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Germany’s World Cup exit may spell the end of possession-focused soccer

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Stout defense and counter-attacking seems to be the new tiki-taka, as Germany’s possession and build-up system failed them in all of their matches.

Korea Republic v Germany: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images,

Unfortunately, this isn’t some crazy nightmare that we haven’t woken up from yet: Germany have crashed out of the World Cup, having lost two of their three group stage matches, finishing last with a goal differential of -2. This comes just four years after Joachim Low and company lifted the World Cup title in Brazil — thanks to a wonder goal in stoppage time by Mario Götze, who wasn’t even in the squad this time around. Of all the question marks surrounding Germany’s disappointing early exit, the nature of the defeats to both Mexico and South Korea is what’s most concerning: they were almost carbon copies of one another.

The golden game-plan for Mexico, Sweden, and Korea

All of Germany’s opponents in Group F set up almost exactly the same way and used the same tactics to frustrate the defending champs. All came out with a tight, compact defensive shape and relied heavily on counter-attacks once they won possession in their own third. Mexico and Korea did this to great effect and were able to completely catch Germany out despite being entirely out-possessed. In all three matches, Germany had more than 60% of the overall possession: 61% vs. Mexico, 71% vs. Sweden, and 70% vs. Korea.

Clearly, the trio of Group F opponents were more than happy to sit back defensively and let Germany keep the ball for long periods, but Die Mannschaft failed to create enough chances and convert the ones they did create. Of the 20 shots on target they recorded collectively from all three matches, they scored only twice, at a conversion rate of 15% — an alarming statistic when you have Timo Werner, Marco Reus, Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil and Mario Gomez at your disposal.

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano’s goal against Germany for Mexico and Ola Toivenen’s goal for Sweden nicely sum up Die Mannschaft’s Achilles heel in all three matches. The more difficult Germany found it to break down the opposition defense, the more numbers they committed forward and left far too much space behind for the counter-attacks. Both counters took just 2-3 passes to completely bypass Germany’s midfield and center-backs:

Dominating possession means almost nothing anymore

If anything can be taken away from Germany’s lackluster performances, it’s the realization that the modern game, especially at the international level, is changing. Gone are the days of the impressive Spanish national team team that won back-to-back international tournaments (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010) with their famous possession-based, tiki-taka style of play where their opponents were hardly ever able to get on the ball. In their glory days, Spain essentially forced their opponents to chase the ball for 90% of the match, and they were exceptionally good in tight spaces, making it almost impossible to defend.

In addition to my love for Bayern Munich and Die Mannschaft, I’ve been a massive Liverpool supporter since about 2004, and I’m able to draw so many parallels with how Germany played at the World Cup and how Liverpool play under Jürgen Klopp. Ever since Klopp took over Liverpool and implemented his high-pressing, high-tempo style of play, Liverpool have often struggled against so-called “lesser” teams that sit back defensively against them, letting them have all the possession they want. They’re at their best when their high press is in full effect, winning the ball in advanced areas of the pitch, but when they see the majority of possession, they struggle to find an opening, and that’s exactly what happened to Germany this time around.

It just goes to show how little possession can mean in today’s game, and Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final last season perfectly emulated that overall shift in style.