At times in this World Cup, Germany have looked wretched.
The reason they are still in the competition is mainly down to luck. But, their eventual progression notwithstanding, there is no saying that they will go very deep in the knock-out stages. It is clear to everyone that their starting tactics, and even starting personnel, aren’t working.
Of course, as always, context is everything. Die Mannschaft had to come back and defeat Sweden with only ten men after Jerome Boateng was sent off when he picked up a second yellow card. At times like these, tactics often go out of the window.
Starting his team in a 4-2-3-1 shape, Joachim Low deploys Thomas Muller as a wide attacking player, joining the centre-forward from his position on the right. However, this shape doesn't seem to be working and Germany finish games in a much less organised fashion than they start them more often than not in the desperate search for a goal.
Low’s tactical task, then, is to get Germany firing from the start of games. But, on the evidence so far, he has a fair job on his hands if he is to do so.
Everything Germany did against Sweden, good or bad, went through Toni Kroos, whether he liked it or not. He is now Germany’s Messi, in stature if not in style.
Having been part of a Real Madrid side which has been one of the most successful European Cup teams of modern times, he’s now more high profile than ever and is now asked to carry a team on his back rather than give it directions.
His 144 possessions were far more than any other player on his team and, indeed, more than most other players in most games of football. Only Javier Mascherano’s 153 touches against Iceland beats it in this tournament.
Kroos completed an impressive 17 out of 17 long balls but there were only two key passes among his 93% pass success rate.
As shown above, from StatsZone, of his 128 passes only six found a teammate in the box and other than the two key passes, indicated by light blue arrows, they weren't in prime shooting positions.
Though Kroos' job may be to provide the pass before the assist, Low might do well to move him further up the pitch and keep two of Sebastian Rudy, Leon Goretzka, or Ilkay Gundogan in the deeper roles, or even ditch the double pivot entirely.
If he’s to be the main man, let him be the main man.
Passing The Buck
Given the apparent will for Kroos to be the main influence on Germany’s play, it would be expected that the top passing combinations would be to the midfielder from one or all of the defenders, especially from centre-backs, Antonio Rudiger and Jerome Boateng.
But the most regularly used passing route against Sweden was Rudiger to Boateng. The next was Kimmich to Boateng, and then after that Boateng to Kimmich. When does building from the back become pointless passing?
Passing for the sake of passing is not football, said Pep Guardiola in a criticism of his Manchester City team after a loss to FC Basel last season. And the same criticism could be levelled at Germany here.
German football has undoubtedly been influenced by Guardiola — for the good, the bad, or the Bayern Munich — and you could have imagined the former Bundesliga boss coming out with similar criticism following this game where Germany enjoyed, or rather endured, 76% of the possession.
Pointless passing tends not to win a team points, neither for artistic merit nor in real terms in a league table. But Germany somehow got three of them here and they remain with a realistic chance of making the knockout stages.
Against Sweden, Germany’s tempo went from Rhine-side cafe to Berlin nightclub but still they struggled to create.
The expected goals plot from the game, courtesy of 11tegen11, shows that, despite their dominance of possession, Germany were only narrowly ahead in terms of the quality of the chances they created. They only nudged ahead of Sweden after over an hour of football had been played.
Introducing Julian Brandt added directness as did quick distribution from Manuel Neuer. Rather than launching the ball aimlessly upfield, or looking for a centre-back, the goalkeeper passed the ball up to the half-way line in the build-up to the free kick and Kroos’ missile which won the game.
Timo Werner’s dribble at the defence to win said free kick was only their eighth attempted take-on of the game (to Sweden’s 12) with the German's having only managed three in the first half. This type of attacking play may need to be in the gameplan from the start against a South Korea side who attempted 30 dribbles in their game against Mexico.
Worrying Counter Culture
Germany’s high defensive line has been caught out a number of times, so much so that it has led to one of their defenders, Mats Hummels appealing, unwisely via the media, for support at the back.
"If seven or eight players play offensively, then it's clear that the offensive force is greater than the defensive stability,” Hummels told German outlet ZDF.
"Our stability is not good, you have to say - often only Jerome [Boateng] and I were at the back, so they mercilessly attacked us."
They were lucky not to concede an early penalty as a result of a counter-attack when Marcus Berg broke through and appeared to have been fouled by Boateng. In the event, though, nothing was given by the referee on the pitch, or by the VAR who wasn't consulted.
The Sweden goal wasn’t quite a counter-attack in the traditional sense but Ola Toivonen was still able to break between the German centre-backs into space behind them and get enough on the ball to lift it over Manuel Neuer.
Since 1994 when they played their first World Cup as a unified nation, Germany’s worst performance has been reaching the quarter-finals. Not getting past the group stage as defending champions would be unthinkable. If they aren't careful, though, they could be heading that way.
What do you think is going wrong for Germany? Let us know by commenting below.