5 Key Decisions for Germany Ahead of World Cup Knockout Stages
Germany qualified for the World Cup knockout rounds as winners of Group G on Thursday, beating the United States 1-0.
The Mannschaft held off strong competition in the form of the U.S., Portugal and Ghana in what some had billed as a "Group of Death." But not everything looked rosy throughout the group stage for a German side that showed a deficiency of fitness and some defensive frailties, especially against a Ghana side with which they drew 2-2.
Having advanced to the knockout rounds, Germany have a whole new test and coach Joachim Low will have to adjust his strategy as he prepares for single-elimination football. Click "Begin Slideshow" for analysis of the key tactical considerations Low should consider in the run up to the round of 16 match with Algeria.
Khedira or Schweinsteiger?
Low faced a central midfield crisis heading into the World Cup, with Ilkay Gundogan and Sven and Lars Bender unavailable due to injuries and Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira all unfit.
Toni Kroos was the only fit and in-form central midfielder available to the Bundestrainer who, with all things considered, has done quite well. Kroos and Lahm have been omnipresent in the lineup, playing for all 270 minutes in the group stage. At this point, they seem to be permanent fixtures; had Low any intention to try other options, he would have in the group stage.
Low has, on the other hand, rotated Khedira and Schweinsteiger. The Real Madrid man played all 90 minutes against Portugal but struggled in the Ghana match and was taken off with 21 minutes remaining. Schweinsteiger came on and had an instant impact, with Germany drawing level less than two minutes later and looking much more likely to score than to concede a winner.
For his efforts in the Ghana game, Schweinsteiger earned a starting role against the United States and was one of Germany's best players before his withdrawal for the final quarter hour. Although still lacking the fitness for a full 90-minute game, he's shown a new level of determination. And in a recent interview for Sony, pundit and ex-Germany midfielder Dietmar Hamann claimed Schweinsteiger is a key component for Germany if they are to win the World Cup.
Neither Schweinsteiger nor Khedira is exactly 100 percent, though. It will be interesting to see how Low decides to allocate minutes to the pair going forward; his decision could make all the difference in Germany's campaign.
Miroslav Klose's Role
Low's three-man attack, which lacked a recognized center forward, looked to be an inspired choice in Germany's opener against Portugal. Since the Mannschaft's four-goal haul against the Seleccao, the tactic has appeared somewhat less convincing.
Germany struggled to break down the Ghana defense in the absence of a natural striker, a Mario Gotze goal coming from precious little. And against the United States, Thomas Muller's winner only came after the Bayern man was moved to the wing with the introduction of Miroslav Klose. And it was Klose himself who netted the equalizer against Ghana.
Analyzing the merits of playing Klose statistically, Germany have scored two of their seven goals with Klose on the pitch. With Klose playing, they score every 33.0 minutes. Without him, they score every 47.4 minutes. Due to small sampling size, however, statistics are not convincing on their own.
It's relevant to note that two of Germany's goals without Klose were scored against 10 men and three with Germany already in the lead. In the veteran's presence, the Mannschaft were always either on level terms or behind.
On the other hand, Klose is 36 years of age and has certain physical limitations, especially in the heat of the Brazilian summer. Combining his minutes, he played less than a full game during the group stage and as a result was fresh when he came on.
Low has done well to closely monitor his approach with each game, separating each fixture into several distinct tactical battles. Using Klose as a "silver bullet" to close out games, especially in knockout rounds, could well remain his approach. After all, it took less than two minutes after coming on against Ghana for Klose to score.
Mesut Ozil's Role
Mesut Ozil has been the inspiration of Germany's attack ever since the fall of 2009. But nearly five years later, he's now being used out of his natural position and on the wing. He also failed to play a direct role in any goal Germany scored in the group stage.
There has to be an end to Low's confidence in any player, even Ozil. And exactly where that is in the case of the 25-year-old is uncertain. Ozil actually has had a better tournament than his statistics suggest; his clever passing, close control and precision being crucial toward the Mannschaft making the most of their runs. He's also been able to carve out a couple good scoring opportunities that he wasn't able to finish.
At the same time, one criticism of Low's system is that without a natural center forward, it is very inefficient and requires goals from all of the front three, if not other positions. If Ozil, never a great finisher in the first place, doesn't have his scoring boots on, that leaves a huge burden on the shoulders of Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze.
Ozil came off as a substitute midway through the second half of the Portugal game but was on the pitch for all 180 minutes thereafter. Low may reconsider him in the knockout rounds.
Super-Sub Attacker: Lukas Podolski or Andre Schurrle
Gotze has long been one of Low's favorites and, accordingly, was given a starting role for Germany's first two group stage matches.
He came on as a substitute in the finale against the United States, but his being benched was more likely the result of fatigue (Low admitted, via Goal.com, that Gotze in particular was exhausted after the Ghana game) than a change in the player's appraisal. The 22-year-old won the penalty that led to the opener against Portugal and scored the opener himself against Ghana.
Lukas Podolski started in Gotze's place in the U.S. match, his second appearance of the tournament following an eight-minute substitute cameo against Portugal. But despite some bright signs early on, the Arsenal man was quiet for long spells and was replaced by Klose at halftime.
Andre Schurrle has long been competition for Podolski on the left wing and appeared to have an advantage over his competitor in the opener. He was the first player to come off the bench against Portugal, coming on for 28 minutes and setting up two great chances, one of which led to a goal.
Schurrle's having not been used since the opener suggests that Low is not entirely convinced by the Chelsea man. But Podolski's substitution at halftime of the U.S. match equally suggests the same. It's a real dilemma.
If Germany have had one weak spot in defense, it has with little doubt been at left back. Although he's a very effective central defender, Benedikt Howedes lacks the agility, pace and positional skills (at least as a wide player) required to take on top wingers.
Howedes is the only German player to be cautioned during the group stage, and it was from a cross from his flank that the Mannschaft conceded one of their two goals thus far. He's been put under pressure by opponents far more than his opposite, Jerome Boateng, with Portugal possessing the ball 75 percent, Ghana 250 percent and the United States 50 percent more on their attacking-right third of the pitch than on their attacking-left.
Low has few options at left back, with Marcel Schmelzer, Dennis Aogo and Marcell Jansen not in his squad. There is a viable option in Erik Durm, though, but the converted forward has little professional experience and less on an international level.