Third Place: Germany

What Went Right?  A lightning quick, furious and relentless offensive attack. This was by far the most exciting team in this tournament. Masters at finding space, creating space, and getting into space. Germany was all about movement, creativity, direct attacking and counterattacking. This was not a one-trick pony; they could either slow their attack down and build a head of steam from the back, or they could quickly get forward and get a shot off before you even knew what hit you. Making use of every single inch of the pitch, Germany had no preferred way of attacking; they could go right down the middle, go down either flank, or switch play quickly from flank to center to flank and back to flank. They played east-west, north-south, diagonally and in-the-air; just the absolute best at playing multi-dimensional football. Movement off the ball was just beguiling; they were able to find players in any space and get the ball to players in the blink of an eye. The best one-touch passing in the tournament. Visionary players in attack; it’s as if every player knew where another player was going to be before that player got there. Made expert crosses and through balls. Needless to say, they were the single best team all month long at getting the ball into the box to the target man – and nobody we better at taking quality shots on target (their 16 goals, the most in the tournament, will attest to that). Any player on the pitch could beat you – and did; you just didn’t know where the next shot was going to come from. If you made a mistake in your own end either mental or physical then you’d pay dearly; there was no team that took advantage of opposition mistakes better. The tallest team in the tournament, Germany was the best in the competition at set pieces and 50-50 balls. Made effective use of the offside trap. Good individual defenders in front of goal and on the rear flanks. Best part about their defense was their two defensive/holding midfielders, who were just suffocating in front of the backline, closing down the opposition attack in the midfield, and were just sublime in orchestrating their cat-quick attack. Outside of Carles Puyol’s game winner, Germany was very adept at defending opposition set-pieces. Got more out of their goalkeeping than anybody had any right to expect considering they had to go with a very young keeper. Made better use of their youth than any side in the tournament, and in the process two or three players were revealed to be superstars in the making. Bottom line: Germany imposed their will on their opponents, quickly broke them down, and then made them cry for mercy. By leaps and bounds the most entertaining team to watch.

What Went Wrong?  Chose the absolute wrong time to get taken out of their game, in the semifinals against Spain. All of their sublime direct attacking quality was nullified by a Spanish side that ruled the possession. Germany was so afraid of making a mistake against Spain that they played a more tactically disciplined and compact game, gave up the possession, didn’t effectively use the whole field and space, and let Spain dictate play. Fatal mistake. Once Germany got down late, they had to chase the game and got taken out of what had worked wondrously for them all tournament long. Not unlike the Dutch, Germany should have hit the Spanish with their quick, deft attack from the first whistle and gone for the jugular. (Did neither Germany nor the Netherlands see the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal? The reason the United States pulled the biggest football upset of the year was because the Americans knew they could not let Spain dictate play, so they attacked with abandon. The USA played THEIR game, Spain had to chase the game and as a result couldn’t impose their will on the USA. If you are going to lose, it is best that you go down doing what you do. Nobody will ever hold that against you.)

Who Stepped Up To The Plate?  Per Mertesaker and Arne Friedrich weren’t the most physical defenders in front of goal but they worked well together, cleaning up mostly every opposition offensive thrust that got to them. Philipp Lahm continues to be a work horse right fullback both in defense and in attack; he is clearly one of the top 3 or 4 fullbacks in the world. Plus, as the captain Lahm was the leader who instilled this young side with confidence. Left fullback Jerome Boateng may not be adept at getting forward, but he was solid in defense on his side of the pitch, and he made a fantastic compliment on the inside when Lahm went forward on the right. Sami Khedira was a rock in front of the backline. I just love Bastien Schweinsteiger; he has to be the single most versatile midfielder in the game today. At Germany 2006 he played as a right midfielder. At Euro 2008 he was a left midfielder. Here in South Africa he was a holding midfield orchestrator and the main free kick taker; interrupting the opposition offensive buildup, then quickly getting forward, finding open players in space and linking up with the forwards in the box. In all three competitions over four years Schweinsteiger played masterfully. Why it is Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose’s respective club sides don’t think either is in form is just bewildering. In Germany 2006 Podolski was a compliment up front to target man Klose; four years later Podolski was a left winger who made runs into the box, with Klose as the sole and primary target man. In both cases they still showed that they were world-class players, with Klose scoring four goals. Germany benefited from probably the deepest bench in the tournament, getting invaluable contributions from Piotr Trochowski, Mario Gomez, Marcell Jansen, Brazilian born and German naturalized Cacau, Toni Kroos, and Holger Badstuber (who actually started the first two group fixtures before being replaced by Boateng). But the two biggest revelations of the tournament were Mesut Oezil and Thomas Mueller. The two 20-year-olds were central attackers positioned just behind target man Klose but with the freedom to roam outside, and both were just beguilingly inspirational creators and scorers. Both tied for the tournament lead in assists, and Mueller won the Golden Shoe as the tournament’s leading scorer (he actually tied with 4 other players for the lead, but won it because of the tiebreaker, assists).

Who Didn’t Show Up?  Michael Ballack – and that’s actually a good thing. Before suffering a broken ankle in the FA Cup Final less than a month before the tournament, the 33-year-old Ballack was slated to captain the side in South Africa, partner with Schweinsteiger in the center of midfield, and assume most of the orchestrator/distributor/linkup role that Schweinsteiger eventually had to. I like Ballack as much as the next guy. Since Korea/Japan 2002 he has been the linchpin of the German attack, and will arguably become a football Hall-of-Famer. But only a month away from his 34th birthday he is nowhere near the offensive wonder he was eight years ago neither creatively nor technically. Plus he has lost more than a step or two. I contend that he would have slowed this sublime track meet down, holding back Schweinsteiger, Oezil and Mueller from becoming the revelations they were, keeping Lahm from becoming the permanent and positive leader this team needed – and Germany gets nowhere near the semifinals. I would never wish that a player gets injured, but this side was much better served without Ballack anywhere near them. This was addition by subtraction.

How Was The Coaching?  Fantastic! Once again I must say something here. For most of their history Germany was more of a methodical, orchestrated, grind-it-out type of team. Then in 2004 Jurgen Klinsmann took over, brought in new training ideas and a new open, positive offensive approach, introduced and integrated young, hungry players who bought into this new system, and the Nationalmannschaft have since taken off. Germany finished third four years ago at home with the most exciting, creatively innovative team in that tournament. Afterwards his assistant for those two years, Joahim Loew, took over – and Germany didn’t miss a beat. “Jogi” maintained the positive offensive approach introduced by his predecessor, and brought in young new players as well. But he took it even further. With the help of the German football federation (DfB), the system is being taught and employed throughout all levels of German football. And have no illusions: Germany has the single most extensive and organized football support system in the world, with more coaches and players than any country on the planet. Loew took a lot of heat leading up to South Africa for littering his World Cup roster with U-21 players and having no real stars, but those same U-21 players won the European U-21 championship last year, so I guess Jogi figured that he might as well get them up to the senior team as quickly as possible. He couldn’t have hoped for it to work out as well. With the exception of Spain’s Vicente del Bosque there was no coach better than Loew. MADD, MADD, MADD, MADD PROPS to Jurgen Klinsmann for changing that classically Teutonic German football for the better, and for Joachim “Jogi” Loew for keeping it at a championship-quality level. I absolutely love watching Germany play.

Did They Finish Where They Were Expected?  They finished where I thought they’d would. I think most observers had them crashing out before now because of the lack of any stars and the abundance of youth. Mueller and Oezil put the kibosh on that. At the end of the day, this is Germany. Maybe that classically Teutonic, grind-it-out approach to football has changed but the expectations and results haven’t. With the exception of Brazil I wouldn’t trade Germany’s international tournament record for anything; no matter what their approach to football is, for whatever reason they just know how to get results and go deep. You can pretty much count on Germany being still contending the last week of any competition. An offensive juggernaut nobody wants to face.

What Now?  German football going forward is really something to get excited about. A majority of the players getting it done for the side internationally (Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Boateng, Khadira, Podolski, Neuer) haven’t even reached their 26th birthday yet. The two creative superstars-in-waiting, Mueller and Oezil, haven’t even gotten to their 21st birthdays yet; I can see both playing in at least two and maybe even three more World Cups. Even the players who significantly contributed (Kroos, Gomez, Badstuber, Jansen) are ready to step in, replace the stars that are probably going out (Klose, Mertesaker, Friedrich) and get regular playing time. The German football infrastructure is the best and largest on the planet, so they will keep churning out young players steeped in a new attacking approach instituted six years ago throughout all levels of football in Germany. I say keep doing what it is you are doing, Germany. I can envision more than one international championship for you over the next 10 years.

Leave a Reply