Friday, 14 October 2011

Hundert Pro: The story of Germany's perfect qualification for Euro 2012

Germany rounded off a 100% record in qualification for the European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine on Tuesday with a convincing 3-1 victory over Belgium. With ten wins out of ten, this side have built on their impressive showing at last summer’s World Cup to become one of the big favourites for next summer’s tournament.

To start recounting Germany’s journey into Euro 2012, we should cast our minds back to before qualification began, and the night of July 7th 2010: the World Cup semi-final against Spain in Durban. Germany were second-best, and missed a creative spark in the absence of star-performer Thomas Müller, a gap which replacement Piotr Trochowski could not quite make up for. And there was also the hint that the game represented a step too far for other young star Mesut Özil. But by the end of the qualification campaign for Euro 2012, Germany would have one of the strongest and deepest squads in Europe.

Miroslav Klose showed how important he still is to the national team (

For many sides, the conclusion of a World Cup campaign is the ideal time for a fresh start, to begin building the next team, and for the next major tournament. It was clear, though, that Germany’s young side barely needed rebuilding, but over the course of the qualification period Löw would seek to perfect it with continuous adjustments, experiments and new players.

Drawn in Group A, Germany’s path to Euro 2012 had looked like quite a tough one. A good Turkey team represented their biggest threat, while an up-and-coming Belgian side also presented a difficult obstacle, as did Austria. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan were the two minnows from the group, although Azerbaijan did shock Turkey with a 1-0 home win, and also drew with Belgium in Baku. 

The campaign started with a hard-fought 1-0 win in Belgium in September 2010. Belgium had fielded a young and talented side, with the likes of Hazard, Dembéle, Lukaku and Defour alongside the relatively established international players of Fellaini, Kompany, Vermaelen and van Buyten; while Germany had, not surprisingly, stuck largely with their World Cup side, bringing in the young Holger Badstuber in defence.

For all the talk over Germany’s many gifted young attacking players, it was an old head who, over the course of the next year, proved how important he still is to the national team. Miroslav Klose scored nine goals during qualification, netting the winner in Belgium with a typically instinctive predator’s finish, before scoring twice more in the 6-1 home rout of Azerbaijan the Tuesday after, on the night of his 100th cap. A month later, Klose scored two more as Germany made easy work of Turkey, their closest rivals for top spot. Germany again retained the personnel and set-up from their World Cup campaign, adding Toni Kroos instead of the injured Bastian Schweinsteiger for his first competitive start. Germany produced the flowing performances we had seen from them in the summer, creating a host of chances to thoroughly outplay their opponents, who boasted the Bundesliga talents of Hamit Altintop and Nuri Sahin. The Turks were to improve as the campaign went on, though.

While the striker was on form, the issue of who to play at left-back was starting to eat at coach Jogi Löw. Heiko Westermann was the third man to play the position in as many qualifying games in the game against Turkey. In the match, Mesut Özil also scored his third international goal, his first of five over the campaign to add to his seven assists, a remarkable feat. Then Klose scored once more as Germany beat Kazakhstan 3-0 away from home, with three second half goals, substitute Mario Gómez and Lukas Podolski also finding the net, as Germany ended 2010 with four wins from four in Group A.

A break from competitive action allowed Germany to give a chance to a new set of young talents in friendlies. In a game in Sweden in November, debuts were handed to five new players, the oldest of whom was 22, and a couple of these have since established themselves as national team regulars. At this point, Borussia Dortmund and Mainz had both made electrifying starts to the Bundesliga season with teams featuring young talents, and Mainz duo Lewis Holtby and André Schürrle were given their debuts, along with Dortmund trio Marcel Schmelzer, Kevin Grosskreutz and, as a substitute, Mario Götze. Dortmund’s Mats Hummels was also handed his first start in national colours.

Hummels, Götze and Grosskreutz also played a part in Germany’s next friendly, a 1-1 draw with Italy in February 2011. And they breezed past Kazakhstan in their next competitive game in March, Klose and Thomas Müller scoring two each in Kaiserslautern, but an experimental side slumped to a 2-1 friendly defeat at home to Australia a few days later. 

