In a World Cup filled with set-piece goals, stoppage time winners and moments that continue to impress, there has perhaps been none better than Germany’s last-gasp heroics in Sochi.
After going 1-0 down to a first-half strike from Toulouse forward Ola Toivonen, Germany’s poor display in the first 45 minutes was remedied when Marco Reus touched home a Timo Werner cross three minutes after the interval. Despite die Mannschaft putting in a much improved second-half performance, they were yet again left reeling when national team stalwart Jerome Boateng received his marching orders after a second bookable offense.
Desperate to keep Germany’s World Cup fate in their hands, head coach Joachim Löwtook off Jonas Hector and introduced Julian Brandt in a final role of the dice. Just like he had done against Mexico, the Bayer Leverkusen youngster hit the woodwork from outside the area. The football gods seemed to be up to their old tricks yet again. A late foul on Werner just outside the box by substitute Jimmy Durmaz produced a lifeline in the dying seconds of stoppage time; one which Toni Kroos would cling to with both hands as he bent his dead ball effort past Robin Olsen to send the supporters and the nation into delirium.
It was fitting that one of the most important pieces in Löw’s outfit – if not the most important – won a vital three points for his country with a moment of sheer brilliance. In a World Cup that has seen Germany struggle mightily to live up to their billing as tournament favorites, Kroos’ bit of magic perhaps instilled a renewed sense of hope in the summer campaign. One player that has not lived up to his ability or expectations however, is Thomas Müller.
While it may be highly irregular to put Müller’s name in this particular hat, the Bayern Munich talisman has been a shadow of himself in Russia. So often at the forefront of the vaunted German attacking machine, the Weilheim native has established himself as a key component to any success the national team plan to achieve; his goal record at the World Cup reflects this. But the popular and press-friendly forward has done little to build on his stellar national team credentials.
Arguably one of the worst performers in the 1-0 defeat to Juan Carlos Osorio’s Mexico in Moscow a week ago, Müller again failed to impose himself in a way we are all accustomed to seeing. Deployed in both matches on the right side of an attacking three behind the center forward and in his preferred ‘Raumdeuter’ deployment, he has come up short in providing the very space in the opposition half of the pitch that his self-proclaimed role suggests.
So often the main protagonist in years past, Müller’s effectiveness in his favorite and most efficient role has clearly diminished. Though, in fairness, it fault cannot solely be laid at his feet. Effectively a second striker, no one in the world is better at creating space via the right-sided half space. In doing so, an overlap down the right flank from Joshua Kimmich would bear fruit. In a similar light, said overlap and diagonal movement would drag defenses out of cohesiveness and create residual space for the true center forward or late runner coming from midfield. But what was once ruthlessly effective has waned in its ability to define a match; that is the fault of none other than Löw himself.
In a bid to utilise the right-sided Bayern partnership to create width through Kimmich – and thus forcing Müller central – Germany has not only overloaded the right flank far too regularly but has clogged the central areas of the pitch, making it far too easy to defend against. As football continues to evolve, one aspect of the game that has begun to lose its influence is ball possession. Gone are the days of oppressive control to the point where your opponent will undoubtedly bend to your will. More and more we see ‘smaller’ teams able to build a system around staunch and organised defenses that are hard to pry out of their shape, who are happy to look to hit you on the break should you leave yourself exposed. It is a system that has worked brilliantly against Germany in both of their matches this World Cup and they aren’t the only ones to suffer from this.
Given the reliance on the Müller-Kimmich duopoly and a complete disregard for defensive responsibility by the collective unit, Germany have been exposed time and time again in the spaces left in the wake of countless jaunts forward by the Bayern right back. Each time pressure has been soaked up and dealt with, the areas left behind by Kimmich have been ruthlessly targeted by both Mexico and Sweden. It has been a real Achilles heel in what is usually a balanced and defensively-sound team.
Though this tactical schematic is the brainchild of Löw, he must take responsibility for its shortcomings, it is Müller’s qualities as a footballer that demand its institution. Incapable of providing enough width on his own without a marauding right back, his very survival and utilisation in the team are predicated on this approach remaining a constant. It is a constant which now needs to be scrapped for the rest of the tournament, however long Germany are privileged to take part in it. Indeed, it may be time to come to grips with the reality that Müller may need to be dropped from the team in a bid to rectify what has been a troublesome campaign.
As stated before, football continues to evolve, and it should be time for Löw to do the same. With the squad depth at his disposal, there are options that can be called upon; there are new blueprints that can be drawn up. Though he has featured for less than 15 minutes total, Brandt offers a different option to the Bavarian, one with far more balance and more in his locker.
There is no taking away how important Müller has been to the team since his 2010 debut, and no one can speak against his ability as a player. In Brandt however, Germany would be afforded an attacking player capable of tucking centrally when necessary, but also being able to stretch play out wide without relying on an overlapping run. His technical ability on the ball outshines his counterpart, and he is well capable of beating his marker one on one in isolation far more regularly than Müller can, who so often is reliant on a ball through the lines or over the top. Brandt is also creative in his own right and as we have seen already (for those of you who do not watch Leverkusen regularly), he has an eye for goal from range.
Most important of all is the decreased reliance on Kimmich to manufacture width that would shield Germany from being constantly hit on the counter-attack down their right flank. This must now be priority one, especially with the penultimate group stage match coming against a South Korea side who possess a good amount of pace, especially through Tottenham’s Son Heung-min. Müller may not have to be dropped from the team to achieve this however, as his most steadfast supporters would postulate using him in the number 10 hole as a secondary striker rather than a center of creativity. Such a deployment would still allow for Brandt to take up station on the right side of the attack, but such a move would be predicated around whether Löw intends to stick with Julian Draxler or reinstate Mesut Özil into the team.
No matter what happens, supporters can take solace in the fact that there are options. Germany boasts one of the deepest squads in the tournament in terms of quality and flexibility. What the powers that be must remain cognizant of is the importance of the team over the individual; the collective must be given a chance to achieve the acceptable – and expected – levels of performance. Löw must make many hard decisions in the run-up to their date with destiny in Kazan, and one of them may have to be dropping a faithful servant.
It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.
By Andrew Thompson.