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How Germany fell short vs. South Korea at the Women’s World Cup

Match observations from a crushing tournament exit at the group stages.

Soccer World Cup Women - After World Cup Germany Photo by Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images

Germany crashed out of the World Cup after failing to secure a win over South Korea in a game they dominated in possession but not in impetus.

Said women’s national team manager Martina Voss-Tecklenburg afterward: “Twice we achieved a result that was not good enough. We have to face it now.”

Indeed — what happened?

Poor lineup, poor adaptation

Voss-Tecklenburg went with the same essential approach as in Germany’s prior two matches: an asymmetric 4-2-3-1 featuring winger Svenja Huth as right-back and a narrow back three in build-up.

The big change this time was Bayern Munich’s Lina Magull, relegated to the bench after two starts, with Alexandra Popp sliding down into the No. 10 role to replace her. Magull’s Bayern teammate Lea Schüller assumed striker duties. Marina Hegering also came in at center-back.

The jolt at the No. 10 position didn’t appear to infuse any more creativity into the squad. Germany’s build-up continued to struggle, and Popp — who had been dropping into midfield anyway — didn’t add more dynamism. Germany’s midfield was desperately calling for another player who can receive under pressure and serve as a link into attack; Sydney Lohmann’s late introduction provided this but with too little time to change the game.

Instead, Germany often kept or recycled position deep before aiming a long ball to get cut out — or waiting too long to swing out to a winger, hoping for some 1-on-1 magic after giving the defense time to reset. That magic did come a few times, but didn’t produce a goal.

South Korea faced Germany’s narrow back three in build-up by tightly marking the central midfielders, who seemed too willing to be restrained, and inviting the wide center-backs to drive forward and distribute. That didn’t play to their strengths and played a part in snuffing out Germany’s attacking opportunities.

So little appears to have been learned from the first two games. But there was also little time to get it all together.

Korea were more up for it

South Korea deserve a mountain of credit fort their display and especially for their opening energy. In the 2nd minute, a Germany clearance falls to Oberdorf, who is on her way to casually laying it off to a defender when Chun Ga-ram nicks it off her in the box.

Early Korean incisiveness the Germans rarely displayed in the final third.
Peacock/NBC Universo

It’s nearly a goal straight-away: as Germany defenders ball-watch, South Korea’s Casey Phair gets one-on-one with the keeper. Three defenders are late to chase her, and Merle Frohms saves at close range — barely, with the deflection banking off the post.

A loose touch from Chantal Hagel in the 5th minute has South Korea on the break again. This time, they cut through: a gorgeous diagonal ball from deep in midfield threads through the entire Germany defense.

Germany sliced open again for the opening goal, Hendrich (circled) playing the striker onside.
Peacock/NBC Universo

Cho So-hyun, played onside by center-back Kathrin Hendrich, darts in and beats Frohms by slotting into the bottom corner. Germany’s defenders are pinched centrally and the closest winger, Bühl, is late to react to the threat.

There were early chances the other way — Brand dancing into the box, Bühl’s header after a beautiful switch of play — so maybe this game could have broken open the other way. It just didn’t. The early Korean goal set the tone, and the Germans looked shell-shocked.

Germany’s highs and lows

Germany’s goal was a rare example of excellent flow and movement. Svenja Huth’s enterprising runs down the right flank were frequently not made use of — a pass coming too late, too inaccurate, or not at all. On this occasion Lena Oberdorf makes the perfect call:

Construction of Germany’s equalizer: Oberdorf picks out the intermediate pass to Sara Däbritz, drawing in the defender even as her teammates point out Huth’s run behind her.
Peacock/NBC Universo

Rather than ping the ball to Huth directly, Oberdorf picks out Sara Däbritz, who has already spotted Huth’s run but draws the pressure before playing the ball into space to Huth. Further upfield, Lea Schüller’s run keeps another defender pinned back and helps afford Huth time to cross. And Popp is there to receive.

Such moments were few and far between. There was still the hesitancy and tendency to back pass that has not paid off for two games now, and might reflect a warranted lack of faith in the system’s attacking patterns or defensive cover.

Oberdorf’s distribution options as the fulcrum of the German midfield. Germany have a chance to throw numbers into attack...
Peacock/NBC Universo

Here, Oberdorf cycles the ball backwards instead of going for Klara Bühl first time. Brand, Schüller, and the bombing run of Huth on the wing all make for a scary numbers situation for the Korean defense if they can keep it moving forward.

After Popp passes to Bühl, she’s closed down fast — and Popp is already pointing back to the defense for the next direction.
Peacock/NBC Universo

The moment is lost after the pass back. The ball goes to Bühl next, through Popp, but the situation is far less threatening by then. Bühl is corralled easily and isolated on the wing.

But it’s not that the options going forward were always great.

No options for Brand as Schüller doesn’t feel the soft space (circled) and instead makes a vertical run.
Peacock/NBC Universo

Here Schüller makes a duplicate run with Huth down the flank instead of showing for Brand in space. Brand is already thinking of the on-two and continues her movement driving inside. Instead it’s intercepted.

It probably reflects confusion over roles: who should make which runs when? How do the units work together to ensure that spaces are covered rather than vacated?

To this end it’s not about individual qualities — all of these are exemplary players — so much as tactics, adjustments, and squad composition. Brand, along with Lohmann, was one of the players most consistently looking for attacking continuations and it might have been good to see the two of them sharing the field more.

Making use of pressure to flip the numbers situation in more advanced positions rather than cycling backwards.
Peacock/NBC Universo

Here for example, Brand is under considerable pressure but picks out Oberdorf in space instead of the tempting easy return pass to the nearest center-back. Germany needed more of that directness and awareness and less of defaulting to the safe option.

Especially in midfield. Lohmann’s introduction in the 64th minute (for Bühl) added a necessary dynamism, a central presence with a mind for the audacious. Lohmann offered two fantastic tries on goal at the end after many more good ideas and creative supplies — but it was too late. One imagines, also, how Lohmann might have partnered with her Bayern teammate, Magull, throughout the tournament.

“There is a lack of coordination,” said Chelsea FC midfielder Melanie Leupolz in a Bild post-mortem. “Knowing what the player in front of me wants? Does she want the ball in the path of her run? Getting attuned is a problem.”

A result long in the making

The bottom line, which should now be widely apparent, is that a better system is needed for Germany. Some of this is down to personnel — fullback options such as Bayern’s injured pair of Carolin Simon and Giulia Gwinn were among the many not available for the tournament. Some of it surely is not — versatile defender Sophia Kleinherne didn’t get any minutes.

Nevertheless it feels apparent that it isn’t a short fix that is required so much as a change in approach. Germany were too talented and too spirited to have hummed so little and fallen so quickly at this edition of the Women’s World Cup.

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