If there is something German academies are known for, it’s their steady production of players who can play in several positions and can fit into several systems and styles. Clubs in Germany have made use of this, and so has Joachim Löw, Head Coach of the Germany National team since 2006 and working at the DFB since 2004. He has played Philipp Lahm in his desired position in Midfield, Mario Götze as a False Nine of sorts and Benedikt Höwedes all across the backline to name some examples. He is known for using friendlies as a place for experiments and he has taken a young and experimental squad to the Confed Cup featuring an array of tactical options.
Back Three or Back Four?
This has been a question when it comes to the German National team for several years. Löw all but negated Italy at the Euro 2016 with a back three and with the advent of the back three – especially in the Bundesliga – this question has obviously come up again. Looking at Centre Back options, every single high-class German centre-back is comfortable on the ball, making it easy to play out from the back but these aren’t the main players to highlight in the quest of finding an answer to this question. It’s the full-backs:
Jonas Hector and Joshua Kimmich have their places on either side nailed down since last year’s Euros and they both play an important role in what some would consider Germanys B-Team at the Confed-Cup. Kimmich has been known for his flexibility in terms of playing almost every single outfield position but he also fluidly changes roles during the game.
Against San Marino, Löw decided to play with a back three that was effectively a back one with Mustafi as the only real Centre Back because the other two nominal Centre Backs where Kimmich and Hector. In possession they acted like full-backs that sometimes played wider to support the wingers and sometimes played as central midfielders, allowing the natural midfielders to go further forward. Both Hector and Kimmich like to play in midfield and have played there several times in their career – similar to Lahm and Alaba at Bayern.
Obviously, San Marino should not and cannot be the standard so we should divert our attention to what Löw did against Australia and it was something I highlighted earlier when Schalke and Dortmund met in the Bundesliga:
The left wing-back occasionally drops deeper to offer the possibility of turning the nominal back three into a back four, allowing the right-sided centre-back to act like a supporting full-back. The main idea of this system is to make diagonal passes more effective and Tuchel is a big fan of diagonal passes. So much so, that he often cut off the edges of the pitch on the training ground to force his players to not play a long line ball.
In an ideal scenario, this allows the team to retreat into a 5-3-2 shape in defensive phases and maintain a flexible shape in build-up phases. Tuchel obviously played this on the club stages but with the right players this a very good idea on an international stage because it offers clear ideas at almost any time. When the ball is on the left side it can just be progressed through midfield or played diagonally to the right side where the main focus of attack lies. Germany did create frequent overloads on the right side with Brandt being joined by Kimmich, Goretzka and Stindl – this again highlights the high amount of flexibility that lies within the full-backs.
This again shows that Löw is always willing to incorporate tactical trends and developments from the Bundesliga and as always, you should try to not read too much into what Löw does in games that he deems as not very important, but it looks like the back three is here to stay. Coaches like Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim have shown how that can be paired with maximum flexibility to create a fluid system that can play out from the back and always gives the players similar options without limiting their creativity too much.
That being said, while Löw should be hailed for being experimental and making decisions that are unpopular on the surface, he can be a bit stubborn at time leading to bad results that are mostly down to tactic because he decided to stick with things that worked before without taking the opposition into account. The most recent example is the game against Chile where he employed a similar system but the back three struggled against the very man oriented front three of Chile and the right sided focus did not pay off.
But with the players to play several positions and interpret these in several ways and with a coach that probably experiments more than any other national coach, Germany possess tools to beat most other national teams.