They returned to winning ways at the end of the season with an impressive 2-1 victory over Uruguay as some of Löw’s new additions looked now to be integrating well into the side. Mats Hummels impressed at the back against a dangerous attacking force, Toni Kroos looked to be staking his claim for a regular first team spot, and André Schürrle scored his first international goal, a brilliantly-taken curled right-footed effort into the far corner.

A qualifier in Austria followed a few days later, and Germany were bailed out by Mario Gómez after a very poor performance. His powerful header from a trademark deep Philipp Lahm cross in the last minute saw Germany to a win having been largely outplayed. It was Gómez’s fourth goal in three internationals, to add weight to his stake for a regular starting place. He was on target again, as were Özil and Schürrle, as Germany won comfortably in Azerbaijan a few days later.

The new season started with a memorable 3-2 friendly win over Brazil. The match included the arrival onto the international stage of the “German Messi”, as dubbed by Franz Beckenbauer, the “Talent des Jahrhunderts” [talent of the century]. 19 year-old Mario Götze scored a brilliant first international goal. It also marked another new arrival, that of a daring 4-1-4-1 system implemented for much of the second half; it could even be coach Löw’s formation of choice in the future (more on which later).

Germany then won their final three qualifying games, the first a crushing 6-2 win over Austria, which included goals from both the established members of the team (Klose, Özil (2), a player whose finishing has visibly improved during his time at Real Madrid, and Podolski) and newer players (Götze and Schürrle). But they drew 2-2 in Poland a few days later.

Then, this week, just over a year after the campaign started, Germany clinched their ninth and tenth victories out of ten, the first an impressive 3-1 win in Turkey, in a hugely entertaining match, with goals from Gómez, Müller and Schweinsteiger and a performance from Manuel Neuer hailed by the German press as ‘world class’. Then came the icing on the cake, a 3-1 win over the emerging Belgians with not only a rotated squad but an experimental formation: the 4-1-4-1 Löw has been preparing since the Brazil friendly, with Özil and Kroos in central attacking positions. Schürrle joined Özil and Gómez on the scoresheet with already his fifth international goal, to round of a spectacular year for the national team.

Mario Götze congratulated by Jogi Löw after his star turn against Brazil (

Here are five things we learned from Germany’s Euro 2012 qualification campaign:

Löw tinkered with his left-backs throughout qualifying, but has possibly found a solution

With previous incumbent Jérôme Boateng being a natural centre-back, this was always going to be a position for Jogi Löw to strengthen. During qualifying, Löw started five different players in the position, none of whom were Boateng. These five were the captain Lahm, Schmelzer, Westermann, Dennis Aogo and Marcell Jansen. It had looked like Schmelzer had solidified his place in the team, after an impressive 2010/11 season in Dortmund’s excellent back-line and starting three consecutive games last summer.

But it seems as though Lahm, back playing on the left side for Bayern München, is Löw’s preferred choice, having played him there in each of Germany’s games in the new season. Schmelzer still has plenty of potential, at just 23 years-old, but he will probably be competing with Aogo for the reserve berth in the final European Championships squad. It does leave Löw with selection issues at the now vacated right-back position. But the options here are stronger, with Boateng ironically performing excellently there for the national team recently, despite his desire to play in the middle, and Benedikt Höwedes also competent on the right.

Miroslav Klose is probably millimetres ahead of Mario Gómez in the pecking order, but who starts in Euro 2012 could depend on fitness and friendlies.

Forget club form. Gómez has a remarkable record for Bayern and has spent much of his time at the club ahead of Klose in the domestic pecking order, often paired with Ivica Olic up front. But, when fit, Klose has usually been Löw’s first choice, and the striker has responded with a remarkable ten goals since the World Cup, nine of which came in qualification. Klose, even at 33, is still extremely quick, quicker than Gómez, has a better technique than his counterpart, and, as such, links up far better with the rest of the team. He has a higher work-rate for the team too. Gómez’s goalscoring record is equally as impressive, with six goals in qualification, including a match-winning turn against Austria, and 12 in 12 this season so far for Bayern.

