Germany looking for right formula vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
JUN 16, 2014 12:00a ET
SALVADOR, BRAZIL -- Bayern Munich have been in three Champions League finals in the past five years. Borussia Dortmund played them in the final last season. Both clubs are based on a core of gifted young German players. Germany thrilled at the last World Cup, swaggered to the semi-finals at the Euros and was the highest scorer in European qualifying.
Their youth development system is admired across the world, and yet Germany haven’t won anything since the Euros in 1996. If Germany, who starts their campaign against Portugal in Salvador on Monday, fails to win this World Cup it will mark the longest trophy drought in their post-War history.
The oddity of the German revolution is that, while the team has progressed and impressed, it has taken Germany no nearer winning anything. The Euro ‘96 side was a glum, muscular unit that squeezed the life out of opponents: Mattias Sammer was a superb and elegant sweeper, but just as key was the uncompromising midfielder stopper Dieter Eilts.
Berti Vogts, the coach, ended up a pitiable, derided figure, particularly after the 3-0 defeat to Croatia in the World Cup quarter-final in 1998, yet – as Christophe Biermann argues in Das Ball ist Rund - he was the coach who introduced pressing to the national team, dragging it into the modern age. It was that, combined with the changes to the academy system (and, arguably, to regulations on how German citizenship could be achieved) in the early years of the last decade that has promoted this great flourishing.
Germany won many plaudits at the last World Cup, counter-attacking with precision and verve to put four past Australia, England and Argentina. What was noticeable, though, was that in each of those three games, they scored in the first 10 minutes, forcing their opponents to come at them, then picking them off on the break. In the three games (the third-place playoff notwithstanding) when Germany did not score early, they struggled, losing 1-0 to Spain and Serbia and scraping a 1-0 win over Ghana.
Those games seem to have persuaded coach Jogi Low that a change of approach was necessary, and he has spent the past four years overseeing a transition from the reactive style to a more proactive approach. The problem is that in doing so, he seems to have lost defensive security. At the Euros, Germany were remarkably open in beating Greece 4-2 in the quarter-final before Italy, typically astutely set up by Cesare Prandelli, beat them 2-1 in the semi-final.
In the UEFA section of World Cup qualifying, Germany were the highest scoring side, but also let in more goals than any other side to top its group. A 2-2 draw against Cameroon and a 6-1 win over Armenia in recent friendlies have done little to alter the perception of Low’s side as exciting but vulnerable.
In a sense, he has been undone by an excess of options. Whereas Portugal’s system is clear: a 4-3-3 with Cristiano Ronaldo swooping in from the left, predicting Germany’s line-up requires an element of guesswork. In the past two years, Low has not been able to find a settled line up.
It could be 4-3-3, but it seems more likely Germany will start with a 4-2-3-1 with a false nine rather than Miroslav Klose up front. The suggestion is that that will be Mesut Ozil, although Mario Gotze would seem a more logical option given Low’s stated intention to press hard from the start, looking to grind Portugal down in the early afternoon heat. Thomas Muller has also been named as an option in that slot.
Low insisted there would be no special plans to deal with Ronaldo. "You can't shut him down completely, he is a player who scores 50 goals a season," he said. "But we've watched a lot of videos, we know his running patterns, how he likes to lurk behind defenders. It has to be a team effort against him.”
It’s not even clear who will be up against him. Although Philipp Lahm, in an enthralling series of Bayern vs. Real Madrid clashes, has done as well against Ronaldo as anybody over the past few seasons, Low has already decided to play him in midfield, so Jerome Boateng will likely feature at right-back. Sami Khedira seems as though he will be fit to play, having fully recovered from the ligament injury that kept him out from November to May, while Bastian Schweinsteiger is apparently available despite being airlifted to hospital on Saturday – at FIFA’s insistence, according to Low - for attention on a knee problem.
Injuries – most notably that to Marco Reus – have complicated Low’s task, but it still feels as though Germany has been drifting. Portugal is an inconsistent side, and have beaten Germany only once in nine meetings in competitive games, but there is a need for Germany to find the right formula quickly. This is a tough group and that means they need rapid results if they are not to become a paradox: the most watchable Germany side in living memory but also the least successful.