Germany finds itself at a crossroads.
Bearing down on the home-field EUROs of 2024, the proud footballing nation has fallen on hard times. Back-to-back World Cup humiliations, exiting at the group stage. A troubled EURO in 2021 that was not all that successful on paper and felt even less so.
Now, a sacked coach — Hansi Flick, the man who had been a key part of the 2014 triumph before going on to become a Bayern Munich Champions League-winning hero — and a full-on identity crisis. Do Germany go forward? Or do they simply need to go back to how things were?
A glance of the past
Days after getting taken apart by Japan, guts spilling out for the world to see, Germany put in a resolute display against France. Not very flashy, not so many shots, a back line full of defensive rather than attacking players...
In ways, it was not so different to the state of Germany the last time they beat France, in 2014.
Where Flick had experimented with everyone from David Raum to Jonas Hofmann (to Raum and Hofmann at the same time) to finally Joshua Kimmich at fullback, here the right-back was simply another center-back, Leverkusen’s Jonathan Tah.
In place of flash was good old-fashioned German grit. That kind of determination can go a long way, and it is a credit to interim manager Rudi Völler as well as assistants Sandro Wagner and Hannes Wolf for preparing the squad — both psychologically and tactically.
But the next manager, whoever it is, will face the same tactical puzzles that have bedeviled Germany for years. How he or she solves them will be just as important to getting the mood right for a potentially seven-game tournament run in the summer.
Fullbacks and strikers
Maybe Benjamin Henrichs and Tah are asserting themselves to the positions occupied in the past by the likes of Thilo Kehrer, Marvin Plattenhardt, Lukas Klostermann, and Benedikt Höwedes — and with the right stuff in front of them, can make it all work.
But this is after all a France team that didn’t bother to play Kylian Mbappé, in a noncompetitive setting where players on both sides should rightly be preoccupied by their upcoming club schedules. For the EURO, Germany will need to maximize their talent pool.
In doing so it may have to recognize that it doesn’t have a strong pool of talent at either left-back or right-back. Or striker.
And oh — like Bayern Munich — its best No. 6 isn’t a crunching defensive midfielder. Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klosé, and Bastian Schweinsteiger are not walking through that door.
Löw strikes back?
Where is Joachim Löw these days? The 2014 World Cup-winning manager for Germany hasn’t taken a managerial job since his tenure ended after the 2021 EURO.
But the ex-Germany manager had the last-second idea to go with a back-three back then — was it even tested in the lead-up friendlies? — and surely the fantastic failure of the Flick era that followed has revealed that it was not the formation that was the problem.
It could even be the solution.
Germany’s best left-backs are bombardiering wing-backs: Union Berlin’s Robin Gosens and RB Leipzig’s David Raum. At right-back, options abound. There is Werder Bremen’s Mitchell Weiser, who has never had a senior team cap and is eligible for Algeria. There is Wolfsburg’s Ridle Baku, one of Hansi Flick’s first call-ups who has since then been frozen out of the national team setup. Hofmann, now at Leverkusen, could bring dynamism to the position, especially in the final third.
And yes, there is Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich. All the pieces that proved awkward fits at fullback could turn into strengths as wing-backs.
A back three simultaneously offers more protection to the central midfield, where Manchester City’s İlkay Gündoğan looks locked on as one of the starters. Gündoğan, an attacking midfielder by trade, plays the deeper role with maturity and aplomb — much like Toni Kroos did in 2021. He could pair well with Kimmich or Leon Goretzka, or any of Germany’s other not-No. 6s in central midfield.
The wing-backs, meanwhile, help out with Germany’s lack of a fixed target man up front. Goal threats like Gosens and Hofmann won’t merely hold width — they can combine with a dynamic and rotating cast of forwards that already looks sure to include Bayern’s Jamal Musiala and Leroy Sané.
(Who better to complete the suite than the consummate field general, Thomas Müller?)
It’s not perfect, but no setup really is. Might it make the most of Germany’s strengths, and the least of their weaknesses?
Everything, of course, depends on the next coach — upon whom the mental leadership of the squad will also rest. In a tense climate with intense pressure and recent failures, Germany will have to dig deep to avoid simply crumbling.
An early commitment to a single system can go a long way in helping the players keep their focus and play freely.
And between candidates such as Louis van Gaal and Julian Nagelsmann...it sure looks as if there are some coaches out there who are comfortable working with a back-three.
Could this be the way? We will soon find out.
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