Seven steps to World Cup immortality for Germany
Germany’s triumph is the fruit of smart evolution – and sweet vindication for manager Joachim Löw
Midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, a key figure in Germany’s triumph, with the World Cup trophy after last Sunday’s victory in Rio. Photograph: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images
As the World Cup begins, Joachim Löw is the longest-serving manager in the tournament, but he’s still pondering a question that probably should have been settled years ago. Just what sort of team are Germany meant to be?
The question is linked to the ideological conflict within German domestic football, which is dominated by the rivalry between FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund. Bayern’s manager is Pep Guardiola, who is revered as a genius. Dortmund’s Jürgen Klopp might be the country’s most popular celebrity. Both men tower over Löw.
They have opposing visions of how the game should be played. Guardiola’s Bayern stand for possession and control, Klopp’s Dortmund for speed and energy.
Guardiola thinks Germans prefer Kloppball, which Klopp described last year as: “fighting football . . . what we call in German ‘English’ football . . . rainy day, heavy pitch, everybody is dirty in the face and they go home and can’t play football for the next four weeks.”
“I’m aware that I’m attempting something countercultural here,” Guardiola said in April.
Germany’s performance in the 2010 World Cup was more reminiscent of Dortmund than Guardiola’s Bayern. But the 2014 team would be dominated by Bayern players. And at least one key member of that group is keen on replicating his club environment on the international stage.
The most striking change Guardiola made at Bayern was moving the Germany captain Philipp Lahm from right-back to central midfield. Guardiola wanted Lahm’s fast feet and tactical awareness at the hub of the team. He buttered Lahm up for the switch by calling him “the most intelligent player I’ve worked with”. Now, Lahm prefers the new position.
Löw’s problem is that the opportunity cost of playing Lahm in midfield is higher for Germany than for Bayern. Bayern have alternative full-backs, Germany do not. Playing Lahm in the middle means leaving out a specialist central midfielder – a position in which Germany are relatively strong – and playing a central defender at full-back.
But Lahm is the captain and the most powerful player. Löw is the coach who has failed to win any of three major tournaments to date. In the first game, Lahm starts in midfield.
Germany 4-0 Portugal
The contest is over after 12 minutes when Portugal concede a penalty. Müller scores a hat-trick and Hummels buries a header from a Kroos corner. Pepe is sent off and Germany play the second half as though it is a training session.
The match showcases how Germany would play under ideal conditions. They create an impression of composed co-ordination. Many moves look automatic, as though they unfold according to pre-determined patterns. Players know in advance where the ball is going to go and where they need to be.
When Germany win the ball, they play fast and short in midfield until their specialist passer, Kroos, finds space to try something more ambitious. Kroos’s precise passing, especially his ability to switch the play from side to side, is the link between midfield and attack.
When the ball goes wide, German attackers stream into the centre. They know a cross will probably come and they want two or three extra players arriving to meet it. Germany nominally play with one striker, but they will be the only World Cup team who regularly have four men attacking the opponent’s box.
If the move breaks down these players stream back, then they do it all over again. Portugal quickly buckle under the relentless waves of pressure.
Not everyone will make it as easy as Portugal.
Germany 2-2 Ghana
Götze gives Germany at 51st-minute lead, but Ayew and Gyan strike back. Ghana’s second goal comes after a mistake in midfield by Lahm. Low sends on Miroslav Klose and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Klose equalises immediately.
Lahm is disgusted at the loss of midfield control. The last 20 minutes were chaos; Germany could easily have lost. “When the team is split in two, attacking and defensive, when the play goes back and forth at such speed, that’s not what we want,” Lahm says. Midfield is the zone Lahm is meant to control. Nobody has forgotten his mistake. Schweinsteiger has proven his fitness and now most of the media want him reinstated in central midfield, and Lahm at right-back.
Löw insists he will not be swayed by outside pressure. But Schweinsteiger will start every match from now on.
Germany 1-0 USA
The result is decided by Müller’s superb shot. The USA have energy but they lack true quality. Nevertheless, Lahm still has to make a crucial sliding block to deny the Americans an equaliser in injury-time.