The international friendly between two European giants started with near-full strength teams. Spain and Germany took turns in keeping the ball and, in typical ‘friendly’ fashion, giving it away in dangerous areas.
Germany’s midfield found wanting
Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira started in Germany’s central midfield. Thomas Müller and Julian Draxler flanked the duo with Mesut Özil operating in the hole behind the striker.
This combination is used to playing a patient possession game. They maneuver the ball and interchange positions, looking for meaningful attacking runs to create chances.
It is, however, a borrowed philosophy. Spain are its original masters in the modern era and it showed. The close control Andrés Iniesta and co. showed in central areas was- and will be- difficult to match.
Germany’s midfield had their moments of possession but were always playing a game they were second-best at. Sami Khedira was the designated ball-winner but the Juventus midfielder was not up to the task, either in skill or, I daresay, fitness. He has not for some while now.
Nature of friendlies notwithstanding, this is slightly troubling news. Die Mannschaft build from the back and accept the weaknesses that come with such a style. What happens when the opponent is better at doing what you do?
The tactical answer would be to adapt the team’s style to be more counter-attacking. This requires a ball-winner, preferably an energetic one. Does Joachim Löw have such personnel at his disposal? Khedira, Emre Can and Sebastian Rudy perhaps, but the options do not inspire much confidence.
Werner not enough upfront
Moreover, Timo Werner as the sole striker was left with too much to do. The possession game does a disservice to his fast attacking runs and vice-versa. He badly needed a partner to hold-up and bring him into play.
Löw’s squad is more equipped to deal with this problem. Mario Gómez and Sandro Wagner fit the profile of target-man upfront. On the other hand, a strike partnership will compromise numbers elsewhere on the pitch.
It might not be a first-team problem anyway if Löw decides to start Müller upfront, keeping Werner as an impact substitute. The mismatch between the game of Werner and the rest of the team was evident and will need rectification if he is to be used effectively in losing situations.
Learn from previous (Italian) lessons against Spain?
When it comes to la Roja, the opponent knows what it is getting. The system or personnel might change, but the philosophy of domination through possession remains the same.
This comes with known weaknesses, which other teams have exposed in international tournaments. Netherlands and Chile did it well in the previous World Cup, and Italy perfected the art in the 2016 Euro.
The common denominators to the ‘anti-Spain’ strategy (3-5-2 formation, inviting the opponent to press and then passing long, twin strike force upfront) suit Germany. Most players are accustomed to the system. It does not necessarily involve giving up the possession game: just one involving longer passes which could potentially bring the best out of Mats Hummels. Not to mention, it allows Werner and Wagner to play together.
There will, of course, be difficulties to iron out. (Where do Özil, Müller and Kimmich play in a 3-5-2, for example?) It will bear fruit against a team that, although the best at what it does, won’t change. A classic shortcoming of fanatics, if you may.