In the old days, before talk of gegenpressing or half-spaces, before managers like Jurgen Klopp and Ralf Rangnick changed the way the country played the game forever, German football was obsessed with one word: libero.
It’s not even a German word in origin. It comes from Italian, where it literally translates as “free”. In English, it’s usually referred to as a sweeper, but a libero in Germany is more than a sweeper. Franz Beckenbauer set the tone. In the days of man marking systems, the libero would be the free man without anyone to mark, who could clean up in behind. But Beckenbauer and Germany flipped this on its head, as he also became the free man in possession. Beckenbauer was Germany’s key playmaker fielded so deep you couldn’t pick him up. He could ping passes over the top at ease without anyone able to stop it.
The tactic dramatically fell out of fashion in the 21st century. German football moved to four man defences and marking zonally, which left no role for a libero. Playmaking from the back was a collective responsibility rather than a specialist one. But nobody in Germany has truly forgotten the old ways, least of all Joachim Low, and nothing is ever really new under the sun. So it’s not a shock to see him build so much of his side around Mats Hummels, in the middle of his back three, pinging the ball around like he’s auditioning to play Beckenbauer in a film.
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This is vital because of the emphasis Low places on wing-backs. The manager has faced his fair share of criticism for putting Joshua Kimmich on the right instead of in central midfield, but he and left-wing-back Robin Gosens are the core of this system. Hummels, along with central midfield pair Toni Kroos and Ilkay Gundogan, are consistently looking to switch play out wide. That, barring an eleventh hour change of heart, is going to be Germany’s tactic against England.
It’s not too different from what Low’s compatriot Thomas Tuchel is doing at Chelsea. Pep Guardiola, not the worst judge of tactics, was honest about Chelsea’s system before they beat his side in the Champions League final. “They have three central defenders close together”, he explained, “then the two holding midfielders close [in front]. The distances are so close, but at the same time they are so wide with the wing-backs. They are so direct with Werner’s runs in behind. That’s why you cannot be close, because they push you [high and wide], then they have a lot of good players in the middle.” Low is going for the same approach. Germany have plenty of quality on the ball in close quarters in central areas, but stretch the game wide with Kimmich and Gosens while Serge Gnabry is always a threat in behind. They really cover all bases in attack.
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The good news from an English perspective is that it leaves a lot of holes at the back. Germany tend to push up high and accept the risk in order to dominate with attacking football. We saw this perfectly in the draw with Hungary. Both goals they conceded were from simple balls, one cross and one in behind, that you’d expect a team of this quality to defend without issue. If England get it right, they can certainly hurt this team. They’ll have opportunities for players like Raheem Sterling or Bukayo Saka to run into space, and if that happens to often, Germany will be in real trouble. So the worry is on the other side of the ball.
According to reports, after starting the last three games in a 4-3-3 shape, Gareth Southgate intends to revert to the back three we saw at the last World Cup. This would mean a trio of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire in defence, just as we saw in 2018. While France had such trouble on Monday switching to a back three, England would at least have the benefit of familiarity here.
Kieran Trippier looks likely to start over Reece James at right wing-back, with Luke Shaw on the opposite side. Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice should offer solidity in midfield, while Saka is apparently set to join Sterling and Kane in attack after his good performance last time out. This should be an ideal set up to give Kane the runners beyond him many have felt he’s lacked recently, and we might see more of him dropping deep with Saka and Sterling racing in behind. Germany will play a higher line than England’s group stage opponents, so now is the time to add more pace to the attack.
The obvious thing this does is provide direct opponents to shut down Germany’s wing-backs. Kimmich and Gosens have been able to terrorise teams when they’re given time and space in the wide areas. They shouldn’t be so happy having players directly try to shut them down. England have been compact and narrow so far, preferring to keep the back four tight, so this is the right way to change the shape and really get to grips with Germany’s quality on the flanks.
It should also help England deal with Germany’s build-up play. Kroos and Gundogan are two of the best ball-playing midfielders you can find in Europe. Both will look to switch it wide at plenty of opportunities, and here Rice and Phillips are ideal to get tight to them. As much as many fans have been frustrated by Southgate’s use of two defensive midfielders, here they’re coming up against two creative midfielders, and should be ideal for a shutdown job. England can match up Germany pretty much perfectly, and have the ability to shut them down to do what must be done.
That still leaves us with Hummels. It seems strange to place such emphasis on a centre back - especially one who has looked past his best - in terms of creativity. But his weighted balls over the top have still been such a threat that England need to plan. The obvious person to pick him up is Kane. He hasn’t exactly looked energetic recently. While pressing was a huge feature of Kane’s game under Mauricio Pochettino, from Jose Mourinho’s time at Tottenham onwards he’s rarely looked to do it. He’s become a different sort of player, but England might need something of the old Kane on Tuesday.
England are a good defensive side and this is the approach needed, but they have to defend in the right way. The last thing Southgate’s team can do is sit too deep and let Germany switch the ball out to the wing-backs with ease. This has to be a defensive performance, yes, but a confident and aggressive one. England have to get in Germany’s faces and actively attempt to disrupt their style of play.
Sit too deep out of fear, and you’re in for a rough night. Get on the front foot and assert yourselves if you want to keep a clean sheet this time.
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