In their latest games back in September, Germany showed little improvement, if any, compared to their earlier UEFA Nations League fixtures. With the start of the World Cup less than two weeks away, we analyze some of the recurring problems that occurred.
The right-back headache
Since Phillip Lahm retired in 2014, the German national team has lacked a quality right-back.
With Lukas Klostermann out and no other quality option available, Germany coach Hansi Flick has tried to fit Jonas Hofman as a right-back in his 4-2-3-1.
The experiment against Hungary lasted 45 minutes. There was nothing to criticize Hofmann for, but he was simply out of place.
Thilo Kehrer came on and Germany lined up in their now usual 4-2-3-1 that transforms into three defenders while in possession of the ball; a formation that Flick repeated against England.
Flick’s solution is understandable to keep the overall level of the team, but it has not fully worked out and looks like it is starting to condition other areas of the tactical plan.
Starting with Kehrer himself, that role as a half centre-back/half full-back appears to confuse him and his teammates.
Appearing at times down the inner lane, other times giving width, pushing forward, and sometimes staying as the third CB, his versatility might be great, but only if interpreted accurately.
Frankly, neither of the selected players has given results in that role; Klostermann was the one who appeared to be more prepared for it.
Jonas Hofmann didn’t play his best matches back in September, but his joker role as a wing-back is still very useful.
His ability to come close to receive and sprint to attack the spaces makes him very versatile. However, his desire to be part of the combinations with the ball leads him towards more centered positions, sometimes making it easier for the defenses.
Joshua Kimmich or Matthias Ginter as a solution?
Kimmich is one of the best midfielders in the world and has been for several years now, but we must not forget that was and can be one of the best right-backs too.
Kimmich knows the position to the core and can occupy the different spaces that Flick wants.
The FCB midfielder can struggle a bit physically, but if his positioning and intelligence help the team to function better, it could be worth it.
Either giving width and depth or overloading more central spaces, Kimmich can excel at both roles and can take advantage of the spaces the rival team gives.
He’ll also be a wonderful passing option to build through and can snap quick passes through the half-spaces and behind the defensive line.
His anticipation and quick reactions are also key aspects to helping the team to recover the ball quickly.
But the problem is Kimmich clearly does not want play at that position, and it seems like Flick does not want to move him from the midfield either.
If we analyze his partnership with Ilkay Gündogan, it is true both dominate the ball very well and generate a lot of passes with each other; but sometimes they give the feeling of being too similar and wanting to occupy the same spaces.
Injuries and COVID have not allowed Leon Goretzka to take part in the recent games, but with the midfielder back in form, it will be interesting to see if Flick decides to give him a chance in the starting XI.
Central midfield might be the area where the German national team coach has fewest options to choose from, besides the RB spot.
The other option for the right-back position is Matthias Ginter, who is one of three World Cup champions in the squad along with Manuel Neuer and Thomas Müller.
The 2021/22 season was arguably one of Ginter’s best yet, and he is still only 28 years old. The versatile defender holds the traits asked for when thinking about a center-back who can fill the right-back spot.
Ginter has had stints playing there, is good at making both short and long passes, has solid anticipation and understands the occupation of certain spaces fairly well.
The former Dortmund and Gladbach defender has also played as a holding midfielder sometimes.
Considering all this, it raises some eyebrows Flick has not tested Ginter in the role.
A possible reason for not trying Kimmich on the flank might be due to a lack of trust in the defenders and therefore protecting them with two midfielders.
Flick has been testing several partnerships in defense, rotating Rüdiger, Schlotterbeck, and Süle.
Antonio Rüdiger is the best German defender right now and he will be a starter at the World Cup if fit.
Who his partner or partners will be is still unclear. Niklas Süle and Nico Schlotterbeck are gaining minutes of cohesion every weekend with Dortmund, but their performances for both BVB and the national team have been underwhelming.
Schlotterbeck has looked out of place especially, since the young defender committed two penalties in two matches against England and has looked off in some aspects of his game this season.
The former Freiburg man has lost some key aerial duels while man-marking an offensive player and is still finding his feet with defending in a higher line, struggling to defend the spaces behind him, a trait shared with Süle and that has already cost points.
As a whole, the team has committed several defensive mistakes, allowing goals out of not-too-threatening plays.
It makes sense for Flick to have his precautions for the defensive transitions, a stage of the game where the German national team has been weak for quite some time, by adding a third defender and two midfielders in Kimmich and Gündogan, but it’s just too much disbalance.
Both midfielders are more than capable of playing alone in the holding midfield role, Gündogan has done it at times for Manchester City, and Kimmich’s main role is that one.
