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What did Germany learn from their previous Euro 2020 qualifiers?

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Germany has gone through some up and down performances over the past few months. What lessons did they learn, and which ones will help them against Belarus and Northern Ireland?

Germany v Estonia - UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images

Germany currently faces the biggest challenge that the year 2019 has offered them. A place at Euro 2020 is at stake. On paper, their opponent Belarus does not seem like much of a threat. With only four points from seven games, all four of them against dead-last Estonia, and only four goals scored while conceding twelve, it will theoretically take a miracle for them to beat the Germans in their own patch.

But this is Germany, and they have suffered major upsets in the past year one too many times. Only by preparing for every possible scenario, and learning from their past mistakes, they will be able to safely guarantee passage to the final tournament.

So what were those past mistakes, and what were the scenarios that created them? This article will look at Germany’s performances in their last three qualifiers from September, as well as their most recent meeting with Belarus in June, to deduce how Die Mannschaft should approach this do-or-die match. Only games after September will be considered since the current German squad is very different from what it was back in March and June, mostly on account of injuries. The away game to Belarus is an exception, of course, as “know thy enemy” is the first rule in war.

Germany 2-4 Netherlands

Goalscorers: Gnabry, Kroos | De Jong, Tah(OG), Malen, Wijnaldum

Date and Venue: Sep 6, 2019 @ Volksparkstadion, Hamburg

Lineup (3-5-2)

Neuer © - Tah, Süle, Ginter(Brandt 84) - Klostermann, Kimmich, Reus(Gundogan 61), Kroos, Schulz - Werner (Havertz 61), Gnabry

Germany’s return game against their arch rivals did not go as planned, especially in the second half. It was obvious that Joachim Löw was planning to play his team in a similar fashion to the way he did when they defeated the Netherlands in March. However, this game would be doomed for a multitude of reasons, most of which lay with personnel.

The absence of Leon Goretzka and Antonio Rüdiger resulted in a stagnant midfield and a shoddy defense, not helped at all by mediocre performances by Marco Reus and of course, Jonathan Tah. Leroy Sané’s pace and ability up front was also missed dearly, as Timo Werner did nothing to hold a candle to what Sané did in March. Put simply, Germany did not have any decent backups for three of their key players, and as good as they may have looked on paper. Their performances stung the eyes of the 50,000-strong crowd in Hamburg.

It seemed that if Germany had stuck to their game plan properly, they most likely would have had a better result: winning the ball with active pressing in midfield, followed by quick counters by the front two. This approach worked wonders in March, and it also did in the first half. Individual mistakes and an overall lack of “class,” however, that replicating such a performance was nearly impossible. It was a foolproof plan, but only if the right players were playing it. Reus was not as mobile or aggressive as Goretzka, Tah’s errors overshadowed any merit he may have brought to the team, and Werner...well, we’ll leave it at that.

Lessons Learned:

  • Pressing in midfield and counterattacks are a viable game plan
  • Löw needs to play players in their appropriate positions

Northern Ireland 0-2 Germany

Goalscorers: None/Halstenberg, Gnabry

Date and Venue: Sep 9, 2019 @ Windsor Park, Belfast

Lineup: 4-2-3-1

Neuer © - Klostermann, Süle, Ginter(Tah 40), Halstenberg - Kroos, Kimmich - Gnabry, Reus(Can 85), Brandt - Werner(Havertz 68)

Aiming for a much improved performance from the Netherlands game, Löw reshuffled his starting lineup. The problematic Tah was dropped to the bench as his coach abandoned the back three for a more flexible and attack-minded 4-2-3-1 (although Tah made an early comeback due to Matthias Ginter’s untimely injury).

This game was dominated by the Germans, despite playing in Belfast. With 21 shots and 8 on target, Die Mannschaft also enjoyed the lion’s share of possession (69%), and recorded almost four times as many passes as their opponents.

That said, the game was far from a comfortable win. Manuel Neuer had to be active in goal during the first half, and it was only in the second half after Marcel Halstenberg’s opener that the game started to turn in favor of the Germans. Even then, Germany’s finishing was often disappointing, and it was not until the second minute of stoppage time before the fans could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Defensively, Germany was definitely much more stable than against the Netherlands, but their finishing left much to be desired. The fact that one of their two goals was scored by a defender highlighted their attacking woes and shone an ugly spotlight at Werner, who was subbed off early because of his lack of productivity.

