Things finally clicking for Germany
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Joachim Löw's Germany have taken much more time than anticipated -- and surely much more time than they'd hoped they would need -- but in the past 24 hours or so, things have begun to come together at last.
All the injury doubts have cleared up, and you didn't have to read too hard between the lines of player interviews, Löw's statements and those of chief scout Urs Siegenthaler to arrive at a good idea of the national team's expected lineup, formation and tactics for the opening game against Portugal on Monday. Two decisions in central midfield, while not unexpected, shape the rest of the team, as well as their strategy.
First, Captain Philipp Lahm will be one of two holding midfielders, next to Sami Khedira. The Bayern Munich skipper gave the game away as early as last weekend when he told The Guardian that he "expected" to feature in a central role after playing there for 45 minutes in the last friendly against Armenia.
Making way: Bayern teammate Bastian Schweinsteiger. Löw will be able to cite the 29-year-old's fitness struggles as a reason for his exclusion, but benching Germany's leading midfielder of the past two tournaments has an added political dimension. Schweinsteiger might not be the sort of player to cause a fuss, but by leaving him out, Löw also sends a message to his team and beyond. This time -- unlike at Euro 2012 -- there will be no deference to big names.
As strange as that might have sounded a few months ago, Lahm is the safer option at the moment, especially if you consider that Khedira, who has never been a true holding midfielder by nature, is also still in the process of coming back to full fitness.
Löw's second big decision: Toni Kroos will (probably) take up the No. 10 role. The Bayern player has been staking a claim on the more defensive position in the middle of the park, but the national manager wants him to play at the top of a midfield three in which he'll have more control. "The ball is safe with Toni," Bayern assistant coach Herrmann Gerland once said, and not losing the ball softly in the attacking third will be more of a priority to Germany in the hot Salvador, conditions than playing another attacking midfielder in his place. Kroos will also naturally play deeper than Mesut Özil or Mario Götze would do, so Löw's favoured 4-2-3-1 system will in fact be much more like a 4-3-3.
That in turn frees up the wide players -- just a little bit. They can stay higher up the pitch and provide an outlet for a more direct game. Siegenthaler, one of Löw's key advisers, told Frankfurter Rundschau that it would be a folly to play a "European game in South American conditions" and that high pressing would be impossible due to the humidity. Germany will thus start their attacks from a deeper position. They will still seek to dominate possession, but having the ball will take a backseat to not getting caught out on the break.
"It's vitally important that we don't chase a lead in those conditions," Lahm explained to me last week. In other words, Löw will seek to modify his approach and tailor it to the realities at hand. The idea of not conceding, not long ago treated as a mere afterthought by Löw, will be paramount in this group in Brazil.
Thomas Müller should start in the right attacking role. On the opposite flank, where there's suddenly a Marco Reus-shaped hole to fill, it's a battle between Lukas Podolski -- arguably Germany's most convincing performer during the tournament preparations -- and André Schürrle. The latter could get the nod due to his superior pace and ability to also play through the middle.
Özil is likely to play up front as a "false 9," but him, Müller and Schürrle/Podolski are supposed to keep changing positions constantly. The idea is to tire out the Portuguese in the first 60 or 70 minutes; then, Götze, Miroslav Klose or Schürrle/Podolski can come in to finish the job later on.
"Having players who can make a real difference from the bench is key," Lahm said. "Because the conditions will make it difficult to create chances while everyone is still at their physical best." Löw and Siegenthaler have made similar noises. Neither expect Germany to be able to play with the same fluidity of movement while spaces remain tight, so it makes sense to break up the 90 minutes into two, or even three, different mini-games with different personnel and tactics for each segment.
It's not a revolutionary concept but still a bit of departure for Löw, who was unwilling to moderate his footballing ideals in the past. This time, Germany will be a little more reactive, willing to lure out the opposition in order to be a bit less elaborate (read: quicker) on the break.
In defence, Jérôme Boateng will line up on the right side against Cristiano Ronaldo. The Bayern Munich centre-back is happier in the middle and not great going forward, but he also provides a better matchup than some might suspect. The 25-year-old is the fastest German defender; he's also their best athlete. Per Mertesacker (Arsenal) and Mats Hummels (Dortmund) will have to find an understanding in the centre, a partnership that has been a little lacking off the pitch. That leaves one open place. Benedikt Höwedes of Schalke 04 has reportedly made up some key ground on the inexperienced Erik Durm (Dortmund) -- Höwedes was tipped by Bild on Wednesday to take that spot in the first XI.
It goes without saying that the real test of all these plans will come only once the game actually kicks off against Portugal, just as the real test for "the outstanding team spirit" that Löw praised will arrive only in the wake of some players coming to terms with being left out of the starting XI. But at least, at last, Germany now know where they stand, tactically, and with whom. Now that there's certainty, a bit of optimism can flow from that.
It's about time.