By using three defenders, you have the numerical advantage in the construction phase, adding a midfielder to give sense to the build-up is perfect.
But why not allow Kimmich to position himself wider on the pitch?
Instead of making Kehrer push wide, he could give width like a normal central defender in a 3-back line. With Gundogan moving to the anchor spot and Kimmich moving wider to the right, they can become a back four again.
That way, he could play along Hofmann’s movements too, allowing him to stay on the wing or go down to the center as Kimmich gives depth.
You’d always have 3 defenders and Gundogan for the defensive transition, and Kimmich and Hofmann can exchange positions to disrupt the opponent’s defensive scheme.
With Süle further back and Havertz pinning in the half-space of two of the center-backs, you’re having one extra player on the build-up that could attack a higher space.
Kehrer is not used to and does not have the skill to control and keep progressing either with a dribble or a pass, but with Hofmann cutting inside, someone must fill the void near the line.
Kimmich and Gündogan are way too close in several stints of the match, plus they don’t have the space to make a pass to Raum before he gets pressed.
Too many players down the middle
Musiala, Müller, Sane, Gnabry, Werner, Hofmann, and Havertz plus the central midfielders are all players that have their strength playing in the middle of the pitch and the half-spaces.
Sane and Gnabry are the ones that can occupy wing positions naturally, but have transitioned into more interior players at Bayern, especially Sane.
But both Flick and Nagelsmann want to take advantage of the dribbling skill and close control of the former Manchester City player to exploit the intermediate positions.
Whether it is an order from the staff or a consequence of the player’s desire/frustration to make something happen, it takes Sane way too far from the area where he can make most of the damage.
The lack of football down the wings is hurting the game through the middle.
If we count, the team has almost 6 players in middle positions; Kimmich, Gundogan, Werner, Sane, Müller, and Hofmann when he closes in.
David Raum is the only player who constantly gives depth and width to the team, but he is hardly found with good passes.
Here we can see how Germany have 9 out of their 10 outfield players within the width of the box as Hofmann makes a diagonal run behind the defensive line, plus the 3 defenders very high.
All this made things easier for Hungary’s strong and compact defensive lines.
Süle is trying to find Kehrer in the inner hall.
Despite Kehrer having good feet for a defender, it is not near the level required to operate in those half-spaces.
The overload in the center of the pitch has its advantages, but as shown in the match against Hungary, it’s also very predictable to defend on a low block.
The team needs to widen its attacking range to take advantage of the spaces inside with its overload of players.
The number 9
Hansi Flick’s confidence in Timo Werner seemed to be unconditional, but the injury of the center-forward erased that possibility.
The role of the center forward has been changing between him and Kai Havertz, but neither one seemed the right fit for the team.
Havertz has proved he feels more comfortable and performs better as a half-striker next to a center forward, both for club and country, while Werner doesn’t seem suited for the role considering his characteristics and form.
Lukas Nmecha has not produced great performances in the Bundesliga so far this season, and despite being an improvement to Werner in terms of size and control in small spaces, he does not possess the level required for the national team right now.
The elephant in the room is Niclas Füllkrug.
As of right now, the Werder Bremen forward has the best presence out of every available player, being the top scorer in the Bundesliga and with every mouth begging for his inclusion in the squad.
It is true that the national team coaches can’t make a decision just based on the current form of the players. But Flick must surely be considering it as an alternative at least.
A profile like Füllkrug’s surely could be useful, if not needed, for the playing style of the team.
He’s strong physical presence that can pin down the center-backs and produce chances with his back against the goal, and an absolute force in air.
Having a target to hit with crosses like Füllkrug surely would make the attacks through the flanks a lot more productive, as well as open more spaces on the inside.
The fact that the Werder Bremen striker also is mobile enough to move to the flanks and link up with the wingers is also a strong point to take him to Qatar.
Youssoufa Moukoko and Karim Adeyemi have also gained points to travel to the World Cup.
Adeyemi already had his debut with the senior national team and left glances of what he could do, however, the former RB Salzburg player has been playing as a winger since his move to Dortmund.
The teenager Moukoko has emerged as a starter for BVB and has been putting very good performances the last month, lacks size but holds all the other traits.
Yet both Dortmund players and Füllkrug have not experienced a major competition and haven’t been in the same dynamic as the rest of the group; with just a week to prepare, it seems hard to think that any of them could start the first game if called up.
There are a lot of things for Hansi Flick to figure out and a very short time to do so, and practically none to put them into practice.
We’ll see tomorrow what Flick decides and how the World Cup shapes up for the German national team, but as of now, the expectations are bittersweet.