Lessons Learned:

  • Domination does not directly translate to winning comfortably
  • Finishing needs to be improved
  • Defense needs to be focused from minute one, not from minute forty six

Estonia 0-3 Germany

Goalscorers: none/Gündogan(2), Werner

Date and Venue: Oct 13, 2019 @ A. Le Coq Arena, Tallin

Lineup: 4-2-3-1

Neuer © - Klostermann, Can, Süle, Halstenberg - Kimmich, Gündogan - Havertz, Reus(Serdar 77), Brandt(Amiri 86) - Waldschmidt(Werner 66)

This was...an interesting game. Following an eight-goal victory in their previous meeting, no one was expecting anything special from Estonia. More were wondering how many goals would Germany win by this time.

But everything changed when Emre Can was sent off for a ridiculously stupid challenge, dooming his team to a numerical disadvantages with a whopping 75 more minutes to play. As a result, Germany was concerned about damage control for most of the first half, before coming out to play in the second. Two deflected strikes from Ilkay Gündogan and a rare goal from Werner wrapped up a comfortable second half, but it could have been much more comfortable.

Both teams showed a lot of heart. Estonia was playing with pride and passion in front of their home fans. Germany, meanwhile, was not looking to give up on a win even when they were a man down, choosing to sit back while Estonia ran themselves out and then striking later. A wise choice from whoever’s head the idea came from, and ultimately the right one, considering this win allowed Germany to keep up with the Netherlands, putting them in a good position to qualify. Considering the fact that Germany was condemned by many for not putting in an effort since the World Cup, this was a refreshing scene. Yes, it was Estonia, but still, playing a man down away from home is never easy, and the Germans pulled through.

Lessons Learned:

  • Sometimes it’s not about getting the goal early, but waiting until the right time
  • The fire that once defined Germany is still there, it just takes awhile to start burning

Belarus 0-2 Germany

Goalscorers: None/Sané, Reus

Date and Venue: June 8, 2019 @ Borisov Arena, Barysaw

Lineup: 3-4-3

Neuer © - Tah, Süle, Ginter - Klostermann, Kimmich, Gündogan(Goretzka 81), Schulz - Reus(Brandt 76), Gnabry(Draxler 71), Sané

Admittedly, there is not too much to read into this game, considering it was almost six months ago. It was a routine victory against a well-organized Belarus side, not to mention the one and only victory Germany recorded in their green away kit for 2018-19.

The one thing to take from this game is how Germany actually broke down the Belarus defense. Belarus lined up with five defenders, and packed the box with numbers to limit the damage. Both of Germany’s goals were the result of defense-splitting passes, with attackers in the limited spaces to divvy up the numbers. As a result, Sané and Reus were able to find space within the full box and score with relative ease. Considering it is highly likely that Belarus will take a similar approach tomorrow, it would be well worth noting that their defense needs to be opened up before anything can be put inside.

Lessons Learned:

  • Passes and players running into space are vital to opening up tight defenses
  • An early goal helps

So what does this all mean for today?

The situation facing Germany right now is very different from what they had in the past few months. For one thing, both goalscorers against Belarus in June will miss the match on account of minor problems, and Germany’s best defender Niklas Süle will also not take part on account of his ACL tear.

With his team seriously understaffed, Löw has already laid almost all of his cards on the table. Neuer, Ginter, Joshua Kimmich, Toni Kroos, Gündogan and Serge Gnabry will start, and it does not take much imagination to guess who will start alongside them. Lukas Klostermann and Nico Schulz, having featured in most of Germany’s games so far, will most likely be in the lineup, as will Julian Brandt and Werner, since Germany has no other attacking personnel than Freiburg youngster Luca Waldschmidt.

Germany’s approach will probably recall those against Northern Ireland and Estonia: holding the ball and dominating possession while looking for chances. In that case, the defense needs to be focused from minute one and not let any counter-attacks put a dent in the game plan. The players also need to be patient, since Belarus’ defense may not open up as soon as they would like. Just as against Estonia, sometimes it is all about waiting for chances and taking them when they come along, no matter when.

Once Germany gets those chances, however, they need to be clinical. We saw with Northern Ireland how bad finishing can make games far more difficult harder than they should be. Again, pulling apart the defense through passes and runs will be vital. So far, Löw appears to have chosen his three midfielders based on their ball-playing ability rather than their mobility, implying that he plans more or less to pass his way through Belarus’ airtight defense. As long as the players stick to the game plan, they should be fine.

Although the personnel problems are greater than ever, hopefully the motivation to get to the Euros will outweigh said problems and bring Die Mannschaft to Munich next summer. Auf geht’s, Jungs!