The friendly against Brazil might be an indicator of how Löw assesses the current battle. With the two strikers playing 45 minutes each, it provided a crude snapshot into how the team operates with either up front. Germany were a far more fluid attacking unit with Klose, and scored three times in the second half after an awkward first 45 minutes with Gómez, and Germany are better with Klose in the team in general. Klose had a hand in the opening goal in the Brazil game, successfully chasing the ball and back-heeling smartly to set up a penalty. 

But, with plenty of time left until the European Championships, either could still be picked. Klose’s bright start at Lazio has helped, if only in that it has helped keep his sharpness and confidence high, and that he has kept in goalscoring form – because Löw would be, and has been, mindful of the great assets to the team Klose brings, regardless of first-team football. This is why selection could hinge on fitness and friendlies – if Gómez keeps getting picked and keeps scoring between now and summer, it will be difficult for Löw to ignore such reliability.

The defence is still a bit of a problem area

Although they were fairly solid at the back in their final two games, Germany have been leaking goals more than usual of late, conceding two against Brazil, Poland and Austria, defending sloppily and conceding soft goals in each, and have not kept a clean sheet in nine games, a run extending back to March. Although it does not look as susceptible as, for instance, the Metzelder and Mertesacker pairing of 2006 and 2008, there are still causes for concern. Holger Badstuber has made huge improvements even over the course of this season, yet has been prone to a couple of mistakes in national colours. 

After a qualification campaign featuring many adjustments to the defence, it’s possibly time for Löw to pick his back four and stick with them in the coming friendlies. Indications suggest the central pair could be Hummels and Badstuber, or possibly Mertesacker whose experience the coach values, with Lahm on the left and the position on the right still up for grabs, with Boateng its likely taker. This would allow the team’s heart to become settled in time for the next major tournament, and, given its age, future ones too.

Expect tactical experiments between now and the summer

By now, Löw will probably know, in terms of personnel, roughly who he will take to Poland and the Ukraine, and what assets they might bring to the line-up. But what he won’t be sure of is the best tactical approach for his attacking-minded team. The established 4-2-3-1 system has worked brilliantly for the current side, however the coach has wanted to take Germany to the next level, and has switched to a more aggressive 4-1-4-1 system in more recent matches, selecting Schweinsteiger as his anchor, and four attacking players behind the striker as opposed to three. Löw has been particularly impressed with the form of Toni Kroos, and the move could reflect his desire to integrate the Bayern attacker into the team, and it might also pave way for the exciting prospect of a central pairing of Götze and Özil. 

It remains to be seen whether the switch to 4-1-4-1 is a permanent one, something we may (or may not) find out in tactical experimentation between now and the summer, but Löw has indicated he is serious about implementing it, although it would be interesting to see whether he would be willing to risk it in a game against the likes of Spain and the Netherlands.

Germany has the depth it didn’t have in South Africa

Let’s end our look into Germany’s qualifying campaign by going back to that night in Durban, where they were knocked out of the World Cup by Spain. Müller’s absence through suspension left a hole in creativity in the team, something which Trochowski couldn’t quite fill. Now, thanks, partly to exciting youth development, and partly to measured and effective introduction of new players in all positions by the coach, Germany have as deep and as talented a squad as any in Europe. 

For the first time, the starting places of Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker, both still in their mid-20s, are under threat, having eased, competition-free, to 171 caps between them up to now. Not only are the replacements good enough for the team, but, refreshingly for the coach, they add alternative attributes. Such versatility and unpredictability could be a huge asset in a major tournament. Notably, the switching between Podolski and Schürrle on the left wing has been interesting and effective, with the powerful Podolski an excellent positional player, supplemented by Schürrle, who links the forward play better and adds further pace and skill.

And this facet, above anything else, shows how much Germany have improved since South Africa – into a team which looks extremely good even when under-strength. They were missing two star players in Özil and Klose for the away game against closest rivals Turkey, but were able to call upon replacements by the names of Götze and Gómez, and still win with a scarily seamless transition. 

Looking back, Germany have come a long way over the past ten victories, but they will be hoping that the end of a perfect qualification campaign could be just the start of a long and successful journey for this team.

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