World champions search for No9 on road to Russia
In early June, Die Nationalmannschaft made the short trip to France for UEFA EURO 2016 with high expectations. Fans and experts alike tipped them to seal a fourth triumph in Europe’s showpiece international tournament, but they were all ultimately left disappointed, as Joachim Low’s men, perhaps somewhat unluckily, were beaten 2-0 by the hosts in the semi-finals.
The immediate post-mortem concluded that the team lacked penetration up front, and national team manager Oliver Bierhoff admitted as much in a recent interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “We’re lacking that ruthlessness to score goals,” said the 48-year-old, a former German international and traditional centre-forward himself.
“That’s the result of a certain footballing upbringing, if you like. The project to develop our youth in 2000 improved our players’ creativity and technique, but we’ve probably neglected the basics: dribbling and defending one-on-one. Football moves like a wave. You can react to a change but focus too much on one area, and in doing so you end up neglecting another.”
It would appear that the German Football Federation (DFB) did exactly this when it revamped its youth development system following some poor major tournament performances at the beginning of the century. A network of bases and youth academies was established, which has since ensured a constant supply of technically skilled and well-educated players. Yet while the system has produced a surplus of gifted, versatile midfielders, strikers and full-backs of the same quality are a rarity.
Pinpointing the reason for this is not easy, although Helmut Jungheim, Academy Director at Bundesliga club Bayer 04 Leverkusen, has a theory. “Perhaps it’s because after EURO 2000 when Germany performed so poorly, we concentrated extremely hard on producing small, agile and technically well-educated players who could pass the ball well,” he said to FIFA.com.
When it comes to full-backs, Jungheim sees the reason for Germany’s dearth of talent as partly a consequence of the position itself being probably the most complex of any on the pitch. In the modern game a full-back needs to be technically good enough to perform every task in both attack and defence, and he also needs to be fast. A quick glance beyond the nation’s borders reveals that finding players of this ilk is not specifically a German problem. Other countries suffer from a deficit in this position too.
“Good players want to play in midfield or up front, but we need to make sure that players want to play the full-back position again,“ said Low during the EUROs. “When we coach these players, we need to get them to be able to play one-on-one.
"Bayern have three or four classic dribblers in their team; Barcelona have Neymar and Messi. That’s an important part of a team today,” continued the 56-year-old. “When I see youth teams play in Germany today, in almost every match I see, the ball is played on the ground. A decade ago, the passing game in Germany was pretty abysmal at times, but we’ve forgotten slightly about coaching players in one-on-one situations.”
A fruitful season in Turkey earned Mario Gomez a recall to the national team for EURO 2016, but behind him there were few striking options for Low to call upon. Some were too inexperienced or did not fit into the FIFA World Cup™ winners’ philosophy, and the void left by record goalscorer Miroslav Klose after that 2014 triumph in Rio de Janeiro evidently cannot be filled.
In EURO 2016 qualifying, Low often used Mario Gotze as a “false nine” out of necessity, since he had no other options. So how exactly do you produce a “classic” number nine? “Perhaps it was a mistake that we’ve always been training players to pass and assist,” continued Jungheim. “Now we need to encourage our players to be selfish again, to be calm and to look to shoot at goal themselves, rather than always passing sideways.”
The classic centre-forward may be a rare breed these days, but he is by no means obsolete. This is the view of “Kopfballungeheuer” (the ‘Heading Beast’) Horst Hrubesch, another traditional central striker and coach of Germany’s Olympic team heading to Rio in August. “Nowadays people use small, agile players to attack,” said a member of Germany’s EURO 1980-winning team to FIFA.com.
“They pay less attention to using the wings, crossing balls to find a target man and getting in shots at goal that way. But I’ve always warned people not to discount using centre-forwards who are physically robust and can head the ball well. If you have the right people on the wings who can cross the ball, then that’s a real weapon to have.”
Hrubesch also points to the fact that many matches these days are decided by goals scored from crosses by these types of players, and insists that Germany, at U-19, U-18 and U-16 levels at least, do have some promising young goalgetters in the pipeline, even if they are somewhat harder to find at senior level.
The problem is without doubt a complicated one, as is the solution. Yet perhaps Bierhoff, Hrubesch and Co are correct in that the next “wave” of development should once again see Germany focus on producing full-backs and strikers capable of playing at international level. In an ideal world, they will have succeeded on both fronts in time for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia.