1980. He is right. But the complaint won't be so much about the system itself but the perceived lack of determination in Gotze et al. if they were to fail to find the net. Low will hope that special training programs have made his players sharper in the box, because in Brazil, his team won't be able to afford the luxury of being over-elaborate on the ball. His revolution, like all of them before it, will be judged on results. If the new (tactical) regime doesn't deliver, the loudest call will be for a change on the German bench rather than in the opposition box.