Klose Aging, Gomez a Poor Fit, but Germany Don't Need a Traditional Striker
Looking through the current pool of German talent, there are few positions where die Mannschaft are lacking in options. In attacking midfield especially, there is little debate that the DFB are endowed with a superlative wealth of options.
But in the striker position, perhaps there is something missing.
Miroslav Klose may be his country's second-most capped player and second-most prolific scorer, but at nearly 35 years of age, he is nearing the end of his international career. Mario Gomez was found to be a poor fit in the team, and was benched at Euro 2012 after the group stage. Stefan Kiessling has underwhelmed on the international stage in previous years, and Joachim Low continues to neglect him despite the Leverkusen man claiming the top scorer award this season.
Beyond Klose, Gomez and Kiessling, there are no established "classic" German strikers who have a realistic chance of making Low's 23-man squad for the 2014 World Cup. Pierre-Michel Lasogga might have had a shot prior to his ACL tear, and in spite of his impressive performance for a woeful Hoffenheim side, Kevin Volland's chances are slim due to his lack of any international experience at club level.
And yet, Germany's lack of out-and-out strikers may not be such a problem after all. On Wednesday, they blitzed Ecuador—currently 10th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola rankings—for four goals in the first 24 minutes whilst using Max Kruse as a striker.
The 25-year-old man is by no means a classic No. 9, and never took a single shot on goal. But his movement and that of the players around him caused all sorts of problems for the Ecuador defense: Lukas Podolski bagged a brace from the left wing and Lars Bender added a pair from defensive midfield.
With respect to Kruse, he was an improbable nomination to Low's team and neither has had nor will have next season the grand stage of the Champions League to prove his value. He is nowhere near a spot in Low's best XI. But Kruse, who played exclusively as a midfielder until this season, knew where to move and how to stretch the Ecuador defense out of shape. As a result, space opened for Bender and Podolski to exploit.
Tactics such as those Low used on Wednesday may be unorthodox, but they are the best possible given the talent pool he has available. A striker like Gomez is perfect for a team with few goal-scoring threats, but a poor fit for one that has such strong support in midfield.
In theory, it's easier to nullify one threat than four, and foolish for a team to rely on a single striker who may be well marked or off form. Classic strikers like Gomez draw all the attacking focus to themselves and offer little in terms of creating space for teammates and playmaking. But the best strikers these days are those who have a multitude of talents and can get the most out of their teammates.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robin van Persie, for example, are extremely adept passers and have the skill and understanding to play in midfield. So versatile is the latter that he still is rightly regarded as one of the world's best strikers despite being a largely one-footed player.
Mario Mandzukic as well became a world-class striker not for his finishing, but for his well-roundedness. With a modest 15 goals in the Bundesliga and just three in the Champions League, his goal-scoring ability is by no means exceptional.
The Croat nonetheless displaced Gomez—who'd netted 80 goals in the two previous seasons—in the Bayern squad because of his superhuman fitness and incredible pressing ability. His movement and sheer physicality ran defenses ragged, and it helped Bayern become a greater team overall. It didn't matter that he was tied for fourth among Bayern scorers in the Champions League. To an extent, Mandzukic was that low on the scoring charts because he was so good—just not at scoring.
Looking ahead to the World Cup, Joachim Low has a year to figure out exactly how to best make use of the talent pool available to him. This, it seems, will involve using an unorthodox striker.
Low has in the past been hesitant to apply the term "false" when discussing the likes of Mario Gotze in the striker role, but indeed has noted, per Bundesliga.com, that due to changes in the game a team "will always need a striker who can run between the lines, stretch defenses and shoot well." He added: "It just so happens that we have players like Mario Gotze and Mesut Ozil who are capable of doing the job."
And although Gotze, Ozil and Kruse are not individually the most prolific scorers available to Low, that is not entirely relevant. What is relevant is how the team plays collectively and whether they score.
Low occasionally experimented with natural midfielders in the striker role in 2012, but has put more faith in the tactic ever since Germany's 2-1 friendly win against France in February. With the score level at 1-1, he withdrew Gomez before the hour mark and brought on Toni Kroos. Ozil moved into the striker role, and not long thereafter, Sami Khedira scored the winner.
In March, Germany won back-to-back matches against Kazakhstan with Gotze deployed as the central striker. The 20-year-old scored in both games, but more critically, Germany were extremely unpredictable and deadly in attack. They scored seven times in the two games, and could have found the net many more times.
Kazakhstan may be rather underwhelming opponents, but the winner in France and the shock of Ecuador by a team of German reserves more than suggest Low has the right idea in mind.
Football is changing, and in Germany, talent cultivation and its use are headed in the right direction. There are few classic poachers coming through the German ranks because a one-dimensional player is by definition very limited.
Given the versatility of today's best strikers, Mandzukic's displacement of Gomez in the Bayern squad and especially the quality of attacking midfielders in Germany's talent pool, it's ostensible that Low is right to use a Gotze or Kruse in attack instead of a Gomez or Kiessling. It's not that Germany lack strikers, it's that the role of the striker has changed.
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