It seems variety is everything in football.
Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan marked Joachim Loew’s fourth time using a strikerless formation. He’s been toying with this formation since November of last year when he first unveiled it in a friendly against the Netherlands.
Despite some of the German media’s sensationalist headlines that claimed Loew is “anti-striker”, the national coach’s tactical move is all about creating more options.
“Variability means you don’t always need a central striker that only moves up front in the middle…this variability and flexibility in a game with technically good playing can naturally surprise an opponent.”
The element of surprise is crucial for it makes the team less predictable, something the squad was lacking after its impressive showing in South Africa. But more importantly, the variation also offers more options against opponents.
Besides, it’s better for Loew to tinker and experiment now instead of during an international tournament. It wasn’t too long ago the 53-year old faced heat for altering lineups and formations during the European Championship. This time, however, he has more than a year to perfect the method.
Loew acknowledged the Spanish model of soccer has inspired his own understanding of the game. He has made it clear during press conferences that strikers don’t necessarily have to possess bully-like qualities; smaller players can also wreak havoc on defences, especially when space is tight and limited.
“We have these strikers with Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose, but it would also be smaller players such as Mario Goetze or Marco Reus. Yet everyone says Loew wants to do away with strikers. That’s nonsense.”
He’s confident Goetze, Reus and Mesut Oezil can do the jobs just as effectively and also offer more possibilities up front.
“When players can alternate at the very top and score than I don’t need a striker who is always standing in the center.”
Aside from Spain, it’s likely die Nationalmannschaft, with its abundance of talent in midfield, is the only other team capable of successfully executing this formation on the international level. But the focal difference here is that Spain has proven it works for them (winning Euro 2012) whereas the German team is still a work in progress.
Against the Netherlands and Kazakhstan, Jogi used Goetze up front while opting for Oezil against France. The Dortmund player was involved in two goals (in the first match), scoring the second and along with Oezil helped to set up the third cross for Thomas Mueller. Along with Reus (hit two for the night), Goetze also scored in the second match. At the end, Germany scored a total of seven goals in its two matches against the Central Asian country, conceding only a single goal.
The formation was also introduced in the second half versus France. With roughly 30 minutes remaining, Loew decided to take Gomez out and insert Toni Kroos, allowing Oezil to play as a false nine.
Loew explained the change was effective because it allowed the German midfield to confuse the French defence, especially the centre backs.
But not everyone agrees with this formation.
While Gomez remains optimistic about his place on the team, he thinks it’s vital for every team to possess a ‘killer’, someone who can score goals and finish.
“Ninety-nine per cent of managers are happy when they have a ‘killer’ on the team.”
He has a point. At the club level, what would teams be without the likes of Robin Van Persie, Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, and Radamel Falcao?
Gomez for his part is confident conventional strikers aren’t about to go extinct, even with the occasional omission.
“He probably will play without Klose or me when the others score goals.”
But the Bayern player knows the instincts of a striker aren’t replaceable.
“Eventually every team needs someone, who can score goals, otherwise you can’t win a game.”
While Gomez makes a valid point, his flaw isn’t necessarily goal scoring—he’s proven that he’s a prolific striker both domestically and internationally—but the 27-year old is often viewed as a very one-dimensional player, making him unsuitable for some systems.
The country’s football history also makes this an unfavourable formation. Only in the sense that not all fans will enjoy having their team play without a conventional striker, something that goes against its tradition. Germany produced goal-scoring legends such as Gerd Mueller, Uwe Seeler, Horst Hrubesch, Rudi Voeller, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Juergen Klinsmann, Helmut Rahn and the like.
Also, from a technical perspective, do Reus, Oezil and Goetze have the heading abilities of Klose and Gomez?
But in a sport where evolution has been the catalyst to effective change, the German coach made it very clear that his recent experimentation with the formation wasn’t to eliminate the classical striker. Instead he would like to develop alternatives. A second or third option is always important to win tournaments; every team needs a substitute formation that can replace another if it falls short.
Even German legend Franz Beckenbauer is in favour of diversifying the national team’s tactics.
“With so many technically top-class midfielders it makes sense to attack flexibly. Sometimes Oezil is at the top and sometimes someone else.”
Another legend Horst Hrubesch, who is currently the trainer of Germany’s youth team, also thinks Gomez is one variation for the team while Oezil and Goetze are another.
“It’s important that one has both possibilities.”
He believes the formation used depends largely on the opponent, but that the most winning method is also the most effective one.
Yet this only further affirms Loew’s stance. Having variety and an alternative allows a team to flourish when the first plan fails. It also makes the goal scorers and passing game considerably more unpredictable and therefore harder for opponents to defensively organize themselves.
Still at this point, it’s somewhat premature to cement this formation as Germany’s future, given that the country has only played four recent games using a false nine and no real striker.
Two of those games were friendlies and the other two were played against a mediocre opponent such as Kazakhstan. And “mediocre” is an understatement—they’re ranked 139th in the FIFA world rankings. In other words, the real test is to succeed against more realistic opponents in competitive matches.
But at the moment, variation isn’t Loew’s only concern. The team’s recent friendlies and WC qualifiers have revealed lapses in concentration. It seems Germany’s biggest problem is playing a full 90 minutes.
Although Jogi told media today he didn’t fear a Sweden repeat in the second half of the Kazakhstan game, it’s a disturbing habit that, if not unlearned, could be very costly for a team that has not won a major trophy since 1996.